Immersive Technology Brings Online Learning to Life

Coronavirus has accelerated the adoption of holograms and virtual reality to improve remote instruction and raise student engagement

Online learning is often criticized for being too passive. But many business schools are investing in sci-fi technology like holograms and virtual reality to bring learning to life. The trend has been accelerated by coronavirus, with many full-time MBA students having to get to grips with online learning due to campus closures to stem the spread of the virus.

MIT Sloan School of Management has just purchased a new avatar platform and a license that will enable the business school to provide accounts to all Sloan MBAs who are interested in running clubs and virtual social events.

In France, Neoma Business School also recently opened a virtual campus where, through a personalized avatar, remote students can study and move around as if they were on campus in Mont-Saint-Aignan. They can access a virtual building to take their courses, meet students or attend a conference. The school’s career services, wellness center, library and startup incubators can be accessed virtually.

“Distance learning through Zoom cannot replace the invaluable contributions of the in-class experience,” says Delphine Manceau, dean of Neoma Business School. “But this new virtual campus is midway between these two formats.” It combines the advantages of the digital and physical worlds, she adds.  

Her school is pioneering the use of virtual reality case studies. One sees students taking on the role of a supply chain management consultant. Students visit the virtual warehouse of a leading distribution company to overserve, analyze and critique what they see.

The VR works through any smartphone that students can slot into a cardboard headset that produces the virtual reality effect. Neoma has measured higher levels of attention and commitment from the students who have used the VR cases. These students also gain a better understanding of the technology itself, which has applications in business, for example in training staff.

VR: better than classroom learning?

Alain Goudey, chief digital officer at Neoma, says that, in some cases, VR is better than a real classroom because the technology caters to people with more visual learning styles. “Business schools today need to offer multimodal access,” he says.

Although VR can lead to motion sickness, the key challenge is not technological; it is pedagogical. “VR cases are only valuable if they show a real managerial situation,” he says. “We have to convince a company to become our partner and produce the content to make the experience as immersive as possible.”

Spain’s IE Business School, too, is pioneering the use of VR to take students to inaccessible places, or to practice public speaking. In addition, it created the “WOW Room”, a curved wall of 48 screens that beams Online MBA students to campus in Madrid. The instructor stands in front of the digital tapestry and can see and hear the students.

The professor can use AI to recognize patterns in facial expressions, identify students’ emotional state and levels of attention. Data analytics can be used in real time to alter teaching to increase engagement from students, or retroactively to improve teaching plans.

Diego Alcázar Benjumea, vice president of IE Business School, says the institution has invested €25m in innovative learning projects over 15 years. The WOW Room will simulate real situations. “Students will take decisions under pressure, find themselves in the midst of business crises, be required to define production processes in factory environments, negotiate war situations, and resolve diplomatic conflicts between countries,” says Benjumea.

Beyond VR: holograms, robot tutors, and more

Business schools around the world are using other technologies beyond VR across their degree programs. In London, Imperial College Business School is exploring a range of innovations including a new robot-tutor that can answer Online MBA students’ queries far more quickly than a human could.

Another innovation is a hologram. It works by projecting an image of a remote speaker, who has to be in one of Imperial’s studios around the world, to a semi-transparent screen on campus in London. The lecturer can see a live audio and video feed of their audience, so they can interact seamlessly with students in real-time.

“While the illusion may seem artificial at first, it’s remarkable how quickly audiences forget that the person talking is not physically present in the room,” says Andrew Parry, an online learning video producer at Imperial’s Edtech Lab.

Students told the school that remote instructors had a much stronger presence, and engagement increased as a result. Speakers said the hologram made remote teaching more like the real deal, which improved communication with participants.

“These technologies augment mainstream pedagogies to support students with different learning styles. They better prepare them with 21st-century skills for life beyond university,” says Nai Li, an educational researcher at the Edtech Lab.

But there are downsides, notably the demand on staff time to run the system effectively. To minimize lens distortion, the speaker has to be eight meters away from the camera, which has to be close to the floor tilting up at the lecturer to capture accurately the dimensions of the body shape.

Lighting is also important. Dark colors will be invisible when emitted by the projector, so Imperial positions the speaker in front of black drapes to bring a three-dimensional aspect to the hologram. “While it’s not quite as simple to set up as you might see in the movies, looking ahead, I do expect the technology to one day find a way of miniaturizing, so that it becomes a more commonplace method of communication,” says Parry.

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