Virtual learning is no substitute for the classroom, the debate should be between whether a course is offered online or not at all, says Peter Hirst, executive director of executive education at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Dr Hirst says physical human interaction is such a powerful way of creating and maintaining relationships that online learning is no substitute.

“The competitive comparison is not between on-line and in-person, it is between on-line or not-at-all,” says Dr Hirst, who is executive director of executive education at Sloan.

Sloan is already exploring such alternatives. The school is attempting to bridge the real and virtual world by launching an extra dimension to its “big data” executive education programme starting on April 2.

There will be two classrooms, one a bricks-and-mortar building at Sloan’s school in Cambridge Massachusetts, which students can attend in person at a cost of $2,900 and the other in a virtual environment at a cost of $1,500. The physical and online courses will run simultaneously over two days and feature the same faculty, content, discussions and exercises.

The virtual version of the Big Data 4Dx programme will be conducted using AvayaLive Engage, a third-party platform which allows students using the online format to interact in a virtual room with faculty members and other students using personalised avatars.

The format of the big data programme, in which the two teaching forums are connected in real time, differs from many of its peers that run similar classes in which online learners permitted to learn in their own time. If successful, Dr Hirst said the technology behind the real-time blended classroom might be rolled out to other courses at MIT Sloan. He said many of Sloan’s executive education programmes, both “open enrolment” and those customised for individual companies, could employ this kind of technology to augment traditional classroom-based approaches.

Nigel Moulton, chief technology officer of Avaya EMEA, the company that provided the real-time connection platform, says the technology is being used across multiple industries to facilitate both learning and business activities. It drives sustainable growth by cutting travel costs as well as eliminating the cost of providing a venue for the meeting or class.

“Digital technology has revolutionised media, music, manufacturing and finance, now, it’s beginning to revolutionise education as well,” says Eric Brynjolfsson, director of Sloan’s Centre for Digital Business.

Virtual learning may be an effective method of teaching when it comes to technical subjects but some aspects of learning are challenging to deliver online. Sloan is also exploring whether or not virtual programmes such as Big Data 4Dx can provide a sufficiently engaging experience to enable collaborative learning of complex subjects.

However, claiming that virtual learning is the future of higher education would be a “bold claim”, says Dr Hirst.

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