In a year when pandemic restrictions meant that many MBA students around the world were stuck at home learning via video call, INSEAD MBA students were running juice bars in Zanzibar, visiting wet markets in Singapore, and even managing teams on Mars.
This is thanks to the school’s Virtual Reality (VR) initiative, which gives students access to immersive learning experiences via VR headsets from within their own homes.
Over 2,000 MBA and executive education students have taken part in VR-enabled courses in the last year, and even as restrictions around the world begin to ease, Professor Ithai Stern says that VR will remain a core teaching tool at the school.
VR meets the business school case study
Throughout his 16 years teaching strategy at business schools, professor Ithai Stern has always believed in technology’s potential to revolutionize his methods. Today, Ithai is the academic director for INSEAD’s VR Immersive Learning Initiative.
“The dominant teaching method in business schools, and particularly MBA programs, is the case method,” he explains. “With the advancement of technology, I thought there might be much better ways to do it.”
Traditionally, the case method requires students to read a long file outlining a hypothetical business dilemma and to use the frameworks they’ve learned in class to craft a response.
With VR, Ithai envisioned that students could be put at the heart of the action, experiencing each case as though they were living it.
By 2018, VR technology was mature enough to provide this experience, and Ithai worked with a VR production studio to make it happen. As he predicted, it has had a transformative effect.
Putting students at the heart of the action
One of the key differences that Ithai sees between traditional case studies and VR scenarios is in the amount of data students can absorb.
Rather than simply reading about a situation—the atmosphere in a business meeting or the competing priorities at work in a medical clinic—students can insert themselves virtually.
“Benjamin Franklin once said ‘If you tell me, I forget; if you teach me, I remember; if you involve me, I learn,’” says Ithai. “At the heart of it, what we are trying to do is to involve people.”
Research bears this out: a recent PwC study found that VR enables students to learn more materials faster. And Ithai says that not only do students learn faster, but more deeply.
“It's a wonderful technology to generate empathy,” he reflects.
“For example, it's the first time in history where, when I teach directors, I can literally position the 50 plus white male in the classroom in the body of the only black woman on the board of directors. And they come out and say, ‘Okay, I’m starting to get it.’”
VR also creates a safe space for students to experience new business situations and make mistakes in a supported environment, then come back and discuss those mistakes with their class and professors.
“VR gives you a completely different dimension—a completely experiential side to learning,” says graduate of INSEAD’s Blue Ocean Strategy Program Christon Tselebidis.
“You deploy all of your senses as you look at different scenarios and explore the different business challenges, systems and processes that are unfolding in each.”
It’s a deeper kind of learning than simply offering the wrong answer in a classroom discussion.
“They say that a picture is worth a thousand words,” says Ithai. “VR is probably worth a million.”
© INSEAD via Facebook / Ilan Goren
Limitations of VR teaching
INSEAD has used VR case studies to replace many of the experiences that students missed out on due to lockdown in the last year, as well as to fight problems like Zoom fatigue in online teaching.
Some of these replacements may well remain after in-person teaching is back for good. A real life visit to a lean production facility may be costly and time-consuming, for example, and students might arrive on a day when there is not a lot to see. By instead creating a VR simulation of the trip, educators can ensure a more convenient and more consistently valuable learning experience.
However, Ithai is clear that VR isn’t here to replace in-person experiences or methods altogether: it is, at its heart, a supplementary tool. Students still need knowledge, feedback, and guidance from their professors in order to make sense of what they have seen and experienced in the VR scenario.
Professors like Ithai have found that although VR is invaluable for teaching interpersonal skills, traditional methods are more effective when it comes to technical skills like finance and accounting.
The future of VR in MBA programs
Ithai believes that the advent of VR teaching bodes well for MBAs, promising enriched learning opportunities within the classroom, as well as a reduced carbon footprint that comes with reduced international travel.
But far from spelling the end of in-person experiences during MBA programs, VR seems to offer an opportunity for business educators to re-evaluate what is unique about in-person experiences.
Rather than learning new skills on an international trip, the MBA of the future may well hone them beforehand using VR and use their practical experience to apply and expand them.
MBA students at INSEAD will be among the first to find out.