One approach is to have some people attend a live class in person and others online. MIT's Sloan School of Management is one of several universities using AvayaLive Engage to meld real and virtual classrooms. In April, Erik Brynjolfsson and Alex "Sandy" Pentland taught a two-day executive class on big data using the platform. It was the second time they'd done so -- the first was in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when some participants could not attend, so the sessions were live-streamed via the Avaya platform.
April's session was deliberate, with 120 people in the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., and 75 paid attendees online.
"What was really great was it was not just a lecture," said Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at the Sloan School. He said that in other online formats, "it tends to be much more of a one-way thing, not nearly as interactive." In the Avaya world, much like in Second Life, everyone is an avatar and can interact. It uses a 3-D proximity audio technology that allows you to hear people talking around you, but to hear them clearly you must be near them, just like in the real world.
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Brynjolfsson said the most striking moment for him came during a break, when he was talking with a virtual participant, avatar to avatar. "While we were talking all these people saw, and they all kind of gathered around. And there was this mob of probably like 40 or 50 avatars all sort of surrounding me and this other person," Brynjolfsson said.
The virtual world isn't exactly like human interaction. The avatars don't walk smoothly, for instance. Brynjolfsson joked that while the other avatars were coming towards him in that break, their stilted gaits made it seem "like zombies coming on me!"
He said that avatars tend to get a little closer than is comfortable, and that it's hard to face another avatar. He thought that perhaps more experience with the software, or switching from a keyboard to a joystick controller, would fix the problems. The software is not the same as in Second Life, either -- avatars can't fly. And Avaya doesn't allow people to make themselves into giant pink bunnies or other non-human forms.
Avatars do still have some superhuman abilities. They can teleport to be with other avatars, useful in a crowded room. When diplomas were handed out at the MIT program, Brynjolfsson said the virtual attendees applauded by jumping up and down, in a virtual equivalent of 10 to 20 feet in the air. "They kind of looked like popcorn," he said. "I turned to my real-world counterparts, who could see this taking place on a huge screen, and said, 'don't worry, you can just clap.'"
Overall, "I think this has enormous promise," Brynjolfsson said. "It crossed the key threshold for me, I could see how you could do small group exercises and have people meet each other."
Avaya's software is in use in just a handful of schools right now; its primary market is corporate training. Part of that may be related to price: it costs $600 per virtual user in a hosted environment. (There is also a downloadable version.)
To really engage people in a collaborative learning environment, an interface like Avaya's may be needed.
"The MOOC idea, and I respect Khan Academy and EdX and Coursera and Udacity, they're great for conveying knowledge, but when it comes to high-engagement, high-trust kinds of programs, they're left wanting," said Paul McDonagh-Smith, Avaya's learning practice leader.
He said there were not currently discussions between Avaya and existing massive open online courses (MOOCs), or online learning environment producers like Blackboard, about adopting its interface.
"I see a fantastic opportunity to create a whole new generation of products and services for this technology," he said. He thinks that an interface like his will be truly disruptive for higher education, in a way that current MOOCs are not.
That may be true, said Michael B. Horn, co-founder and executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute. Horn, who cautioned that he has not seen the Avaya platform in action, called it "intriguing."
The Christensen Institute just published a report on hybrid online and classroom learning in K-12 schools. The report argued that currently the hybrid model, also called blended learning, is largely a "sustaining innovation," Christensen's notation for an innovation that improves an existing field, but does not disrupt it.
"We're still going to see students learning in schools," Horn said.