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At Some B-Schools, Students Become Avatars in Virtual Worlds

The digital environments help students blend education and experience, one MBA student says.

At some business schools, MBA students learn by participating in virtual worlds as avatars.
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Second Life, the once expensive virtual real estate market for colleges and universities, is now an all-but-forgotten ghost town. But that doesn't mean higher-ed institutions—and business schools in particular—have given up on training students in virtual worlds via avatars.

The iMBA, or Immersion MBA, is a new online MBA program at the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management in Illinois, one of 10 graduate business programs to use a virtual, avatar-based teaching environment produced by Vertical Learning Curve, an Oklahoma City educational technology company.

The LeBow College of Business at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Idaho's Boise State University College of Business & Economics, Utah State University's Huntsman School of Business, and University of Houston—Downtown are four of the other nine MBA programs to deliver VLC software to their students, according to John Cragin, the chief executive officer of the company, founded in 2006.

[Read about how online MBA programs may be good fits for introverts.]

About 200 or 300 MBA students have gone through the VLC training, which costs students between $125 and $295 per student, depending on whether the school purchases VLC's software or uses the free version, Cragin says.

The VLC program empowers students to make business decisions and interpret office situations—often via multiple choice, fill in the blanks, and true or false questions, according to Kyle Thomas, one of several students in Lake Forest's iMBA program to test a soft launch of the virtual internship program in February 2012.

When Thomas receives an E-mail from the marketing manager in the virtual company requesting a meeting, for example, he goes to an office map and points his avatar to the manager's office. At her office, he is given an assignment that pertains to that office, such as creating new HR policies for the company, he says.

"The virtual internship gives the student an education and experience at the same time, something that I believe is hard to find," says Thomas, an adaptive exercise specialist at a spinal cord injury facility in Denver. "Employers these days want the student to have both; this program gives the student both in a more efficient manner."

[Learn why UNC courts its MBA alumni to go back to b-school online.]

Showing up to one's internship as an avatar, rather than in person, is also more convenient. "I don't think I would be able to do the schoolwork, my current job, and an in-person internship all at the same time," Thomas says.

Although the Lake Forest iMBA website states that the program "isn't like any other 'online education' you've seen before," and that its courses are "purposefully empowering and engaging," Cragin says bricks-and-mortar internships are always preferable to online versions.

"There are no advantages to doing it in an online environment versus going to a real, live internship," he says, noting that brick-and-mortar internships are tough to find for online students.

Instead, Cragin says, the main advantage of the virtual internship is over passive online courses, which he calls "click and snore."

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