Contributed by Paul McDonagh-Smith, Digital Capability Leader, MIT Sloan, Office of Executive Education. With a focus on driving digital transformation and harnessing emerging technologies, Paul works with the team to create learning programs to fit how we live and work in today's digital age.
As we know from video games and fun VR experiences, the appeal of having an avatar or a “virtual self” lies in the infinitely expanded possibilities that suddenly become reality (albeit virtually). Avatars can do more in a virtual world than our bodies can in the physical one. Turns out, the same is true for education. Given the right environment, you can actually learn better—and tackle more complex material—as an avatar in a virtual classroom than you might in a more traditional setting.
For a few years now, we’ve been experimenting with virtual learning to make our programs more accessible to more participants around the world. We’ve been testing different platforms and approaches and learning a lot along the way. That’s why our most recent exploration deserves special recognition—for it may just offer the right mix of online and in-person classroom experience designed for learning complex—even technical—material in this highly effective format we call 4Dx.
What makes the latest evolution different from our previous offerings is the carefully calibrated combination of instructional design and content delivery methods built specifically for the virtual learning environment. The result is a deeply immersive educational experience that surpasses what’s possible in a physical classroom—a post-digital experience, if you will.
The program we are currently offering in this format is called Pricing 4Dx, taught by Dr. Catherine Tucker, Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management and Professor of Marketing MIT Sloan School of Management. The material is geared toward executives in marketing, product development, and strategy who are in charge of launching new products and need to know how to build an effective pricing strategy. In other words, the course can get technical rather quickly and requires the use of spreadsheets and data analysis in the online environment.
To make this possible, we designed an experience that feels like a three-dimensional Jigsaw puzzle of design and learning. We are able to teach a complex mathematical formula around pricing algorithms and get the participants to use them effectively, accurately, and build upon their knowledge because they apply the learnings to group projects in real time, all within a two-week timeframe.
Very often, online programs can be quite simplistic in terms of their content and instructional design. Not so with 4Dx. It’s not a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It’s not a series of pre-recorded video lectures you can skim on your lunch break. This is a rich, engaging experience that you can access from anywhere in the world at the times when the sessions are delivered and enjoy the energy and idea flow of physical learning—only online.
In some aspects, 4Dx surpasses a physical classroom in ways that it enables participants and the faculty to interact more effectively. Everyone has access to online collaboration tools at the same time. The professor can gauge individual participants’ level of comprehension and address any issues in real time, without having to wait for homework or test results to uncover gaps in understanding.
In the case of Pricing 4Dx, Professor Tucker found it rewarding to be able to teach fairly complex, technical material to an executive audience in a format that made it easier for them to learn quickly. “My most memorable and proudest moment was the first time we ran the program and it felt very much as we were living in cyberspace,” she says. “When you are in the room as a teacher, you can’t see how everyone is responding and you wonder and you worry whether they are learning or not. And then I gave the class three days to prepare a presentation on what they learned. And they absolutely blew me away! I would say, after a week, they were giving presentations that would equal my MBA students who have had an entire semester in the physical environment.”
To create this kind of a rich, immersive and collaborative experience took months of research, preparation and testing for our team. As our Associate Dean of Executive Education Dr. Peter Hirst put it, there is a perception that because we are MIT, it’s only natural that we should be doing these things and, perhaps, we find them easy to do. In fact, they are not easy. And it has taken a lot of persistence and ingenuity and good faith from everybody involved to bring to life the technological, pedagogical, and human dimensions of this experience.
That said, we’ll never stop exploring and experimenting and testing, because our ultimate goal is not only to make our programs accessible to people who can’t get to Cambridge at a particular time, but also to replicate the academic rigor and the excitement of the physical educational experience of an MIT Sloan Executive Education classroom.