B-Schools Get a Feel for Virtual Reality

Some online executive-education programs welcome avatar-based technology

A screen image of Stanford’s virtual campus for an online program.
A screen image of Stanford’s virtual campus for an online program. PHOTO: STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS/AVAYA

July 1, 2015 2:44 p.m. ET

Executive education at some top business schools is going virtual.

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. 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 Bay Area school joins the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, which uses similar technology in its executive-education programs.

This virtual world isn’t a videogame. There are PowerPoint presentations and breakout discussion sessions—and a new set of technical skills to learn and social mores to navigate.

Business schools tend to first experiment with new methods or technologies in the executive-education space because the programs are typically shorter in duration and smaller in cohort size than full-time programs, and students expect Mach-speed innovation, said Dave Weinstein, associate dean for executive education at Stanford’s GSB.

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

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

The model is so labor intensive for staff and difficult to scale that few schools have the resources and motivation to jump on the bandwagon, Mr. Weinstein said.

“I don’t think there will be a groundswell of people running to use this,” he said.

Still, schools using the technology have found they are able to re-create the essence of the on-campus learning experience for students and faculty scattered across the globe.

MIT’s Sloan first pioneered the technology out of necessity. Though executive-education faculty and staff had been tinkering with AvayaLive Engage since about 2011, the technology made its in-class debut during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The storm pummeled areas of the Northeast, and left many students in an executive-education course without a way to get to the Cambridge, Mass., campus.

“In the past, what we’d no doubt have to do is cancel” the weekend of programming, said Peter Hirst, executive director of Sloan’s executive education program. Instead, Mr. 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.”

Sloan faculty worked with Avaya staff to connect cameras in the physical classroom to a virtual classroom space. Students then were able to customize their avatar from a series of menu options—choosing hair color, outfit and other features like facial hair.

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

The pilot was so successful, Mr. Hirst said, that it was incorporated into several of Sloan’s executive-education courses, including ones on big data and general management, where it caught the attention of Stanford’s GSB executive-education team.

Students and professors say the software, which allows avatars to gesture, jump and run, facilitates social interactions key to group projects and networking that would otherwise be absent from an online-learning experience.

While the interface itself doesn’t pose long-term challenges for most students, “It can take between five and 20 minutes for someone to get comfortable moving around in the space,” Mr. Hirst said.

There’s a learning curve for the nuances of virtual social life too.

Take dress code. Users can customize their avatars by choosing from a set of sensible, professional outfits and accessories. Parth Saxena, a New Delhi-based entrepreneur in Stanford’s certificate program, wanted his avatar to make a good first impression at orientation, so he selected a dark suit. But when he arrived on the virtual campus for the networking session, he saw that most of the other avatars were dressed more casually.

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

'It might be hard to beat the handshake.'

—Hosni Zaouali, a Toronto-based entrepreneur


Still, students and faculty say there’s no substitute—virtual or otherwise—for face-to-face interaction. “One drawback is not having the opportunity to really see facial expressions,” said Peter DeMarzo, professor of finance at Stanford’s GSB and faculty director of its remote-certificate program, though he added that a webcam shot of someone’s face could be placed on a wall or elsewhere in the virtual space.

Students in the GSB’s inaugural cohort like Hosni Zaouali, a Toronto-based entrepreneur in education technology, said they are eager to meet fellow classmates in the flesh and they might plan a gathering around the program’s end in March.

The course was intentionally designed without an on-campus component to democratize the experience for students living far from campus, said Audrey Witters, managing director of online executive education at Stanford GSB.

Even with the most advanced technology, Mr. Zaouali said, “It might be hard to beat the handshake.”




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