Educating Executives Online in Four Dimensions

During a recent Exec Ed course, Big Data: Making Complex Things Simpler, MIT Sloan offered its first-ever virtual 4Dx course — with an interesting outcome.

I am the proud recipient of an MIT Sloan Executive Education Course certification. Or should I say, my avatar is.

MIT Sloan’s Big Data 4Dx executive education course, held simultaneously in Cambridge and in the virtual world this April, was the first ever to use a gaming interface. Think Second Life for the professional set.

Through the AvayaLive Engage platform, we online students were transported (as avatars) to a virtual auditorium, the classroom setting for the two-day Big Data: Making Complex Things Simpler course, taught by renowned MIT professors Alex “Sandy” Pentland and Erik Brynjolfsson.

From the virtual world we listened to lectures on the big picture of big data (there’s a revolution underway!), on the implications and applications of big data (mind-boggling, both), and on the work being done in the arena of privacy (Pentland is instrumental in emerging global policy). We participated in the ongoing classroom discussions and in the big data process exercises designed for real-world implementation back at the home office.

As avatar-students we mingled. We discoursed. We broke off into groups.

We were, in effect, interacting.

Which is really the point of the MIT 4Dx experience: Interaction. And immersion. While the concept of online learning has been proven — the MOOC [massive open online courses) movement launched by Stanford saw 100,000 participants enrolled in each of its first three course offerings — there are still missing ingredients that you get from sitting in a classroom: Peer communication. Collegiality. Information exchange.

The 4Dx experience delivered these missing ingredients, though there was a learning curve.

It took me a few blundering attempts, for instance, to steer my avatar about the classroom. As I bumped into virtual classmates or fist-pumped my way through a round of handshakes, I noticed others in the group behaving similarly: scuttling sideways like a crab through a crowd of avatars, or turning their (virtual) heads at odd angles that only a contortionist could accomplish in the physical realm.

But once we got our avatars under control, we 4Dx-ers headed to virtual conference rooms where we exchanged information, shared ideas, discussed.

Avatars could enter into one of six virtual conference rooms to participate in group discussions — and in these groups, 4Dx-ers came up with new ways to apply data within their company as well as ideas for data sharing across industry lines. We developed a fuller understanding of the organizational issues shared by peers—insights that would not have occurred while sitting passively at a keyboard. Even with IM.

And contacts were made.

As 4Dx virtual students, we weren’t able to actually reach over to a fellow student and swap business cards, but we were able to exchange contact information through the LinkedIn group set up for 4Dx-ers.

That’s not to say the virtual experience wasn’t without its technical difficulties. During the first day of class, there was about a 5-second audio delay between the virtual and physical classrooms that made communication frustrating at best.

Through the IM discussion going on in the background — or really, the foreground, in the lower right-hand corner of my screen — one of my classmates hit the nail on the head when she exclaimed, “If we cannot ask questions, then we are only on the receiving end!”

And that too is the point. Once the technical difficulties were resolved — by day two of the event, which led to a rousing round of applause from both the physical and virtual audiences — those of us in 4Dx-land were not just on the receiving end of the online educational experience.

We were in it.

As Professor Brynjolfsson commented upon soliciting responses from the class at large, “We want to talk to the 4Dx group first, because they’re people too… even if they’re avatars.”