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Forget MOOCs- Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Thing?

Posted by Chioma Isiadinso

Digital popularity is a fickle friend. Already, B-Schools are moving on from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and towards more immersive, interactive digital experiences. Last month, Harvard Business School announced it’s much awaited-venture into online education. HBX is not your typical MOOC.

It insists on active student engagement. This is something that has proved elusive for many MOOCs, where online forums are too often feeble shadows of their face-to-face counterparts. HBS is clearly looking for more, and so, it seems, is the wider technology industry..


Harvard’s announcement came just a few days before Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of the virtual reality developer Oculus VR. CEO Mark Zuckerberg characterized virtual reality as the next major social platform and predicted an eventual ubiquity akin to today’s mobile phones and tablets. This begs the question- will schools soon educate far-flung students in the intimacy of a virtual, interactive world?

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The answer is, some already do.

The University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management has its own VirBela virtual world program, which is built around a video game engine and focuses on bringing students together in teams to solve problems.  Other platforms, such as Qube Virtual Learning, put student avatars together in virtual environments, designed to closely simulate real classrooms. Developer Pentacle even promises that the experience, “can be so welcoming and engaging that sometimes people forget to eat, drink or have comfort breaks.” Such experiences might seem far-fetched until you consider how hard it can be to pull teenagers away from video games.

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Of course, the implications of virtual reality for business education go far beyond video games. The technology is already widely used for military simulations, astronaut training and even medical education, where surgical students can virtually test their abilities before working with live patients. Oculus and other wearable augmented reality devices- such as Google Glass- take this experience to the next level of immersion, and large companies like Facebook clearly believe that this is the technology of the future. The implications for B-Schools would be far-ranging, in terms of extending the classroom experience to students who cannot geographically or financially place themselves in elite classrooms. Additionally, given the tech industry’s growing interest in virtual reality, it would seem prudent to incorporate this technology in the classroom, especially in environments emphasizing technological entrepreneurship. After all, graduates could very well be operating in a world where virtual reality is a normal business practice. Those who are comfortable leading within in virtual environments will have an edge.

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From their founding, the mission of business schools has been to simulate the real business world and teach students how to operate in it successfully. Virtual reality technology takes that simulation to a more literal level, and I, for one, am intrigued to see how it will develop as technology continues to broaden the horizons of education at a dizzying pace.

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