I Was a Second Life B-School Student

Undergraduate programs already have a presence in this virtual world, but INSEAD is one of the first management programs to break ground

My avatar—a bronzed brunette in jeans and a purple sweater—recently visited an island in the virtual world where INSEAD, an international business school with real-world classes in France and Singapore, is building a virtual campus. Although she nearly drowned on a guided tour of the still-under-construction island, it was an eye-opening experience.

INSEAD is one of the first management schools to dip a toe into the online economy, instead of merely studying it. Despite the vibrant economy of Second Life—a three-dimensional alternate universe complete with its own currency—and the hype about virtual worlds having the potential to change the real-world economy the way the Internet did in the 1990s, most business schools are taking a cautious approach.

Not so INSEAD. For starters, the school hired three architecture students—Botond Molnar, Balint Halasz, and Peter Vikar—to create virtual classrooms suitable for lectures that will supplement in-person learning. INSEAD also commissioned laboratories for research and lounge areas for students to meet with professors, potential employers, and one another.

The Global Classroom

After a test run with students, including one who showed up to his virtual class as a fox, the school is working out design kinks and gearing up to use Second Life regularly. "The purpose is to do everything we already do but better," says Miklos Sarvary, associate professor of marketing and manager of the International Centre for Learning Innovation at INSEAD.

Besides putting the INSEAD community at the forefront of new technology, says Sarvary, this plan is to help the school cut back on travel and physical building expenses. It also enables the program to make good on its commitment to diversity by bringing together students and professors from across the globe, he adds.

Briefed on the thinking behind INSEAD's virtual venture, I began my tour of the facilities. This was by no means a typical dog-and-pony show for the press. My avatar (I call her FrankieTheReporter) was led around the INSEAD island by the avatars of Molnar and Halasz.

It is, after all, a construction site, and inexperienced avatars risk drowning in the nearby water if they're not careful about where they land after flying. (It's hard to remain the hard-boiled reporter-avatar when you miss an island and sink like a stone. Fortunately, in this world you can snap into the air—and back to life—by clicking "fly.")

Campus Maps Required

INSEAD's area is a work in progress, but it already boasts a tree-lined walkway, large screens that provide information about the school, and some plush chairs that soothed my avatar's tired back after the fall. Eventually, students will be able to download documents, work in teams, and meet alumni at a campus café, my guides explain.

Those interested in applying to INSEAD will be able to head to a public space to gather information about the school's various programs. The architect-avatars warn that newbies can easily get lost in Second Life. That might be a hurdle for the school as it tries to persuade students and alumni to take part in the virtual world.

While no business school has made the leap that INSEAD has, other B-schools have been eyeing Second Life—if for no other reason than because of the business opportunities it presents. More than 5 million residents were signed up for the virtual world as of Apr. 11.

Virtual Recruiting Center

By the end of March, residents had created 5,617 islands. or virtual entities, such as INSEAD's campus. Residents sold 83,705,808 square meters of virtual land at an average 10.6142 "Linden dollars" per square meter. One resident even announced that she was the first Second Life millionaire both in the virtual and real worlds thanks to her participation in the site (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/26/06, "Second Life's First Millionaire").

Companies that hire lots of MBAs, meanwhile, are already taking to the virtual world. IBM, for example, has built numerous islands on the site to train employees, offer speed mentoring, and break down barriers among staffers spread out across the world (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/15/06, "IBM on Second Life: More than PR").

In addition, the company has built a virtual recruiting center that lets potential applicants access the traditional Web site to apply online, take a train tour of the other IBM islands, or ask questions of current employees. The virtual recruiting center looks like an actual office with conference areas and a receptionist.

A Teaching Tool

IBM recruiters aren't giving up their frequent flier miles just yet. Ray Schreyer, program manager for Internet recruiting at IBM in Charlotte, N.C., says having online outlets available to anyone with an avatar levels the playing field for nontraditional candidates, but it will not replace typical avenues of recruiting such as in-person meetings on campus. Still, MBA students with interest in various companies can add Second Life to their list of resources when researching potential employers.

While B-schools are merely dipping a toe in the waters, colleges in general are offering Second Life events for students in the general population. Second Life veteran Kevin Werbach, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, rarely uses the virtual world directly in his teaching. But he includes it for illustrative purposes in his undergraduate course on the law of e-commerce.

A group of five students at MIT's Sloan School of Management are dedicating an entire semester to studying Linden Lab, creator and owner of Second Life. As part of a project for their Strategic Organizational Design course, these students will focus on how the company intends to sustain its internal, democratic structure amid such growth.

Thanks to Thomas Malone, professor of the course and author of The Future of Work (Harvard Business School Press, April, 2004), the students have already met with Second Life Chief Executive Officer Philip Rosedale and Chief Financial Officer John Zdanowski. The students also plan to organize a networking event for fellow students on Second Life.

Thinking Outside the Text

Indifference to Second Life could mean missed opportunities for schools, says Vatsal Bhardwaj, a first-year student at MIT and a member of the group. Reasons to pay attention include the site's unique marketplace and virtual economy and its potential to shape the next generation of the Internet, Bhardwaj adds.

Some educators agree that business schools may be missing the virtual boat. Megan Conklin, an assistant professor of Computing Sciences at Elon University in Elon, N.C., coaches educators interested in bringing Second Life into their classrooms. She says that business professors should think beyond distance learning, which isn't really Second Life's strength.

"Don't try to replicate the real world in Second Life," she says. "I can fly in Second Life. I can design something out of my imagination. I can buy and sell money without any risk. I can test crazy business plans."

Porous Barriers

But Joe Harder, an adjunct associate professor who teaches a "Spirit of the New Workplace" course at the University of Virginia's Darden School, isn't sure that Second Life is the right venue for MBA students. "There's a possibility to be someone very different from who you are in the first life," he says. "But in business school, it's probably more important to be who you [actually] are."

Yet architecture, foreign language, and computer science courses, among others, have already developed a presence in Second Life. In fact, 2,500 residents are on the education mailing list, says John Lester, director of Boston operations and academic program manager of Linden Lab. Academics are drawn to Second Life for the glorious potential the site hands to its users when they enter, say residents.

"The barrier between having a great idea and being able to create your vision is much thinner on Second Life," says Lester. So is the barrier between the virtual and real economies. If recent history is a guide, other B-schools will soon be testing the virtual waters, even if it means getting in over their heads.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.