With no apologies whatsoever to the Material Girl, I just spent two days this week living in a virtual world. It was an incredible experience! In a first for the MIT Executive Education Program, one of their classes was offered in a virtual environment. No, this was not your father’s webinar using WebEx, this was a virtual classroom, complete with personalized avatars.
Let me try to explain. I started attending MIT’s Sloan School of Management Executive Education Program last year. Typically, classes are held in Cambridge, either on campus or at a nearby hotel. However, the class “Big Data: Making Complex Things Simpler” was different. It was offered in two venues, one in Cambridge and one virtually using AvayaLive Engage. The kicker? The classes were run simultaneously as one class. There were 100+ students in Cambridge and about 70 of us from around the world that joined virtually.
The platform leverages video gaming technology to create a near-real virtual environment. Each student had their own avatar they controlled from their mouse and keyboard. In a scene straight out of Star Trek, my avatar was transported and materialized outside an auditorium . In this auditorium, the students could great each other with a handshake and speak in our own voices. I met and spoke with people from the U.S., Saudia Arabia, Egypt, London and Brazil. Our avatars could wave, raise our hands, clap, point, shrug, and fist pump with excitement.
The Engage platform uses the concept of proximity, so only those students, er avatars, in range of your voice could hear you. You could whisper to have a private conversation or shout to be heard by more.
The auditorium had a stage area. Anyone standing on the stage and speaking could be heard by all the students. Above the stage where three large screens. On one screen there was a live video feed from the classroom in Cambridge. The center screen was used to project the slides of the material (the third screen was not used) In the rear of the auditorium was a microphone. Avatars that spoke into the microphone could be heard throughout the auditorium and in the class room in Cambridge.
Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Alex “Sandy” Pentland taught from the live classroom, but on several occasions joined us in the the virtual world.
Hopefully, I’ve painted an adequate picture of the environment. The course itself was outstanding, but rather than recount the material (heck, you can take the class yourself!) I want to share some of my observations.
In a recent article on the Financial Times blog “Online learning “no substitute” for classroom”, Peter Hirst, executive director of executive education at Sloan stated “The competitive comparison is not between on-line and in-person, it is between on-line or not-at-all.” While I agree with Dr. Hirst, I will say this virtual environment beat traditional webinar environments hands down. Combining it with the live classroom took it even a notch higher. I think some tweaks could make it almost like being there.
So some observations in no particular order:
- All of the avatars were good looking and about the same age. There were not any “less attractive”, nor “overweight”. There was diversity in color and nationality, however.
- In this environment, it is even more important that participants mute their microphones when not speaking. Not muting caused an annoying echo, not to mention the crying babies, traffic noise, and the occasional dog. This was easily managed by our hostess Christine Mansella, however.
- On day one, there was a significant lag of the audio feed from the virtual world to the live world. The Avaya and MIT engineers resolved that over night and it behaved flawlessly the the second day.
- Running this environment on my Mac caused it to run blazing hot. I had to use my lap desk fan to keep it cool (thanks Holly and Brad!).
By the time the class was over, I was so immersed in the virtual class that I would forget that Christine was actually in the live classroom. Seeing her handout certificates was a bit surreal.
So, some tweaks on how to improve IMHO (in my humble opinion)…
- Because we were virtual, there was really no way to grab one of the professors for an offline question or to take a deeper dive with them on break.
- The breakout rooms worked adequately, but they were not like sitting at a table with your classmates. There could have been more structure around “room assignments”. The first room I was in only had three of us and while the conversation was good, it could have been better. In a later room, it seemed like there was 20 of us, which was probably too big.
- While on the breakout sessions, the final exercise required the teams to complete a Matrix of Change. This was not possible in the virtual breakout rooms. An collaborative editing function, like Google Docs, or something would have been helpful.
- It was not possible to “break bread” together. The live class had lunch, the virtual world was left to our own devices. Though I was quite jealous when one of the participant’s house boy brought him a grilled cheese sandwich. Related to this, the live class had a cocktail reception after the first day. I am not sure how to solve either one of these, but perhaps having a live feed from the lunch and reception, and allowing the live students to create avatars and join us in the virtual world would have worked. I know several times in my career when I managed staff around the globe, I had donuts delivered in Indy and Deptford, croissants in Paris and gulab jaban in Mumbai while on a conference call with each other.
- It would have been helpful if my avatar status bar stayed visible. It was hard to tell if I was muted or not.
- Asking questions was a little cumbersome because the avatar would have to move to the microphone at the rear of the auditorium.
- Because we were virtual, we missed out on one of the traditions of business…exchanging business cards. It would have been cool to be able to do that in the virtual world somehow.
In the end, I guess the answer to the questions “Would you attend another class virtually”, or “Would you recommend this to a colleague” is the ultimate test. The answer to both is a resounding YES! Though after listening to Erik and Sandy talk about all the data being collected by all the devices in this connected world, I have to wonder…what data did they just collect on all of us? LOL