MIT Pioneers the Exec Ed Classroom of the Future

by Lauren Everitt on

Participants in MIT's Big Data 4Dx program can attend classes as avatars after the school introduced AvayaLive Engage, a virtual meeting space, into some executive education programs

Participants in MIT’s Big Data 4Dx program can attend sessions as avatars after the school introduced AvayaLive Engage, a virtual meeting space, into some executive education programs

Online courses, iPad textbooks, virtual conference rooms – few would dispute that business education is going digital. Now, quite literally, business students are too – as avatars.  On April 2 through April 3, MIT’s Sloan School of Management held its Big Data 4Dx executive education program.  Of the nearly 200 participants, 70 of them showed up as digital versions of themselves.

It sounds like a scene straight from Second Life, an online virtual world.  However, this meeting was hosted on the AvayaLive Engage platform, a virtualized meeting space that allows participants to interact with one another.  It’s Second Life with a utilitarian twist – instead of creating a fantasy experience, B-schools use the platform to make an educational one.

The Avaya platform may offer an answer to the problem that has plagued online education since its inception: How can B-schools maintain a collaborative atmosphere when students and instructors aren’t physically in the same room? While not a perfect substitution for the in-person experience, Avaya’s program does give B-schools a convenient and immersive environment for students and faculty to meet.

MIT piloted the technology last year during an executive education workshop and saw potential in it.  Hurricane Sandy propelled the adoption process forward.  With the storm churning toward the Cambridge area, MIT made the last-minute decision to offer some 100 registered participants the option to attend the two-day course online. Roughly a dozen of them did.

Participants can customize their avatars by selecting his or her height, weight, skin color, hair and even outfit

Participants can customize their avatars by selecting their height, weight, skin color, hair style and even outfit

Both students and faulty were surprised by the results.  “I didn’t imagine that people would find it so engaging that  they would be able to spend two solid days in front of their computers to complete this program,” says Peter Hirst, director of MIT Sloan’s executive education programs.  “People feel like they are really ‘there’…It’s a much more engaging experience than chat rooms or video conferencing.” Based on largely positive feedback, the school decided to formally incorporate the Avaya platform into its next BigData 4Dx program and welcomed 70 avatar attendees in April.

It’s easy to spot the allure of AvayaLive Engage. The environment is eerily interactive.  Participants can select everything from an avatar’s hair and eye color, to his or her height, weight and outfit. If an avatar turns his or her head, the sound adjusts – growing louder in the ear pointed toward the source.  Avatars nearby sound much louder than those across the room. These digital humans can also wave, shake hands and fist pump.

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