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Giving Students Real-World Experience via Virtual-Reality Learning
How one MBA school created an immersive online experience for aspiring business leaders

By Kathy Leck / May 2013

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It's no secret that the business world is experiencing unprecedented change and heightened global competition while weathering persistently harsh economic conditions. In this challenging climate's wake, countless aspiring business professionals are seeking opportunities to grow professionally, gain real-life work experience, and advance their careers.

To address the perceived skill and talent gaps, Lake Forest Graduate School of Management (LFGSM) launched a solution that takes a unique spin on online business learning using virtual reality. LFGSM is an independent, accredited, not-for-profit graduate business school located in the Chicago area, offering part-time MBA program for working professionals, with campus-based programs in Schaumburg and Lake Forest, IL, fully online MBA options, and on-site courses at local companies. The innovative new MBA degree program for aspiring leaders is the Immersion MBA program (iMBA). The program was launched in 2012 and combines an immersive virtual-reality learning experience with personal faculty guidance, career coaching and mentoring, together with real-world application projects and online peer-to-peer collaboration. It should be noted for our purposes aspiring leaders are defined as individuals with fewer than five years of work experience or who have been underemployed since earning their undergraduate degrees.

What follows is a narrative of how LFGSM created an immersive online experience for aspiring business leaders.

Problem to Solution: Virtual Reality Fills a Void

LFGSM's flagship MBA program, the Leadership MBA (LMBA), is tailored to build key competencies experienced, working business professionals need to progress in their careers.

However, many worthy individuals can't commit to a full-time (non-executive) MBA program or are too young to get them from a traditional part-time executive MBA. Thanks to innovations in online education technology, LFGSM was able to meet the needs of this set of students—individuals who had been underserved by full-time, theory-based MBA programs as well as most traditional webinar-style online MBA offerings according to school's market research.

Staying true to LFGSM's mission, the iMBA program employs a three-part approach to learning that combines: (1) virtual reality, (2) personal faculty guidance and volunteer business leader coaching, and (3) application projects enhanced by a robust online peer-to-peer and student-to-faculty discussion community.

Figure 1. A three-part approach to learning

As they progress through the program, iMBA students experience the following:

  • Scenario-based learning. As interns students move through an intensive virtual reality experience, rotating through key departments of a mock manufacturing company, Central Products with $100 million in annual revenues.
  • Guidance from LFGSM's business-leader practitioner faculty. Executives and leaders, who spend their workweek as directors, VPs, and CEOs of major companies, serve as LFGSM faculty.
  • An online discussion community. Learner-to-faculty and peer-to-peer sharing is supported along with guidance to help transfer learning to the workplace through rich dialogue and application projects.
  • Volunteer mentors. These experienced business leaders, many of whom are successful LFGSM alumni, share their time to help and guide students in making career choices and applying their learning to the workplace.

The virtual-reality element is central to the school's objective: To help students rapidly gain the business "street smarts" that will help enhance not only their MBA experience, but their ability to apply new skills thereby enhancing on-job performance and contributions from day one.

The Solution: iMBA's Nuts and Bolts

As they progress through the program, iMBA students participate as actors in a virtual corporate environment-where business scenarios play out in the virtual space. In this virtual environment, Central Products has 500 employees with varied personalities and agendas. There is a global growth strategy, customers with constant demands, and competitors. Students complete their coursework as Central Products management "interns"; avatars are used to represent their colleagues.

Figure 2. A real-world experience

The experience—delivered via a Web-based platform where students watch video vignettes, make business decisions that alter the storyline, and are quizzed in real time to assess the depth of their understanding—is designed to "feel" like a real corporation with all the functional and cultural trappings of an actual workplace. Small teams of students rotate through key departments, which correspond to the MBA curriculum, such as finance, marketing, and human resources. LFGSM faculty members actively oversee students' performance in each department, guiding them in the fundamentals and language of business, and providing weekly individual feedback.

In addition to the virtual reality corporate experience, 25 percent of the iMBA program provides students with an online discussion community with peers and faculty where they: (1) discuss relevant current topics related to course goals, (2) expand strategic thinking skills by answering faculty-prompted challenge questions, (3) discuss how to transfer learning to their jobs, and (4) apply new skills by working with peers on assigned business application projects. At each stage, students are evaluated not only on their performance in the virtual corporate experience at Central Products, but on their ability to discuss, integrate, share, and transfer learning to their real-world jobs.

The application projects have proved particularly powerful in helping students transfer their virtual business experiences to the real world. Armed with the confidence and enhanced skills earned as "interns," the first cohort of iMBA students have been reporting success in transferring skills learned at Central Products to their workplace performance. For example, one of the assignments in the Management Information Systems course is for each student to review his/her organization's website to assess and analyze its effectiveness using the principles of e-business they have learned. This analysis has often led to the fundamental improvements. Students have reported that the projects have resulted in their companies making substantive changes to their websites, which have resulted in higher overall site traffic and increases in sales leads.

Finally, each iMBA student is paired with a volunteer business-leader mentor to help them along their iMBA journey as well as with long-term career plans. A career development course is also included in the curriculum. In the end, iMBA students graduate not just with an MBA degree, but with meaningful experience to help them to rise higher in their careers.

Tracking Results

The success of LFGSM's iMBA program lies in each student's ability to achieve learning objectives and acquire the essential competencies of business. As with all of its offerings, LFGSM uses above-industry-standard measurement to assess learning outcomes and diligently uses the results to continually improve programs. Proving the education has actual business impact is a strategic priority for LFGSM, so measurement of business outcomes from the learning is an essential element of the school's objective. To accomplish this, LFGSM measures the integration, transfer, and business impact the learning has had in application to real business situations. A "balanced scorecard" approach to such measurement (having adapted the model from Robert Kaplan and David Norton of Harvard Business School) measures the financial, customer, process improvement, and learning/innovation results from the iMBA program.

The first cohort of students is currently progressing through the iMBA program. They have described the experience as rigorous, interesting, collaborative, exciting, and impactful on jobs and careers. Student Achyuta Nosum, a registered nurse who lives in Ontario, Canada, is typical in her response to the program. Reporting that her work in Central Products feels incredibly real to her, she said, �It feels like I'm actually there to improve the company's performance and that my decisions make a real difference to the bottom line of the company."

Denver-based iMBA student Kyle Thomas, who works with spinal cord injury patients as an adaptive sports specialist, shared the following: "The virtual internship at Central Products has taught me more about general business and even the healthcare industry than I thought possible. The scenarios and storylines apply across areas of functional expertise and industries."

Overall, students are demonstrating the virtual reality immersion element is keeping them as engaged in working on their coursework as they would be on the job in real-world work experiences.

There is extensive research on particular types of simulations (e.g., medical, flight, etc.), online problem-based learning, virtual reality, scenario, experiential learning, application principles, and other related fields. The iMBA program cannot be classified as using any one of these categories because it uses a combination of approaches, some of which are quite novel. The guiding concept LFGSM discovered and applied is to focus learning around situations that are representative of the kinds of problems, analyses, decisions, opportunities, and situations the student would encounter in a real-life work environment. And that has made all the difference in reaching the needs of this new population of students in a way that stays true to the school's vision and mission.

Key Insights

Here are several key insights that other learning professionals and institutions might consider when working to tailor online education technology solutions to address their own opportunities and challenges in serving evolving student needs:

  • Stay true to your organization's mission and values. Virtual reality and other online technologies are highly appealing, powerful tools for learning. However, it is critical to use technology to advance your organization's mission critical goals and core values, and not simply employ these tools to appear innovative.
  • Measure, measure, measure. To evaluate effectiveness, go beyond assessing learning outcomes and extend into measuring the return on learning investment (i.e., does the learning transfer positive results from the "classroom" to the workplace?). LFGSM's launch of the iMBA program involved a scaffold of measurement tools from day one to assess quantitative and qualitative impact—for the students, for the school and for the companies that employ iMBA students.
  • Don't underestimate the impact a well-designed learning program can have on adult learners. As LFGSM discovered, aspiring professionals with the drive to grow in their careers can gain business acumen very quickly when given "hands-on" learning experiences—even through "virtual" experiences—together with expert guidance.

About the Author

Kathy Leck is Vice President - R&D and Innovation, at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. With more than 30 years in executive leadership and consulting, Leck has held a variety of executive and consulting positions with expertise in merger and acquisitions, change management, administration, and design and delivery of education solutions. She holds a B.A. from Northeastern University and a M.S. from National College of Education.

© 2013 ACM 1535-394X/13/05 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2483758.2484903


  • Wed, 26 Jun 2013
    Post by Open Learn

    Great example of implementing virtual classrooms! Companies and universities need to understand that there is no specific way to use virtual classrooms effectively, but they must have it customized for their particular project.

    Matt Hart Sales & Marketing Open Learn