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Why top business schools like MIT and Stanford are using 3D avatars for online students

Stanford grad school of business avatarsStanford Graduate School of Business

One of the classic laments of online learning is the lack of human interaction. Sure, you can attend class in your underwear, but you never get the connection of meeting your professors and classmates face-to-face. This can feel especially detrimental in programs that are built on networking, like business school.

But some top business schools are now experimenting with 3D avatars and virtual classrooms to give students all over the world a chance at a more traditional education, The Wall Street Journal reports.

MIT’s Sloan was one of the first schools to roll out a virtual reality classroom experience during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Many of their students couldn’t make it to campus, so instead of cancelling, they decided to try out the avatars. About half the 120 students in the program attended as avatars, and were able to choose things like outfits and facial hair, Sloan’s Peter Hirst told The Wall Street Journal.

The test run proved a success, and this type of virtual classroom technology been worked into a few of Sloan’s courses for executive education.

These avatars might seem goofy, but they come with their own set of social pressures. Parth Saxena, a New Delhi-based student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, which has also tinkered with avatar technology, said he made a bit of a digital faux pas on his first day of class.

Wanting to make a good first impression, Saxena dressed his avatar in a dark suit when he arrived for a virtual networking session, he told The Wall Street Journal. But when he logged in and looked around, he saw most of the other avatars were dressed much more casually. He changed his avatar into a tee shirt and jeans.

And though the avatars can gesture, jump, and run, it’s still hard to beat a firm handshake.

Perhaps that’s why Stanford isn’t rushing to have avatars be the pillar of its online program. According to a spokesperson from the university, its use of avatars currently applies only to the LEAD Certificate Program in Corporate Innovation, and represents about 10-15% of the pedagogy.

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