MBA students at Dartmouth College took a stroll one day this spring to a corner store in Tamil Nadu, India, to observe local shopping habits. Motorcycles whizzed by and roosters crowed—that is, until the virtual-reality headsets came off.
In a typical year, these students would have traveled to India or another country as part of their coursework. Or they might have discussed the scenario in a classroom case study at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Instead, they were witnessing the region’s economic life up close—while actually thousands of miles away—to better understand how to develop products and services for that market.
More business schools are venturing into virtual reality, using video delivered via headsets to immerse students in far-flung locales. The pandemic forced many MBA programs to curtail international travel just as VR technology took off and headsets proliferated. Now, early experiments such as Dartmouth’s are prompting more schools to explore the technologyboth in classes and as part of the overall student experience.
This summer, for instance, MBA students at Emory University will virtually tour
massive hangars to learn how operational complexity and culture affect business performance. Temple University students have logged into virtual-reality classes on financial technology, blockchain and digital disruption, seeing classmates and their professor recreated in avatars. Elsewhere, such as Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, school leaders say they are considering other ways to use VR, such as teaching negotiating skills.
At Dartmouth Vijay Govindarajan is using the videos to teach a course on reverse innovation—in other words, creating new products or ventures in developing markets and then exporting those ideas to wealthier nations. He’s also thinking about what’s next for VR on campus, including in admissions or career counseling, he said. One of his course’s final assignments asks students to identify other parts of MBA experience in which the technology could augment on-campus life.
“You can’t have a physical campus in every country,” he said. “The moment you go into the metaversethere are limitless possibilities.”
Virtual visits can’t replace an in-person field trip or study-abroad experience altogether, some professors and students say. International travel at Tuck, for instance, includes meetings with businesses and local leaders, two-way conversations and impromptu exchanges and challenges—all experiences that enable a much better understanding of life and business in an area than a pre-filmed video, they say . Plus, most of these VR experiences aren’t interactive.
“I don’t think it could quite replace the experience of travel,” said Sam Lawlor, a Tuck student who took Dr. Govindarajan’s spring course. Still, he said, it is a good alternative when travel is impossible.
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As part of the Dartmouth class, students take a virtual-reality tour through several Indian scenes, including a family lunch and a village temple. Sometimes, the virtual-reality videos move viewers through their surroundings on a set path, like riders on a roller coaster. In others, a 360-degree video camera is planted in a room—such as a kitchen or storefront—and observers can look around to every part of the environment. Students can’t interact with the people filmed in the pre-shot videos, but they interview some of them in class-time Zoom meetings.
Mr Lawlor says he is getting a taste of how he could one day apply VR in consulting, his chosen post-MBA career—such as virtually touring a client site ahead of an in-person visit.
Tuck commissioned a production company called I-India to shoot 24 virtual-reality films focusing on Indians. The idea is that by observing daily life, the students would have better insight into people’s unmet needs and hurdles that business can tackle. Some videos, for instance, show a ceiling with asbestos and puddles in the road.
One video showed a store as a man bought eggs and conversed with the shopkeeper. On the wall was a Google Pay decal, which Lawlor said had made him wonder whether people without a smartphone would have trouble purchasing goods.
Settings that show internal discussions or place students in hard-to-access places are good candidates for virtual reality, said Ithai Stern, who directs the VR immersive learning initiative at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, which uses virtual reality in 37 executive education programs and 33 degree programs.
Students may not read a 40-page case study, but they can easily watch a five-minute video of, say, a simulated company meeting that reveals the dynamics and tensions among colleagues, he said.
“The attention span of students is constantly decreasing,” Stern said. “There’s always a competition with some other attraction that’s much more exciting than you. You need to keep them on the edge of their seats.”
Header video credit: The Tuck School of Business/Mahesh Sriram/I-India
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