“Unreally” engaging online learning

Step into our shoes, if you will, and imagine that you are sitting in a conference room in Kendall Square on Friday, October 26, 2012. Hurricane Sandy has swept through the Caribbean, ravaged the East Coast of the U.S., and is barreling towards New England. Domestic and international flights are being cancelled by the thousands. On Tuesday morning of that week, MIT Sloan Executive Education is expecting over a hundred executives to attend a hot new program on management in the era of big data. If you cancel this program, which surely you must, you will not be able to reschedule it for many more months.

This is the scenario Dr. Peter Hirst, Executive Director of Executive Education, MIT Sloan School of Management presented to attendees of the MIT Technology Review Digital Summit. The Summit, which took place in mid-June 2014, examined tomorrow’s digital technologies and explained their global impact on both business and society.

While the impending storm made it impossible for many participants to attend the live session of the popular Big Data course, MIT Sloan Executive Education embraced the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive and to make an innovative leap, seizing the opportunity to test out a new technology for delivering programs virtually.

The goal, Hirst showed, was to provide an online experience that far surpassed traditional online education and one that delivered an experience that was as interactive and engaging to online participants as it was to those able to attend the live program.

The solution was AvayaLive EngageTM, a new, virtual classroom environment that enabled the participants to spend two entire days watching, listening, debating, and discussing big data. The online class ran concurrent with the live class; those in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were able to see the virtual room projected into their classroom, inviting all participants and faculty to interact with each other via avatars. The avatars could move around the room and engage directly with other participants, and they were even customizable—the avatar could actually resemble the individual participant. These avatars could wave, raise hands, express feelings, nod, and, in general, act like an actual human. They were even “directionally attuned” to location and the proximity of sounds.


The AvayaLive Engage platform and our experience with it offers a potential answer to the problem that has plagued online education since its inception: How can B-schools maintain a collaborative atmosphere when students and instructors aren’t physically in the same room? Here at MIT Sloan Executive Education, we expect the next-generation campus—one that is more mobile and digitally connected than today’s standard—will expand online and distance-learning opportunities, enhance the productivity of faculty and staff, and enable exceptional customer service to address the growing demands of students and faculty. The traditional model will remain, but this type of virtual component is the direction of the future.


Dr. Peter Hirst, Executive Director of Executive Education, MIT Sloan School of Management, leads the team of professionals who partner with clients and faculty at the MIT Sloan School of Management to develop, design, and deliver innovative executive education programs for individuals and companies.

MIT Sloan Executive Education will be launching several new courses that will be available online in an AvayaLive Engage virtual classroom. The first of these is a new course, Essential Law for Entrepreneurs in Innovation-Driven Startups and Growth Companies (4Dx), taking place November 11 through December 16, 2014.

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