Online education is evolving. Some of the top-ranked programs nationwide - like Penn State, Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, and many others - are creating online courses. Or shall we say, delving into the possibilities of what online learning has to offer. Stanford has even launched massive open online courses (MOOCs) and seen an astounding 100,000 participants enrolled in their first three courses alone.
Despite its evolutionary strides toward something more, many experts say there's still something missing from the online experience. What they're talking about are in-person factors, such as true interaction, full immersion, and peer-to-peer communication. We've heard all this before, of course - it's the old online vs. traditional education debate, busily creating its special brand of sound and fury. It will no doubt rage on indefinitely, but in the meantime, MIT Sloan may just have an idea on how to at least change the debate - by simply obliterating it! Their 4Dx educational experience permits online students to join in a classroom setting through the use of avatars - that's right, like in a video game! - and participate in a way already familiar to most students. The avatars can thus interact in a completely immersive learning experience, whether in group discussions, Q&A sessions, swapping business cards (via LinkedIn) - the list is limited only by our creativity.
According to Executive Director Peter Hirst of MIT Sloan Executive Education, these new advances in online education are the wave of the future. He believes that even as on-campus learning maintains its firmly entrenched posture, these new technological breakthroughs are going a whole different direction and enabling an extraordinary development: creating a truly immersive and interactive learning experience for a student body that spans the entire world. According to both Hirst and MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, it's an exciting and ground-breaking new teaching tool which may revolutionize education as we know it.
So, the question is changing the terms of the online vs. tradition stand-off. Now, with the advent of 4Dx class, MOOCs, and the like, we have a new question to resolve: is it possible that these new-fangled online approaches could provide the same - if not even better - learning opportunities and outcomes, compared to the more traditional two-year programs?
How Cool Is MIT Sloan's 4Dx Program?
I must say, it's pretty frapping cool! Using AvayaLive Engage, a web-based tool that provides a collaborative environment, the 4Dx program seduces us with the prospect of an immersive experience for students. How does it work? Picture yourself as an avatar - no, not a freakishly tall blue individual, a computer avatar! - walking to and fro on your computer screen. The 4Dx course takes place in a single physical location - Cambridge, Mass., to be exact - and simultaneously far beyond the physical in a virtual space. Online students can see what's happening in the classroom about as well as the ones really sitting there, and the earth-bound campus-based students can also view the virtual space, which is projected into the MIT classroom.
The students who are virtually present benefit from high-tech audio capabilities that mimic the audio properties of actually being in the classroom. In the simulation, voices and sounds come from the direction of the speaker on screen. Voices will become either softer or louder depending upon their proximity to the listener. So everybody gets a similar experience - whether their address is campus, California, or Katmandu.
Online vs. Traditional MBA Programs
Returning to the original debate for a moment, James Dean, dean of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, feels strongly that online MBA programs can reach a level of quality as high as - or even higher than - a traditional two-year, full-time program. What will it take to get there? It appears that effort and engagement from both professors and students is required to make it work. For example, the experience at UNC's Kenan-Flagler includes virtual happy hours and virtual hallway conversations to help foster a sense of community and commitment. With a sincere investment from the student, rigorous coursework from the professor, and the immersive interaction made possible by the technology, there's no reason an online program shouldn't succeed. And for many students, the new online option opens up opportunities for learning from anywhere in the world, when you want, sidestepping the old constraints of work and family obligations.
A Dissenting Opinion
There are other views, of course. Don't bet the farm just yet, suggests Garth Saloner, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. His beef with it is that despite advances in online education, it will never be able to replace the traditional on-campus experience of student-faculty interaction, hands-on learning, and just plain being there that makes it all work for his students. The self-discovery and transformation that occurs within the on-campus journey demands in-person interactions between students and potential future business partners, internship opportunities, and more. Saloner's take is that online study is inherently unable to provide the ingredients that feed into the tried-and-true campus recipe that's worked now for over 100 years.
That's not to say that Dean Saloner sees no value in online education. He simply doesn't think that online learning will ever overtake full-time, campus-based programs. He believes the power of online technology will make itself known by reinventing on-campus learning opportunities for his students through innovations ranging from online software tutorials to video conferencing around the globe, and everything in between. When it comes to tech-based approaches like MOOCs, Stanford Ignite, and 100 percent online certificate programs, the best they can hope to accomplish is to extend, refine, and improve student learning - not to overtake the traditional, full-time on-campus learning model.
Education in the Fourth Dimension
Writer Renee Boucher Ferguson offers an interesting take on Saloner's views. She - and her avatar - actually took part in MIT Sloan's Big Data 4Dx executive education course, "Big Data: Making Complex Things Simple", last April. Over a two-day period, the students learned about big data and its implications. What impressed Renee, however, was how completely immersed she felt during those two days. The mediating technology, far from getting in the way of interacting, enriched it. The students shared information, worked in small groups, and had an experience like no other. The missing factors of shared experience with peers, high-level communication, and interaction between students, were in fact not missing at all in the 4Dx experience!
Not everything was rosy, though. Renee reports that there were technical issues at first. Her avatar sometimes awkwardly bumped into classmates, the animations were reminiscent of Super Mario 64 back in the day, and audio delay sometimes interfered. But once these bugs were shaken out, Renee found herself immersed - as did her fellow avatars - and able to move, listen, speak, and eventually split up into one of six separate conference rooms to for small-group discussions of big data.
"Can My Avatar Go to Class for Me, Mommy?"
So you can see that the debate is far from over. Faced with the dizzying speed of advances in online learning technology, it's tricky to know whether the online business student can have the same quality of learning experience - through hands-on projects, student-teacher collaboration, and full immersion in their educational experiences - as their fellows in their more traditional two-year programs. It all depends on who you ask. No clear answer seems to be materializing out of the fog of the contentious traditional vs. online debate. What is certain is that online learning has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years, with the state of the art of MOOCs and 4-D learning. Are these high-tech systems the wave of the future? Guess we'll just have to wait and see how far the 4-D revolution takes us. In the meantime, you might as well dust off your old gaming system, pop in Super Mario 64, and get down to some serious - er, practice. If anyone asks, just tell them it's for school!