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For a brief period last year, Miklos Sarvary’s marketing class at Insead, in Fontainebleau, France, played host to foxes and other creatures as the human students took a back seat. The animals were not real, however, but virtual – they were the students’ avatars or alter-egos in Second Life, the three-dimensional online world.

Insead set up a campus on Second Life early last year, and is one of a handful of business schools that are exploring the virtual world’s potential as part of the never-ending quest for innovation in business education.

The weird creatures in the classroom did not last long. “At the beginning people tended to fool around,” says Prof Sarvary, who is also director of the school’s International Centre for Learning Innovation. “It was great fun, but then people realised that if you are not in gaming mode but in some sort of purposeful activity, there is a benefit to providing a clue about your identity.”

Schools such as Insead, the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) and Duke Corporate Education in the US are experimenting with Second Life in part to exploit the familiarity of students in the “World of Warcraft generation” with immersion in a virtual environment.

Unlike World of War-craft, Blizzard Entertainment’s “massively multiplayer online role-playing game”, death and destruction is not on the agenda for business school avatars in Second Life. However, the same principle of submersion in a virtual world applies to people who want to meet and collaborate on a project, says Prof Sarvary.

It is early days yet, and much of the activity so far has stemmed from the enthusiasm of individual “champions” among faculties – as happens so often with the introduction of any technology innovation.

But the signs are that the schools’ involvement with Second Life and other virtual worlds could open up a new front in education.

When so much project work is done by students in different, off-campus locations, the attractions of being able to “step into” a three-dimensional world that looks the same to all participants are obvious.

“It’s a fantastic platform,” says Robin Teigland, associate professor at SSE’s Centre for Strategy and Competitiveness, whose avatar on Second Life is called Karinda Rhode. “You have to pay for an ‘island’ but it does not cost very much, and you can experiment with simulations and communicate with people all over the world.”

Some business school enthusiasts for the virtual world have taken a little convincing. “My initial reaction was that it was ridiculous,” says Steve Mahaley, director of learning technology at Duke CE. “How could anyone take seriously a cartoon world in which I am driving around an avatar that doesn’t look anything like me?”

However, since early last year, Mr Mahaley – known as Ace Carson in Second Life – has been exploring the educational possibilities of this and other virtual worlds, and says: “Over time, I have come to realise there is much more to it and much more is possible, especially when we start looking at the generation of young managers who have grown up with these kinds of spaces as part of their experience. It behoves us to give it a close look.”

Off-campus

Prof Sarvary sees Second Life helping to solve a problem that all business schools struggle with – especially those where a lot of work is done off-campus: how to keep in touch when students are spread out across the world and how to help students and alumni stay in contact with each other.

“It’s kind of awkward to send an e-mail to someone you haven’t seen for five years, or call them,” he says. “But if there is a place where you can spontaneously meet again, that’s great.”

Prof Teigland says being able to step into a 3D world is a much more real experience than having a Skype video conference, or being part of a mailing list.

She has used Second Life for meetings with Mr Mahaley, whom she has never met physically, and the two schools worked together on a virtual teaming exercise involving an international group of masters students, in preparation for using it with participants on SSE’s IFL executive education programme.

Mr Mahaley points out that in teaming exercises in the real world, such as bridge-building, the team has to be supplied with all the materials it needs and also has to be located in the same place. “Typically there is a fairly large dollar sign attached to that,” he says.

In the potentially weightless virtual world there is a different challenge, however – recognising that the bridges do not need elaborate support structures. “It was interesting to see some of the students struggle with that,” says Mr Mahaley. This aspect of the virtual world, he says, presents educators with interesting options to explore innovative thinking – options that do not exist in real life.

At Insead, Prof Sarvary and others have run classes and group discussions on Second Life, and “private rooms” on the virtual campus have been used for coaching. The school also has a small island that students taking part in business development competitions can use to develop their ideas.

Prof Sarvary says the school is also considering using Second Life as a more involving way of showing prospective students what it is like to attend a course at Insead’s Fontainebleau campus in France or its second campus in Singapore. This would involve migrating the current system of “frequently asked questions” answered by the school’s administrators into the virtual world.

“[Second Life] is a very powerful tool for getting that initial matching without the expensive cost of travel,” he says.

Toolset

At present, the consensus is that Second Life and other virtual worlds will be complementary to existing teaching methods for some time.

“There is nothing in our activities that we could not do on Second Life,” says Prof Sarvary. “[However], the idea is not to replace face-to-face meetings and classroom experiences but to make sure that we can extend the experience that our regular students are having.”

Mr Mahaley says he always gets a little nervous when people start talking about a “silver bullet”. Second Life, he says, is “part of a toolset, an add-on that, as educators, we should be smart about. We should understand what this particular tool can bring to the design and delivery of education that other tools can’t and then use it that way.”

At SSE, Prof Teigland agrees that Second Life will play a complementary role for some time. However, as today’s younger generation strengthens its role in the workforce, she says it could become the “natural way of working”. “Schools will say: ‘Why are we going to have to meet in a classroom any more – we really can meet anywhere.’”

There are parallels with the early days of the internet. Few in business education thought it would have much impact on their methods before it became a participative medium rather than just an alternative tool for disseminating content.

In much the same way, the virtual world needs to have some successes with what Mr Mahaley calls “scripted access”, implying a high degree of control by the educational designers, before it moves towards “the open access end of the spectrum”, where the learners have much more control.

The technology also needs to become part of the tools that the schools’ clients use. That has not happened yet and Prof Sarvary admits there are still technology problems. “Either the students may not have the latest computers to exploit the graphics and then the programme crashes on them, or we have got companies whose firewalls would not allow us to install Second Life on their platforms – although that is true for any interactive medium,” he says.

“The world is not completely ready for endorsing these virtual worlds on a very broad basis – that is the challenge we are facing.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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