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By Andrew Baxter

After years of relying on “take it or leave it” technology that often failed  to match their ambitions, business schools wishing to create virtual worlds or  campuses for their students are taking matters into their own hands.

As the first  article in this two-part series (“Fresh reality on campus”, February 24)  explained, several schools established a presence on Second Life’s virtual  world, with its sartorially and biologically diverse avatars and “islands” for  rent, in the late 2000s. The site still has its adherents in business education  but the overall results have been mixed.

Now a generation of virtual worlds is being developed in which schools can  pick and choose the technologies and partnerships they want to suit their own  design.

They are benefiting from, and participating in, an  evolutionary process that “will continue to churn”, says Steve Mahaley, global  practice lead in the design group at Duke  Corporate Education, North Carolina. “Who knows how many more specific  worlds are going to pop up?” he asks.

These immersive environments can trace their roots to online games such as  World of Warcraft and are being deployed in primary and secondary  education, nursing or military training and other applications where simulations  in a realistic setting can produce better “learning outcomes”.

In business education as in these other spheres, evolution  means experimentation. “We want the whole design to inform learning and promote  and foster it, so we are constantly iterating, trying and testing ideas out,”  says Alex Howland, programme manager for the VirBela virtual world at University  of California San Diego’s Rady  School of Management. “If we were doing that with someone else’s software or  team, it would be quite expensive.”

VirBela is designed to be a virtual resource for graduate management schools  and students worldwide. It is built around a games engine, and incorporates two  features that, says Mr Howland, distinguish it from other virtual worlds.

The first is its ability to offer complex team simulations through its close  relationship with Tycoon Systems, which produces Industry- Masters business  simulations. “They are really seeing the potential of bringing their offerings  into a 3D environment,” says Mr Howland.

Recently VirBela ran a pilot course using these business simulations for 90  employees, across 15 countries, at US-based Thermo Fisher Scientific, the  scientific and laboratory equipment company, which is represented on VirBela’s  advisory board.

The second innovation at VirBela is a “back end” assessment engine that uses  machine learning to gather data on a team’s performance and provide students and  faculty with feedback.

Another innovative virtual world that mixes in-house and external technology  is Qube, part of the Pentacle “virtual business school” founded by Eddie Obeng,  the UK educator. Prof Obeng believes traditional business schools ignore virtual  environments at their peril. Working virtually has several advantages, including  the ability to “bring together five people, six times, from around the world for  a fraction of the cost of flying them ”.

David Lomas, Pentacle’s chief technology officer, says it was “only recently  that the technology has started to catch up with the ambition that we  had . . . it was probably about two-and-a-half years ago that we could really  start working in virtual environments in a way that was practical for the things  we were trying to do, as opposed to just for fun.”

One of the big challenges, he says, was the design of the working space: “The  range of choice when creating a virtual environment is too big . . . so we  approached the problem from another angle – what are the users familiar with,  what will allow them to get into useful work quickly?” The result was classrooms  that look as conventional and familiar as possible.

Many of Qube’s features have come about by watching users, says Mr Lomas. For  example, it was felt that industry-standard human avatars could be a distraction  from learning, so participants become simple, boxy “Qubots” that are both  gender-neutral and hierarchy-flattening.

Some technologies may not be full virtual worlds but offer an immersive  environment that can be purchased off the shelf. An example is AvayaLive  Engage, which uses spatial or proximity audio technology linked to avatars.  Holding the mouse over an avatar’s badge opens a webcam feed from one of the  other users.

“If you want a learning experience with plenty of group  work, that is dynamic and engaging, then even some of the newer tools such as  Google Hangouts don’t provide the flexibility and agility of this environment,  nor a sense of the nebulous concept of ‘presence’,” says Peter Hirst, executive  director of executive education at MIT  Sloan School of Management.

The school has been using AvayaLive Engage – originally developed by Nortel  Networks before its enterprise business was acquired by Avaya – for about two  years. The tool’s ability to meld real and virtual classrooms came into its own  during a two-day executive class on Big Data held at the same time as Hurricane  Sandy hits in October 2012, and many of the expected 120 attendees could not  travel. The school took the opportunity to experiment with streaming the  sessions on AvayaLive Engage.

“We were very guarded initially in case the virtual participants interfered  with the learning experience of those attending in person,” says Dr Hirst. “But  virtual and live participants, and faculty, all said this looks really  interesting, and the virtual participants engaged in a very significant  way.”

He sees the Avaya tool and others like it becoming embedded in business  education either as an addition to more traditional methods or as an entirely  new approach.

Copyright: © The Financial Times Ltd 2014 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.

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