A Serious Second Life for B-Schools—No ‘Big Bird’ Avatars AllowedFrancesca Di Meglio
Will there ever come a day when students and teachers interact in a virtual world? Avaya is betting on it. The Santa Clara (Calif.) company creates a virtual space, similar to Second Life, that allows people to interact as they would in the real world. The MIT Sloan School of Management has already held one executive education course using the technology, and a second is planned for October. Avaya says it’s in talks with other business schools to use the technology but would not release details.
Sloan hosted its Big Data 4Dx executive education program on April 2-3, both on the Avaya platform and in-person on the Cambridge campus. The virtual event featured the same faculty, content, discussions, and exercises and was conducted simultaneously with the on-campus program.
A few years ago, Second Life was considered the second coming for educating a digital generation, and some business schools jumped on the bandwagon, hosting virtual classes and workshops. In the last few years, the site seemed to lose its spark.
Enter Avaya. The company’s platform, Avaya Live Engage, is not about creating a virtual reality to live and play in; it’s about conducting business and educating people in a way that allows users to communicate as though they were attending a physical event, says Paul McDonagh-Smith, Avaya Live Engage’s learning practice leader, who’s based in London. “We want the experience to be emotional and engaging,” he says.
While Live Engage and Second Life share some similarities, there are differences, too. If coming to class as a giant bird is on your wish list, forget it. Avatars appear as people on the Avaya platform, unlike on Second Life, where they could be just about anything. With Avaya, you don’t design a virtual space for your event: You pick a template, such as a classroom, and then get started. And security measures are in place that require participants to be who they say they are, even if they’re using an avatar, says McDonagh-Smith.
Those who attended Sloan’s Big Data 4Dx program paid $1,500 for the two-day virtual event. (The price was bumped to $1,950 for virtual attendees to the upcoming conference in October.) For the time being, people who attend the program on campus pay more, but McDonagh-Smith thinks the price will be the same or more for the virtual conference in the future. He adds that convenience—being able to attend from anywhere in the world without travel—is one reason to charge more.
For the Sloan event, the company live-streamed the happenings in the physical location into one of the virtual rooms. Professors hopped into the virtual space every so often. The virtual attendees broke out into groups, just as those who attended in-person did. The virtual and in-person attendees were able to communicate with one another, thanks to the audio component—no typing required.
McDonagh-Smith says the April event featured nearly 120 people attending in-person and about 75 online; the October event is expected to draw 150 virtual and 60 in-person attendees.
“We live and work in a dispersed kind of world,” says McDonagh-Smith. “Organizations and schools that will succeed must embrace this, identify opportunities wherever they are, and meet the needs of the market quicker than their competitors.”