Using technology to shape the future of executive education — Peter Hirst

There is growing interest in online programs as a way to expand the reach of executive education. However, that is balanced with our pedagogical philosophy at MIT Sloan, which involves high levels of engagement and interaction among faculty and students. A big question is: How do we keep that collaborative learning model in the context of an online program?

While there are many technologies to explore, we’re currently experimenting with one called AvayaLive™ Engage which offers an immersive online world in which participants interact in real time with avatars. We piloted it for executive education purposes last year by offering an online workshop for participants following an in-person program.  We learned a lot in terms of what was effective and what needed to be tweaked, but our big takeaway was that the platform provides a dynamic learning environment for participants.

Hurricane Sandy was our next opportunity to test out the technology. We had an executive education program scheduled to start on campus precisely when the hurricane was due to arrive so we decided to allow anyone with travel challenges to participate in part (or all) of the program in the virtual classroom.

The result was somewhat surprising. Not only did some of the online participants engage through the virtual classroom for the entire two-day program, the students on campus requested to interact in real time with them. So the discussion in the virtual classroom was projected into the real classroom with a live audio feed.

Now, we’re taking it a step further by offering our upcoming Big Data program both in the traditional classroom and in a virtual environment 4DX. Whether it’s because of personal preference or travel constraints, the virtual option is turning out to be as popular as the traditional classroom – both are almost sold out.

With personalized avatars, the online participants in the Big Data 4DX program will participate virtually in an immersive, collaborative environment. They’ll interact in a “4D” virtual room where they can talk and move around with spatial/positional audio capability. Avatars that are nearby will sound louder than those farther away, and those located to the left or right will sound like they are on that side. These features provide a heightened sense of presence – it seems like you are really in the room.

Faculty also will have avatars and can drop into the virtual room throughout the program. The virtual participants will be able to view the activity in the on-campus classroom, and the virtual classroom will be projected into the MIT Sloan classroom, allowing for all parties to see and engage with each other.

This is a very cutting-edge way to deliver a dynamic executive education program and we’ll be analyzing a lot of data during and after the program to continuously improve the customer and faculty experience.

One of our goals is to increase access to our executive education programs so it’s critical that we continue experimenting with new ways to deliver our curriculum with technology. Using platforms like Avaya, we’ll be able to reach far more than the 120 students that we can typically accommodate in a physical classroom. And we can experiment with hybrid programs where some parts are offered in the traditional classroom, others are entirely online, and still others are in a virtual world.

There are a lot of possibilities, and we are excited to be pioneering these new approaches. After all, part of our mission is to advance the field of executive education and this type of experimentation with technology allows us to continue to set the bar at a very high level.

It’s not about finding a particular approach or specific technology — there is no standing still in the world of technology — but rather looking to the direction of the future. Where we’ll go depends on what we learn through these experiments.

Peter Hirst is executive director of MIT Sloan Executive Education. The Big Data 4DX Program will run April 2-3 virtually and on campus. 

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