Business school relocates its classes to another dimension

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am

Anyone that thought the existence of virtual world platforms was strictly for geeks and lonely souls think again. A European business school has announced plans to deliver virtual classes for its master's programmes, including MBA courses, through Second Life.

Second Life is a virtual 3D world where users create their own avatars. In Second Life, the avatars are called residents, and the only limitation in the creation of this second personality is the user's imagination. Fantasy reigns as real life identities are shed and new (virtual) ones invented.

The website was established last year and thousands of users have signed up to live their 'second life'. They have built a virtual home for their cyber personality to live in; they have made new virtual friends and they socialise at virtual bars; some have even created their own virtual companies and trade their goods and services with other residents using the company's exchange currency which, incidentally, can be traded for US dollars. Sound surreal? It is. It is also very real.

Statistics on the number of residents are unclear (the creators of Second Life, Linden Lab put the figure at more than 8,000,000; critics believe it to be half that number). All the same, thousands of users do appear to be living a computer-simulated existence.

Spain's Instituto de Empresa Business School (IE) intends to offer elective courses for its MBA programme in the autumn, delivering virtual classes through a newly constructed IE Second Life campus. IE, whose MBA programme was ranked No11 in a global MBA rankings this year by the Financial Times, already offers a master's degree in Telecom and Digital Business through the platform.

Director of the Master in Management in Telecom and Digital Business, Ricardo Perez, said the school saw the platform 'as a fantastic opportunity to explore new ways in which we can deliver our products to a wide range of participants. Second Life is a great experiment on how the internet and social relationships are going to evolve in the near future'.

Real life companies are already using the Second Life platform to market and build their brands.

Professor Perez said several IE students were members of the virtual community and it was a natural step to use the interactive elements of it to deliver teaching activities to the end users. 'IE has a long history of working with new platforms in innovative ways to provide high quality education offerings, and we want to experience it and help the community build a shared knowledge about the real possibilities of the medium,' he said.

The methodology of courses delivered through the platform will differ to the usual online mode of learning, according to Professor Perez. Students will participate in conferences and roundtables with companies that have initiatives in virtual worlds such as Second Life or in persistent game environments, and participate in activities which can only be done in those environments, such as role playing.

The school had used a new voice grid in a recent meeting with executives of Linden Lab which Professor Perez said added a completely new dimension to the platform 'and will change how people perceive its reality and interaction possibilities'.

A Conference Cycle run by the school through the year takes on different formats including presential, where the student goes to a classroom, video conference and Second Life. Professor Perez said with voice already a reality in Second Life it would use it more for conferences as part of the learning process. It would put students in contact with companies already working with virtual worlds.

The conference cycle was a great tool to put students in touch with what was happening in the industry because business leaders were invited to participate, Professor Perez said. 'We complement that conference cycle with a visit to key players in the Silicon Valley where we discuss with executives of those companies how they deal with innovation and the rapid pace of change in the industry.'

Critics of Second Life claim its interface is difficult to navigate. Professor Perez said the problems with the interface could be compared to the early days of the internet.

'We are at the doors of a new standard of communication and interaction. But it will probably change and evolve in ways we cannot imagine yet.'

He said as long as platforms such as Second Life continued to be innovative then so would those organisations that worked with them. 'We will have to constantly adapt the products to find the optimal mode of delivery for the market segments present in the communities.'

He added that IE's ongoing commitment to developing innovative and high quality online programmes would enable it to further develop a position in online communities such as Second Life, 'And whatever comes after them'.

He said since the announcement of the collaboration with Second Life, IE had been approached by companies asking for support in learning how they could use the platform as a tool for business.