Remote learning: speakers in New York address an event in London © Imperial College Business School
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Watching a hologram lecturer is an eerily realistic experience — the hologram can look you in the eye, point to you and answer your question.

The hologram might be saying the same thing as a talking head on a video screen, but it has a much stronger presence, notes David Lefevre, director of the Edtech Lab at Imperial College Business School.

The hologram works by projecting a live image of the lecturer on to a screen in front on the class. The lecturer, who must be presenting from one of the university’s several studios located across the world, has a live audio feed and a screen that shows their class. This allows them to watch and listen to students, and interact with them.

The hologram lecturer changes students’ responses, says Mr Lefevre. With video conferencing, students often look at their iPads or phones. “But they feel that the hologram lecturer is in the room interacting with them, and that they should pay more attention to it. The psychology is very important.”

Holograms are among a number of technologies that business schools are trialling to improve engagement among students who study online.

MIT Sloan School of Management in Massachusetts has experimented with robots operated remotely by students or lecturers working in different locations. Peter Hirst, senior associate dean of executive education, says: “They look a bit like a combination of an iPad, a Segway and a witch’s broomstick.”

The lecturer or student talks live on the iPad and controls the movement of the robot with a joystick. What makes them seem lifelike, says Mr Hirst, is the fact that they can move around the room, turn their screen “heads” and simulate sitting or standing.

Students rate the robot instructor experience 70 per cent as good as having someone there in person, according to Mr Hirst, whose team canvassed the views of students and lecturers who had used the technology.

Why students or lecturers choose to interact online is an important factor in how well robots are accepted, says Mr Hirst. “If a student can’t travel because of mobility challenges . . . people are much more accepting than if someone is just too busy.”

Similarly, students tend to be grateful that remote control robotics allow them to have access to a respected expert who might be unavailable in person, rather than a local substitute.

Technical problems can be disruptive, however. “It is frustrating that in 2019 at MIT you can still lose the connection, or the picture breaks up, or the sound drops out,” says Mr Hirst. Network connections can be particularly patchy with iPad robots: as they move around, they are more prone to hitting dead spots. They have even been known to get “stuck” in lifts.

Communicating body language is another drawback, says Mr Hirst. At the moment, the person using the robot has to initiate all movements; they are encouraged to do this regularly so people know there is a human behind the machine. “It would be great if there was just button you could push that would tell the robot to keep shuffling around,” Mr Hirst says.

Video conferencing also still has a role in online business education, as seen with the WOW Room, developed by IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. This allows lecturers to see up to 48 remote students on a bank of screens and teach them as they would in-person.

The system detects the students’ expressions and gauges their level of attention and participation. When the class is finished, lecturers are given a video of the session. Below the recording, there are graphs of students’ attention-levels and emotions during the class: lecturers use these to reflect on and refine their performance.

But for Mr Lefevre, this misses a key element of the classroom. “The Achilles heel is that for the lecturer it is a very realistic experience but the students only see the lecturer, not each other.”

The Edtech Lab also uses machine learning and data analytics to look for patterns and predict learning outcomes.

The team found, for example, that their students mostly learn in four ways: they do all their work as soon as possible; study at regular intervals; binge-learn everything in two weeks; or have sporadic but intensive study periods.

“We then found that poor [weaker-performing] students were all sporadic, but strong students were almost equally distributed across all the types,” says Mr Lefevre. The team could not discourage the sporadic approach, he says, but they could warn their recruits that it often results in poor performance.

In future, MBA students may wear VR headsets to learn important skills, such as managing conflict. Technology company PA Consulting is developing VR scenarios in which leaders resolve disputes between team members.

“We use actors to make simulations feel as lifelike as possible,” says Nick Shackleton-Jones, director of learning innovation at PA Consulting. “The advantage of using VR is that it recreates the emotional experience, rather than merely being an academic exercise.

“This is using the technology, not just to transfer information, but to make people care, which creates a much more memorable learning experience.”

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