B-Schools Get an A for Virtual Reality Experiments

B-Schools Get an A for Virtual Reality ExperimentsHeads up on a great story by Lindsay Gellman in the Wall Street Journal this week.

Looks like virtual reality (VR) has the potential to invade even the spaces once reserved for face-to-face interaction: classrooms.

“Schools with far-flung students are turning to avatar-based technology to provide an immersive level of connectivity that goes beyond that of the traditional online forum,” notes Gellman. “Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in May launched an online certificate program that features customizable avatars for students who attend classes in a virtual space resembling the GSB campus.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management already employs similar technology in its executive-education programs.

According to Dave Weinstein, associate dean for executive education at Stanford’s GSB, it’s a natural that business schools would be some of the first to experiment with new methods or technologies. That’s partly because executive education programs are typically shorter in duration and smaller in cohort size than full-time programs.

Not to mention that such warp speed innovations are not just welcomed, but expected.

“You cannot rest on your laurels, or on your brand,” Weinstein said. The volatile executive-education market “requires a constant stream of testing and innovation to stay relevant.”

Several other educational institutions and businesses have adopted the virtual-reality technology AvayaLive Engage, according to software company Avaya Inc.

In fact, MIT’s Sloan jumped in after Hurricane Sandy (2012) made it impossible for nearly half of registered students to make it in for classes.

“In the past, what we’d no doubt have to do is cancel,” said Peter Hirst, executive director of Sloan’s executive education program. Instead, Hirst said faculty members thought it would be a “perfect opportunity to try using this technology to enable people who couldn’t attend because of the storm to attend virtually.”

About half of the cohort of 120 students “were beamed as avatars into the classroom,” said Hirst.

The software for the VR classroom allows avatars to gesture, jump, and run, and “facilitates social interactions key to group projects and networking that would otherwise be absent from an online-learning experience.”

Students even get to pick and dress their own avatars.

While schools using the technology can re-create the essence of the on-campus learning experience for students and faculty scattered across the globe, there are still pitfalls.

Take those avatars, for instance. Though the business schools offer pretty sedate, professional wardrobe options, one student picked the conservative dark suit only to “arrive” and find that his classmates largely dressed a la “Casual Friday.”

Parth Saxena, a New Delhi-based entrepreneur in Stanford’s certificate program, went with the VR flow.

“I saw that people don’t really care” about virtual formal dress, he said, “so I changed to my jeans and my T-shirt.”