The coronavirus pandemic forced business schools to experiment with teaching full-time MBAs virtually. The experience led to the development of innovative teaching approaches that seek to make online classrooms not just more like the real thing but arguably even better in some ways.
To make online classes more interactive, schools have turned to virtual reality and even holograms. The pilots have been so successful at making learning more engaging that schools are incorporating these immersive technologies into their full-time MBAs even as vaccines enable students to return to campus.
INSEAD, based in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, started to use immersive technologies in January 2019 — to boost engagement, retention of knowledge and personalization of learning. Virtual reality has become a bigger focus for the business school in the past year as professors have sought to offer more immersive online classes than Zoom sessions.
“Immersive experiences allow professors to create a safe, repeatable and engaging learning environment for students,” says Ithai Stern, INSEAD professor of strategy. “We can take learners to very remote places and help them become active learners, and with agency to control their progression.”
More than 2,000 MBA and executive education students from more than 90 countries have taken part in VR pilots at INSEAD. Wearing headsets, students from around the world “travel” from their homes or classrooms to various locations, circumventing Covid travel restrictions.
They enter unique situations and settings that might be extreme, confusing, and require a complex understanding of people and culture. This includes witnessing flagrant harassment during a board meeting, or visiting a tractor factory in Normandy, France.
“Thanks to the sense of immersion, learners experience the case study much more vividly and are engaged,” says Stern. “Moreover, research has shown that VR learners’ brains are activated in areas that are much more similar to real-world learning in comparison to when they read, listen or watch. It’s learning by experience and practically.”
VR: even better than the real thing?
A recent PwC study found that immersive technology enables students to learn more materials faster, as they feel more connected to people or places through VR than reading a case study online. Students also feel more confident about applying what they have learnt.
“The use of immersive technology for education provides a lot of positive emotions that in turn impacts positively the learning experience,” says Alain Goudey, chief digital officer at NEOMA Business School in France. “You get a deep commitment from your students as they physiologically experiment in situations that the professor has designed to be meaningful for them.”
Then, as you get shorter cycles between theory and practice, professors expect the learning to be more efficient as students memorize better when they experiment directly in business scenarios. “That’s the real power of the technology,” says Goudey.
NEOMA started its production of VR-based case studies in 2016. Today, more than 3,700 students have used one of our four VR case studies in areas such as marketing, supply chain management and human resources.
But business schools point out that there are plenty of limitations to the technology. Getting devices to the hands of learners is a bottleneck, so schools need to improve global access to these technological tools.
Josefine Raasch, a senior learning designer at ESMT Berlin, adds: “VR creates wow-moments. Pedagogically, this is not particularly conducive to learning as the mind goes blank and participants gets excited.”
In addition, VR requires video production and technology, which can be prohibitively expensive. “Affordable VR glasses have been reported to cause vertigo and dizziness for users,” Raasch points out. “Good glasses are still quite expensive, particularly as we work with groups of more than 100 people. The production of VR cases also requires a lot of time and attention to detail.”
Having experimented with VR in teaching at ESMT, she concludes: “VR adds a lot of extra complexity for our participants and the effects are not necessarily worth the effort of creating it.”
Moving forward, though, there are some exciting developments. Goudey at NEOMA says immersive technologies will become more “mobile” with the use of 5G superfast broadband networks. “I also believe this technology to gain in terms of the realism of the experience and the persistence of the actions made in it,” he says.
INSEAD’s Stern says the school is working on “room-scale” VR in which teams are free to roam and interact, as well as tactile experiences in which all the learner’s senses are engaged.
“The level of interactivity that current headsets allow is still somewhat limited,” he adds. “In future generations of the hardware, and already in the software we are developing, capabilities such as advanced data analytics, machine learning, and natural language processing will be introduced.”
Stern says that augmented reality, which superimposes digital images onto the real world, but currently is not a mature enough technology to be used in MBA classrooms, “will undoubtedly evolve and might disrupt many traditional methods of learning we use today”.