Online MBA classrooms: virtually like the real thing?

Advocates say technology makes remote study as good as being there — or better
New vision: IE Business School's virtual classroom

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It would not be spotted in an ordinary lecture theatre but Jessica Zimmerman’s nod is enough to attract the professor’s attention. Her head and shoulders can be seen clearly on a large TV screen, one of 48 on a curved wall in the “WOW Room”, a virtual classroom for online students at IE Business School in Madrid.

“The WOW Room does more than just mimic a face-to-face environment — it becomes a physical classroom where the professor is able to walk around and approach students,” explains Ms ­Zimmerman, a participant on IE’s online Global MBA.

In the centre stands the lecturer, either physically present or projected as a hologram that moves around the room. “The set-up is very much like Google Hangouts, so it’s familiar and easy to use for most students, but I was really surprised the first time the professor walked towards me after I nodded my head in agreement with what he was saying. It makes for a much more engaging class.”

The WOW Room — the acronym stands for Window on the World — allows students to connect and collaborate wherever where they are. It runs at low broadband levels to ensure students can join in using any kind of device from anywhere in the world.

Much online education remains passive — students read or view material with little interaction. The room is an example of how business schools are using virtual and immersive technologies to make online classrooms not just more like the real thing but arguably even better in some ways.

Martin Boehm, dean of IE, which has a corporate learning alliance with the FT, says he believes too strongly in the power of face-to-face interaction to advocate MBA courses that are fully online. “But sometimes online delivery can be better than face-to-face,” he says.

“The great thing about a virtual classroom is that your students are already in a digital format, which means you can run algorithms that recognise patterns in facial expressions to assess understanding and identify students’ emotional state and levels of attention in your class,” says Prof Boehm. Analytics can be used in real time to address students whose attention is wandering or later to improve teaching plans or faculty performance, he adds.

Harvard Business School's HBX Live virtual classroom

At Harvard, the HBX Live virtual classroom — located in a Boston TV station — features a similar semicircular video wall, displaying up to 60 students simultaneously.

“Some things make it better than a traditional classroom experience,” says HBX executive director Patrick Mullane. “Some faculty really like the chat feature which allows students . . . to express their thoughts, which then appear in a ticker along the bottom of the wall. As one faculty member said, it’s like teaching a classroom with cartoon thought bubbles above each participant’s head . . . you can see what people are thinking and call on them to comment”.

Teaching staff also find students to be more engaged in the virtual classroom. “Because of the way students are positioned on the wall, a headshot from the chest up, it’s very difficult for them to text on their phones or work on their PCs,” says LizHess, managing director of HBX. “It’s very easy for faculty to see if people are distracted — they joke that there’s no back row any more.”

Other schools use virtual and immersive technologies in different ways. At Imperial College Business School in London, students use the host university’s “data observatory” to display and analyse complex information across an almost-circular wall of 64 screens powered by 32 computers, giving 313 degrees of vision. Mark Kennedy, director of the KPMG Centre for Advanced Business Analytics at Imperial, says students have used it to track global reaction to the US election, examine transactional data about bitcoin and to explore information about the sharing economy.

Imperial College Business School's data observatory

At Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, a “highly immersive classroom” allows a same-room experience for students on its US campus and at the Stanford Center at Peking University in Beijing. The rooms in each country are identical and high-definition video on full-wall screens creates the feeling that students are sitting together.

Stanford is also experimenting with virtual reality. Students on its executive education Lead programme enter an online learning environment as avatars, which work on team projects before returning to the main space to report back to the rest of the class.

It is the possibility of this “deeper immersion” experience that excites Jenna Nicholas, co-creator of Stanford’s Designing for VR module. “With virtual reality you can put on a headset and be taken straight to, say, a Syrian refugee camp and become totally absorbed in that world. Yes, you can read lots of information and data about a situation or case study, but virtual reality takes us to a whole new level,” she says.

Back at IE, Jolanta Golanowska, director of learning innovation, sounds a note of caution, warning that technology can ruin rather than enhance the classroom experience if used in the wrong way. “It’s important always to weigh the technology against the pedagogy,” says Ms Golanowska, whose department comprises a technology team that works alongside a pedagogy team focused on best teaching practice. “Whatever ideas our technology team come up with have to be vetted and cleared by the pedagogy team to ensure . . . that they will add value for our students.”

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