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EDTECH: Virtual Reality Is Transforming Online Learning

Business schools seek more flexible and engaging ways to distribute their courses online

Mon Mar 20 2017

Business schools are rebooting for the Digital Age. But the content isn’t the only thing getting a digital refresh. 

The delivery model of business education is undergoing a fundamental transformation, as schools seek more flexible and engaging ways to distribute their courses online.  

The WOW Room (Window on the World) is a physical space on IE Business School’s Madrid campus with 48 screens that comprise a digital tapestry shaped in the form of a “U”. The futuristic learning space transforms the MBA experience through elements that include artificial intelligence, emotion recognition systems, and the presence of experts using holograms. 

“The platform works like Google Hangouts or Skype — a space where students can virtually connect live, using any kind of device from anywhere in the world,” says Jolanta Golanowska, IE’s director of learning innovation. 

Much of online education remains passive, with students ruing a lack of interaction and connectivity. But Jolanta believes the WOW Room is an example of what the university of the future might look like. “Lecture theatres will have to die,” she says. “It’s quite absurd that smart adults with their own unique needs and beliefs are still being schooled in this way — looking at faculty speaking from a stage. Blending online learning with face-to-face elements makes students more driven and motivated to learn. It solidifies knowledge much better,” she says.

Blended Learning

Many business schools are now using virtual and immersive technologies to make digital learning more like the campus experience — and some say even better. “Most people think of blended learning as simply substituting face-to-face with online elements. But it is more complex than that,” says Dan LeClair, chief strategy and innovation officer of AACSB International, an accrediting body for business schools. “Business schools are now starting to ask: how do we leverage technology to make our learning more valuable and more distinctive?”

At Harvard Business School in Boston, HBX Live, its virtual classroom, uses a wall of 60 video screens at a local TV station to reproduce the intimacy and synchronous interaction of the classroom in a digital environment. 

“The platform we have built takes an approach very different from the ‘first generation’ online courses that merely took recorded video content and put it online,” says Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX. “HBX students are immersed in a highly-engaging learning experience that requires them to actively participate in real-world case studies, peer learning, and interactive exercises.”

Virtual Reality

Learning technologies can facilitate greater engagement between online students. At California’s Stanford Graduate School of Business, students on the LEAD executive education program can beam themselves into an online setting as avatars, which participate in group projects and networking sessions. 

“It has been strangely more natural for LEAD participants to interact with each other in a virtual environment, whereas in a traditional online webinar, it’s really just the faculty talking to the students,” says Fernando Contreras, associate director for extended learning at Stanford. “Like a lot of business schools, we share the belief that you learn much from interacting with your peers. We are trying to strengthen the bond between them.” 

MIT Sloan School of Management in Massachusetts is also experimenting with virtual reality. Executive participants have trialled Google’s Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear headsets, which offer the possibility of complete immersion in a digital environment. 

“We’ve started thinking about true virtual reality — headsets. But we are months or years away from adoption,” says Peter Hirst, associate dean of executive education at MIT Sloan, citing concerns over the technology behind VR and the high cost of some devices. “However, the next generation of VR — that’s going to replace the traditional notion of sitting in front of a computer,” he says.