Stanford GSB Course Goes Virtual

Stanford Graduate School of Business is not immune to technology’s slow and steady creep into the B-school curriculum. Earlier this fall, students met online in a virtual classroom during a five-day MBA course on putting together a business plan””using computer-generated avatars of themselves.

Professor Haim Mendelson, who leads the School’s efforts in studying electronic business and its interaction with organizations and markets, and incorporating their implications into the School’s curriculum and research, notes that a business plan requires intensive human interaction–often a drawback of traditional distance-learning methods.

In a profile piece published last month, we learn that that drawback is what spurred Mendelson and lecturer Steve Ciesinski to turn to Second Life, an online environment for meeting people and sharing knowledge that simulates real-world people, markets, places, and issues.

Using a virtual classroom, students broke into two teams: one worked on customizable sneakers, the other group on selling electric bicycles in the United States. Students participated in lectures, made presentations and worked with their team members using personal computers and avatars, who pose for a class picture above.

Multiple methods of communication were just one novel feature of the course. “Traditionally students raise their hand, make a comment, and discussion ensues,” says Mendelson. “Using Second Life, students could communicate in parallel, whether that involved their actual voice or chats that were one-on-one, within their project team, with the instructor, with whomever was in their neighborhood, or all those scenarios simultaneously.”

The course culminated with the two teams presenting their business plans, in the flesh, to venture capitalists as well as the entrepreneurs who had come up with the original concepts for the shoes and bicycles.

Mendelson isn’t yet sure how effective the experiment was, since the forum increased productivity in some areas and reduced it in others. For some students, the learning curve for Second Life was quite steep.

“Looking forward, you could do things in this environment that would be impossible in a traditional classroom,” the professor says. “There’s a lot we can learn from the buying behavior of people in Second Life, especially for products that capitalize on self-expression,” he adds.

“Although there are differences between the real world and the virtual world.”

Time will tell what the Graduate School of Business will do with this approach.

(image of avatar MBA students courtesy of Stanford GSB)

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