MIT Sloan take their avatars to a virtual classroom
Virtually there: students at MIT Sloan take their avatars to class © MIT Sloan

In 2012, with Hurricane Sandy barrelling up the US east coast, the MIT Sloan Executive Education team was in a quandary. They could cancel the on-campus session starting the morning Sandy was due to hit Boston, but many of 100 or so course participants had already arrived. The solution was for those unable to make it to attend in virtual reality.

Once the physical classroom, in a hotel meeting room in Boston, was connected with a virtual classroom, those not there in person could participate using avatars and a live video feed from the meeting room.

A virtual roving microphone in the virtual classroom allowed the avatars to speak to people in the physical classroom, who could watch their fellow participants in the virtual classroom via large screens set up in the hotel room.

The experiment was a success. “The faculty and participants in the physical classroom thought this was interesting,” says Peter Hirst, associate dean of executive education at MIT Sloan School of Management. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try something out that might have been difficult to persuade people to do otherwise.”

Sloan now regularly uses avatars and virtual classrooms as online learning tools and it is not alone. Since last year, Stanford Graduate School of Business has offered a virtual reality experience to distance-learning students on its LEAD certificate programme.

So far, says Peter DeMarzo, faculty director for educational technology at Stanford, it has proved a useful addition to other forms of virtual communication. “We also use [online conferencing tools] Google Hangouts and Adobe Connect,” he says. “But we find there’s something unique about having a virtual three-dimensional space we can interact in.”

Within the virtual environment, students can take their avatars to work on team projects before returning to the main space to report back to the rest of the class.

While the platforms used by Stanford and MIT Sloan do not offer superheroes or fantasy characters as avatars, students do have the option of changing certain things about themselves.

“My former boss came in to one of our programmes,” says Mr Hirst. “She’s a short, dark-haired lady and in the virtual world, she was a 6ft blonde.”

Other features include proximity-based audio, which allows students to move to another part of a virtual room and have a conversation that others cannot hear. “That turns out to be really helpful in debates,” says Mr Hirst.

Nevertheless, virtual reality is more applicable to certain parts of the business course than others. “It lends itself to topics that rely on soft skills,” says Mr Hirst. “Learning how to calculate net present value [can be done] more effectively in a more traditional online learning environment.”

And the technology has limitations, particularly as it requires high-speed broadband. “Virtual reality is a high-calorie network experience,” says Ashita Saluja, a senior manager at Salesforce Marketing Cloud and a Stanford LEAD executive programme participant. “But in executive education, it’s normal to be in a meeting in a hotel or at an airport — and there you’re not talking great internet connections.”

Ms Saluja also found that some adapted to the virtual environment more quickly than others. “There’s a discomfort and people’s barriers to getting over that varies,” she says.

For one school, virtual reality was an interesting experiment but did not prove to be its most effective tool. After two years using avatars, Lake Forest Graduate School of Management decided to phase them out.

The principle reason, explains Bryan Watkins, vice-president and chief academic officer, was that the Illinois-based school relies entirely on business practitioners, rather than full-time members of staff, for its faculty and students wanted to see their professors on video rather than as avatars.

“Students wanted more interaction with the faculty,” he says.

Nevertheless, some have found that virtual reality is an effective way for students who are separated geographically to come together.

“Traditional videoconferencing is great for presentation and having students respond to the presenter,” says Fernando Contreras, associate director for extended learning at Stanford Graduate Business School. “But there’s a higher engagement between the participants in the virtual environment.”

For Ms Saluja, a visit to Stanford for one of the face-to-face sessions revealed another more unexpected benefit to having spent time in the virtual reality environment. “It was so easy to find my way around the actual campus,” she recalls. “Because I already knew it through the virtual campus.”

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