The internet is increasingly becoming a testing ground for more innovative approaches to education. Three business schools recently announced their own experiments in this arena: They've created comprehensive virtual online communities where students, faculty, and other stakeholders can collaborate and communicate on a large scale, across generational, cultural, professional, and geographic boundaries.
• In the spring, the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School in the United Kingdom launched Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford (GOTO), an online problem-solving community where, each semester, students, faculty, alumni, and practitioners develop solutions and share research on a single topic of global importance to business. Faculty also integrate the topic into course assignments, which students complete and present within the online forum. GOTO was inspired by dean Peter Trufano, who wanted to unite the Oxford community to "tackle world-scale problems."
For the first topic, the school chose "the Population 21 Challenge," which focused on the implications of aging populations, dropping birth rates, and changing global demographics. Faculty created video tutorials and assignments that inspired and were inspired by online discussions. Students wrote more than 600 papers and presented dozens of business plans relating to changes in global population.
The school has three goals for the project, explains Janet Smart, a senior research fellow and the school's academic project manager. It wants to offer students a blended learning experience, reach across generational and academic-practitioner divides, and discuss global issues that drive the imagination of the Oxford community.
For the Population 21 Challenge, students completed three tutorials that focused on demographic trends in their home countries, the way these trends would affect business models in an industry of their choice, and the entrepreneurial opportunities that would arise from demographic changes. Students analyzed topics such as the effects of changing patterns of consumption in India on natural resource reserves, the impending Internet boom and growth of mobile learning in Africa, and the impact of changing demographics on Japan's economy. Students presented their work online to Oxford tutors and the rest of the community.
Starting in January 2014, the GOTO topic will be Big Data, a research focus for the school. The school plans to refine the site's navigation; add shorter videos, more discussion forums, and more hands-on activities; and create a more structured route through dedicated course materials. In upcoming years, organizers hope to welcome users from outside Saïd Business School.
The school uses the open-source Drupal content management system as the site's platform and works with London-based software company Acquia to manage the project. For information, visit goto.sbs.ox.ac.uk/.
• The Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego has created VirBELA, a three-dimensional virtual community, in collaboration with VirBELA co-founders Alex Howland, project manager, and Ronald Rembisz of consulting firm Rembisz & Associates. The virtual world is designed to provide business students a place where they can collaborate and work on multinational teams.
In October, the Rady School launched VirBELA with a Global Business Simulation Competition in the virtual environment; eight student teams of four vied for prize money of US$50,000 as they ran a simulated automobile manufacturing company. Members of each team were globally distributed and from different schools. They used Second Life-style avatars, a text chat system, a VoiP system, and 3-D visuals to communicate.
In the future, says Rembisz, VirBELA will be a testing ground for virtual learning, by incorporating simulations, serious games, interactive learning events, and individual and team assessment activities. VirBELA was created and implemented with the help of a US$1.7 million grant from the Graduate Management Admission Council's Management Education for Tomorrow (MET) Fund Ideas to Innovation (i2i) Challenge. The i2ichallenge awarded funding to 20 institutions for their ideas to improve management education. (To read about another i2iproject, see "Shaping Education's Future in the Cloud" on page 54 of the July/August 2013 issue of BizEd.)
VirBELA was recognized for its potential to "break down cultural barriers, reimagine collaboration, and provide faculty ways to deliver coursework and grade results," says Allen Brandt, director of the MET fund. To learn more, visit www.virbela.com.
• In April, the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, unveiled its virtual "4Dx" classroom as part of its Big Data executive education program. The two-day 4Dx offering was conducted using AvayaLife Engage, a web-based collaboration environment where students choose personalized avatars and interact in a virtual room with faculty and classmates.
As participants move throughout the room, voices of other participants become louder or softer depending on their proximity, allowing for breakout discussions within the same virtual space. Participants in the two-day offering could opt for either on-campus, online, or 4Dx delivery. During the course, activity in the virtual classroom was visible to online participants, and the virtual room was projected into the physical classroom, so that participants in all three formats could interact in real time.
When the school offered the course again in October, organizers hoped to enroll more virtual than faceto- face participants—150 virtual, compared to only 50 to 60 in the classroom. About 70 students had enrolled in the 4Dx course by mid-September. The Sloan School is considering expanding the format to other exec ed courses, global collaborations, and even MOOC delivery, according to an article on the site Poets & Quants.
The BigData 4Dx program is co-taught by Erik Brynjolfsson, director of MIT's Center for Digital Business, and Alex Pentland, director of the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program. For information, visit executive.mit.edu/ data4dx.
MITx, the unit for massive open online courses (MOOCs) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, has announced that it will offer certificates of completion for sequences of related MOOCs. Called "XSeries," these sequences are offered through edX, the open-source platform for online course delivery developed by MIT and Harvard University, and developed by MIT faculty. The MOOC-based curricula provide students with opportunities for more in-depth, cumulative study in a single subject, says Anantha Chandrakasan, head of MIT's department of electrical engineering and computer science.
The school has developed two XSeries so far. "Foundations of Computer Science," which started this fall, offers content at an introductory undergraduate level. "Supply Chain and Logistics Management," available in fall 2014, will cover graduate-level content. Made up of short modules, each full sequence is equal to two to four traditional courses. The school estimates that each XSeries will take students between six months and two years to complete.
Students can take the sequences for free, but those who want to earn certificates will pay a small fee yet to be announced. Starting in the spring of 2014, XSeries participants seeking certificates also will use webcam photos to confirm their identities, a verification process edX recently added to its platform.
"We're hoping to understand more about the credentials that learners value," says Chris Caplice, executive director of MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics and a contributor to the creation of the XSeries on supply chain and logistics management. "We are in the early stages of exploring these kinds of programs."
Studying Life In the Digital Age
Researchers in the United Kingdom are currently investigating how people use their smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops at work and at home as part of the project "Creativity Greenhouse: Digital Epiphanies." The project will focus on how technology helps and hinders work-life balance. The researchers also will examine what causes people to change their digital behaviors, and whether today's onslaught of digital information has caused some to alter the way they use technology.
Natasha Mauthner of the University of Aberdeen Business School is part of the collaboration. Other researchers include engineering and science professors Anna Cox of the University College London, Chris Preist of the University of Bristol, and Rosie Robison from Anglia Ruskin University. The U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is funding the project.
"Modern technology has unquestionably had so many positive effects on the way in which people can combine work and personal life," says Mauthner. But while many welcome technology's presence in their lives, Mauthner wants to find out whether some are beginning to reduce their screen time and "change the ways in which these technologies blur the boundaries between work and the rest of their lives."
As part of the project, Mauthner will be working with 15 families—all with children under 18—over the next 12 months. "iwant to explore how these devices and their uses are being woven into the very fabric of our daily lives, and how this might actually be changing what it is and means to work or be a parent."
Smart Diploma Provides Online Credentials
When graduates receive their paper diplomas, it's a great accomplishment. But if they lose those documents, it can be an aggravation. "Our graduates tend to lose paper diplomas, but we never duplicate a diploma once it's issued—we only offer a certified document," says Stéphanie Villemagne, director of the MBA program for INSEAD, based in Fontainebleau, France. To address this problem, INSEAD and other schools now are offering students Smart Diplomas and Smart Certificates, online credentials developed by France-based CVTrust. These online documents are permanent and secure, and they cannot be misplaced, explains CVTrust founder David Goldenberg. "Students can access their diplomas securely through their smartphones, iPads, or computers, and they can promote them on LinkedIn and Facebook," he says.
When posted on social networks, Smart Diplomas and Smart Certificates appear in miniature; when recruiters click on the images, they are taken to a secure site, under the originating school's domain, that verifies its authenticity. Students also can send an email through the CVTrust system that includes a link to the verified document.
INSEAD has provided all of its degreed graduates with Smart Diploma accounts, in addition to paper diplomas, since December 2011. The school sends an email to all graduating students that explains the system and includes a link to the site where they must activate their accounts. If students do not do so within six months, their accounts are deleted.
About 60 percent activate their accounts within the first two days, says Villemagne. Some choose not to use the service. If any of these students change their minds after six months, they can ask the school to set up new accounts.
To increase participation, INSEAD is working to make students more aware of the online document's permanence, portability, and accessibility. The service is not yet mainstream, so the school also sometimes receives calls from recruiters and employers who have questions about the links they've received from potential hires. "We explain that it's not a PDF, but a secure link to the diploma itself," says Villemagne. She expects the number of queries to decrease as recruiters become more familiar with the service.
IMD in Switzerland and Mannheim Business School in Germany also issue Smart Diplomas. The MIT Sloan School of Management in the United States issues Smart Certificates to participants who complete its executive education programs.
Because graduates must maintain their current email addresses to access their diplomas, the system also helps schools maintain up-to-date contact information for their alumni. Schools can administer post-graduation surveys and even find lost alumniby querying registered users. Says Goldenberg, "It creates a lifetime bond between the school and the student."
The annual cost of the service to schools depends on the number of students a school graduates. Alumniand recruiters access the service for free. For more information, visit www.CVTrust.com.
• ONLINE OPTIONS