Calling in to us by phone from across a 12-hour time difference and under a torrential downpour in southern India, we recently spoke with Anuj Sharma, Chairman and President of India Research Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution and Canada Research Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution. Sharma recently became the very first MIT Sloan Executive Education (MITSEE) participant to complete an Executive Certificate by attending some of our programs via telepresence robotics. This unique experience gave him some extraordinary insights into the strengths of online and telepresence learning—and ultimately, the importance of always making a human connection.
How did this experience begin? How did you first come to MITSEE?
I had always, always dreamed of attending MIT as a student in some capacity, but I have a physical condition which prevents me from taking long flights, and so making the 8,000 mile journey was impossible for me. In 2013, when I saw the Big Data program with Alex “Sandy” Pentland offered as a 4Dx online course, I jumped at it. I attended the course virtually with about 60 other global students, and it was fantastic.
Through that, I realized that online learning is just as valuable as sitting in a classroom. You’re exposed to the same information, and so whether you’re sitting there in person or watching a professor online—it really doesn’t matter. And in fact, I really liked that I could be conveniently at home while attending class.
So then, in 2015, MITSEE launched John Akula’s Essential Law for Entrepreneurs in Innovation-Driven Startups and Growth Companies. I signed up immediately and again had a positive learning experience.
So you have been on this new journey with us, sampling some of our online learning options as we’ve launched them through the years. How did you then transfer over to becoming a participant via telepresence robot?
I wrote to Associate Dean Peter Hirst to say that I was very eager to take another course, but could not travel the distance physically. He and Paul McDonough Smith, MITSEE’s Digital Capability Leader, had begun testing telepresence robots in the classroom, and asked me if I would be willing to try it out. Could I be part of their pilot to test the robot out as a viable learning vehicle for future participants with accessibility limitations? I said count me in! So I attended Developing and Managing a Successful Technology Strategy via robot in March of 2017.
What I found initially, was that there was a divide between the other participants and me. I wasn’t sure how to behave as a robot, and how to speak with my fellow students. I think other participants were unsure how to react to my being there—sort of baffled, a little suspicious, and keeping their distance—as if I wasn’t human.
What I learned quickly was that you need to proactively reach out through the robot, as a human, and suddenly—the reaction to you changes. When you say hello and starting talking with people, a wall comes down. Suddenly people are laughing, asking questions, touching the robot, asking to have their pictures taken with you--even pretending to feed you snacks through the screen. They have a strong emotional reaction to interacting with a robot, and there’s a wonderful humor in it at times.
That was the biggest eye opener through this experience for me. That you don’t need a human form to have a human connection. That this technology can facilitate a global, emotional connection, that sparks a child-like glee and curiosity. That the human connection comes first, and the technology simply supports that.
As much as we take it for granted now, just having a telephone has created this chance for us to connect across the globe, even in the middle of a torrential downpour, when once we couldn’t have done this. These small steps of technology add up over time and become second nature. Do you think online learning will become like that?
Absolutely. I think more and more people want to learn efficiently and immediately. Technology can facilitate that. There is value in achieving an MBA or an Executive MBA and studying business topics in depth, but there is also great value in this condensed model of learning. Every hour in the executive education classroom is maximized and content is boiled down for working people.
There is a great saying—“learn just in time, not just in case.” Learn what you need to know as you need to know it. I think that’s the future of education in many ways. And so often we need to learn, unlearn, and relearn concepts and skills because our world is changing so rapidly.
I also believe the combination of education and technology is very powerful. Information can be delivered to anyone, regardless of location, and can be used as a great service to people. I hope we’ll see more and more of this.
What’s next for you?
My time at MITSEE has been life changing. I think of two professors in particular who changed my perspective: Sandy Pentland and Ezra Zuckerman. What I learned from them—about big data and technology strategies—enormously expanded my view of what’s possible. I could see what the future of business and education looks like and I thought—I want that! Now I am on a quest in my work to move toward that future.
And after all, there is value in just enjoying to learn. To learn, in and of itself, is one of life’s greatest joys, and for me, that will never stop.
Please note that as our telepresence capabilities have evolved in the past years, we have developed policies on how a person may attend a program via robot. We ask all of our participants who are pursuing an Executive Certificate to complete four courses, and to attend at least one of those courses in person. However, we reserve use of the robots for participants with mobility impairments who may be restricted from travel and wish to pursue an Executive Certificate.