Feature of the Week

February 23, 2014 11:37 pm

Virtual world of avatars replaced by a fresh reality on campus

Ferguson illustration

Wearing ice-skates, bell-bottomed jeans and a pink Stockholm School of Economics T-shirt, Karinda Rhode is not your average business school lecturer, but then Ms Rhode exists only in the virtual world.

Apart from the clothes and pink hair, “she looks like me otherwise – if not quite the same body”, says Robin Teigland, the real-life manifestation of this Second Life avatar. Ms Teigland is an associate professor in SSE’s Centre for Strategy and Competitiveness and caretaker of the school’s “island” on the virtual world.

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Second Life, where people create their own avatars and interact with others, was all the rage at the end of the noughties. As businesses piled in, sensing the commercial benefits of exploiting a new way to interact with customers, a handful of business schools began renting “unreal estate” on the site too – albeit with purer motives.

In part, schools wanted to exploit the familiarity of younger students in the “World of Warcraft generation” – the massively multiplayer online role-playing game with immersion in virtual environments.

It was also an experiment in “synchronous” online learning – where lecturers and students interact simultaneously – in the tradition of more conventional approaches such as videoconferencing and webinars.

Half a decade on, the results have been underwhelming: there are still only a few business schools on Second Life and some virtual campuses are closed or inactive. However, the experiment has stimulated interest in – and much debate about – using virtual worlds and other immersive technologies in business education.

Overall Second Life is widely viewed as having lost momentum since its early days. An article in The Atlantic magazine late last year said references to the virtual world on TV programmes and even the occasional Disney show “make the site seem like a refuge for creepers and only the dweebiest of dweebs”.

That is a little harsh, says Steve Mahaley, global practice lead in Duke Corporate Education’s design group, although he notes that “most of the academic institutions and other businesses [that used to have a presence on the site] have fled”. Duke CE, based in North Carolina, still has its island but has not used it for any work with clients for the past two years, he adds.

“Second Life is, in my view, a great place for individual role-playing and the arts, where there are a lot of cool things happening,” he says. “But it is not completely appropriate for business education.”

One issue for some business schools is the ethos of Second Life, where you can fly around in outlandish costume, possibly involving a change of sex or disguised as an animal.

A simple solution is to require avatars to wear business suits, just as their owners do on many real business school campuses. But Ms Teigland thinks such a rule is “a real shame because you lose out on one of the benefits of the virtual world. When is creativity highest and when are you engaged the most? It’s when you are having fun.”

She believes Second Life “shot itself in the foot” by withdrawing a 50 per cent discount on the rent for educational institutions from January 2011. “They lost a large portion of their educational customers and these were the ones pushing the boundaries and creating awareness,” she says. The discount was restored from last March but Ms Teigland says the change of heart is too late.

Many business schools have also been distracted by the almost herd-like adoption of Moocs, which are cheaper for themselves and students.

Arguably, however, the biggest issue for business schools on Second Life has been the onward march of technology. The site is hard to access on mobile devices, which have surged in popularity since the late 2000s, while social media has become the key medium for students to chat and for articles to be posted among participants and teaching faculty, says Peter Zemsky, Insead’s dean for strategic initiatives and innovation.

Insead, in France, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, closed its Second Life campus last year. “As a business school you have to keep an eye on the technologies people are adopting and you just try to ride that wave,” says Prof Zemsky. “Second Life was taking off [in 2008/9] but right now I’m not sure it’s the technology that’s really transforming how people interact.”

With the momentum shifting to Second Life’s successors, Mr Mahaley says there has been an explosion of other virtual worlds in the past two or three years. Sites based on open source technology, for example, overcome Second Life’s technical and access barriers and allow much more flexibility in design and structure.

One example in business education, based on proprietary technology rather than open source, is VirBela. This is managed by UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management but is open to MBA students from other schools, too. It aims to improve collaboration among graduate management institutions worldwide and provide students with “more low-cost [in terms of money, time and risk] experiential learning opportunities”.

In Los Angeles, USC Marshall School of Business says its Second Life island has been superseded by synchronous, interactive classes that run more easily on mobile devices.

Not all business schools are convinced about the merits of virtual worlds, however. Insead places considerable importance on synchronous online learning but prefers to optimise its use of webinars and immersive technologies.

“When I look at the way people are using virtual reality it’s mostly to shoot each other, not to learn,” says Prof Zemsky.

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MBA students to take a closer look at the FT

MBA students from Asia, Africa, Europe and the US will soon be poring over Financial Times articles together on Stockholm School of Economics’ Second Life island, following a collaboration deal announced this month.

It involves using current FT news articles covering ethics and sustainable business issues. While traditional cases will be included, these tend not to be as “messy” and “complex” as real business situations as seen in news articles, says Lin Lerpold, SSE associate dean and an associate professor in its sustainability research group.

“Without physically travelling, we will be able to meet and discuss major events pertaining to business and sustainability with business students around the world, thus supporting our students better and preparing them for their future careers in a more complex and globalised world.”

Apart from the FT and SSE, the collaboration involves Technical University of Munich, Germany; Foreign Trade University in Hanoi, Vietnam; African School of Economics in Akassato, Benin; and University of Virginia Darden School of Business in the US.

Professors and students will be able to use FT Newslines, an annotations tool through which comments and notes can be made on any FT.com article.

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A second article will look at how business schools and their students are using the new generation of immersive technologies.

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