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6/4/2013
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MIT Expands Virtual Classes For Execs

MIT's Sloan School of Management will expand use of a virtual platform in its executive education program.

Peter Hirst
Peter Hirst
MIT Sloan School of Management
It helped that Pentland and Brynjolfsson are cutting-edge faculty members, comfortable with technology. About 50 people attended in person, and a dozen online. Online attendees were screened ahead of time, so they knew how to use the system.

There were problems, most notably a five-second delay in the audio on the first day. Hirst and other staff from MIT and Avaya read out email questions to the professors, or reported results from breakout sessions on behalf of virtual attendees.

But by the end of the first day the most significant audio problems were resolved, and participants both physically present and online wanted to talk to each other directly. By the end of the second day, virtual students were able to ask questions directly, though their audio still had a slight lag. But the potential was clear, and Brynjolfsson and Pentland were willing to try another session with AvayaLive Engage.

They adapted the course material to include interactive segments every 15 minutes or so, to help keep online viewers engaged. It seemed to work. Hirst said data from the system showed that online attendees of the April big data seminar stayed engaged, even when they were in time zones 12 hours removed from the class sessions. Hirst said the live classroom feel probably helped; he thinks online-only classes would have to be run in shorter segments, spread over multiple days.

Although most virtual attendees told MIT they found it effective, if not as good as being there, some said that it was better for them than coming in person. Many Sloan school students travel from outside the U.S., creating both large expenses and the problem of taking a two-day class while jet-lagged.

Although those helming the Sloan school executive education program are enthusiastic about using the virtual platform for education, it is unclear whether it represents a viable option for mainstream courses. Executive education sessions are short compared to full-length courses, and involve people who hold full-time jobs, giving them unusual time constraints compared to most students. Even so, people who sign up for executive education at MIT "want to come to campus," said Elizabeth N. Cliff, group director of the office of executive education.

Adults, meanwhile, tend to learn best when they need to know something, and when it is presented in small chunks over short periods of time.

Cost is also a question. Although MIT is not required to pay the $600 per user that Avaya charges for the software, the cost of using such a platform in a MOOC course from EdX would certainly be substantial. Also, while MOOCs are struggling to keep the bulk of students engaged through an entire course, it's unclear whether Avaya's platform would mesh with the purpose of a MOOC, which are set up so students can take them at their convenience, rather than live. Avaya's platform is not open source, which might also give EdX pause.

Hirst says he has talked about AvayaLive Engage in front of an MIT task force on the impact of a more digital world on the university. He thinks it could help students remain connected to campus while on study-abroad programs. It might also address the unnaturalness of conference calls.

Not a bad set of possibilities for something that was supposed to solve one small problem.

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