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Machine Learning: MBA Degrees are Going High-Tech

Top schools are exploring novel alternatives to the traditional classroom. Advanced technology, from HDTV sets to artificial intelligence, is increasingly utilized in business schools as they search for better ways to educate the growing number of remote students who do not have the time to take two years out of the workforce to get an MBA.

Saïd Business School at University of Oxford, for example, has opened a new virtual classroom which takes the appearance of a high-tech conference facility, with 27 high-definition screens that form a U shape in a seminar room. However, the technology – developed and installed by SyncRTC – is far more sophisticated than a traditional platform. It employs robotics, facial recognition technology and 4D high-definition projections to create an immersive learning and teaching experience.

In the Oxford HIVE, as it is known, professors engage with up to 84 participants. The technology is fully interactive; teachers can address participants individually, split them into groups and conduct real-time polls. And, of course, participants can see and hear one another. The software is so advanced it monitors the level of attentiveness in each individual, which it judges and scores based on their facial expressions and engagement with the class.

Mark Bramwell, chief information officer at Saïd, says: “The Oxford HIVE will be employed for a variety of uses – from classes to ‘Dragon’s Den’-style pitching competitions. However, we are particularly excited about its potential to enhance our program portfolio by allowing busy students to connect with teachers and fellow students from anywhere in the world.”

Peter Tufano, the school’s dean, adds that HIVE will also allow alumni to reassemble virtually as if on campus in the UK.

Can technology replicate the on-campus experience?

Saïd is far from the only school exploring high-tech video conferencing classes. Another adopter is IE Business School in Madrid, whose “WOW Room” — a digital tapestry of 48 television screens that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence and data analytics – will be used by 1,000 students and 100 professors by the end of 2017.

Martin Boehm, dean of IE, says one benefit is that it generates greater levels of engagement than in traditional classroom. Algorithms look for patterns in facial expressions to determine students’ understanding and detect their emotional state and their attention levels. Instructors can use analytical tools in real-time to engage students whose attention is slipping, with the data also used reactively to improve faculty performance and teaching plans. IE plans to roll out the experience gradually, starting with participants in its online Global MBA.

But is the technology really as good as a lecture theatre? “It’s going to make it better,” beams Boehm. “Our objective was to replicate the traditional class as much as possible and we are 99.9% there. Mission accomplished. So, can we now improve the experience for students and faculty above and beyond the classroom experience? I would argue we can.”

At Harvard Business School, a virtual classroom called HBX Live is also designed to reproduce the intimacy and synchronous interaction of the lecture theatre in a digital environment. Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX, is also optimistic on the future of online learning. “We have heard from students that they learned more through our program and retained the information for longer than if they had taken a traditional on-campus course at their university,” he says.

He adds that the online environment can also replicate the networking aspect of campus courses, which is highly valued by students. But not all online programs can match the real thing. “We believe that rich and meaningful networking doesn’t happen through large, anonymous courses where people from around the world watch the same videos and are encouraged to interact on message boards or via email,” Mullane says.

“The pedagogy and course platform must be created with the endgame in mind; they must be conducive to creating bonds that last,” he adds.

This is a challenge that schools will increasingly face, it seems. The number of online programs is expected to grow 9% this year, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), and applications have been growing for the past few years. In comparison, demand for the campus MBA in the US is waning with some schools closing full-time programs in favor of online alternatives.

At the very top, however, we are unlikely to see a loss of the traditional on-campus base for some time.

Jenna Nicholas at Stanford Graduate School of Business says that technology is more likely to enhance the traditional classroom than replace it. “Virtual environments should be used as a catalyst for interacting in the real world,” she explains. Stanford uses a range of digital tools to impart knowledge, including a platform that lets students on its US campus interact with those at its Beijing hub. More recently, Stanford introduced a virtual reality module that allowed MBAs to test out the latest headset tech such as the Oculus Rift.

Yet Nicholas warns that technology should not be used just for the sake of appearing “innovative”, although at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, she admits that “staying up to date with the advancement of technology and providing the best tools for the advancement of students is important”.

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Data visualization technologies increasingly prominent

Meanwhile, schools are experimenting with classrooms that enable the digital visualization of data as it becomes more important to business management careers. The Schulich School of Business and Deloitte are creating a “Visualization Lab”. The approximately 800-square-foot room will explore advances in predictive analytics, natural language processing, machine learning, analytics design and data-based story-telling. It will be available to students in Schulich’s master of business analytics program, MBA and other courses.

According to Schulich, visualization techniques are the easiest way to translate very complex data into a form that is ready to be used by business executives to solve problems and plan for the future. There is high demand for leaders who can analyze and communicate trends, quickly understand industry shifts and influence and drive change. Anthony Viel, managing partner at Deloitte in Canada, says the firm wants to “develop the next generation of business analytics talent”.

Murat Kristal, director of Schulich’s business analytics program, adds that “business analytics and data visualization are a potential game-changer for every industry”.

Schulich follows in the footsteps of London’s Imperial College Business School, which setup Europe’s largest data observatory in 2015. Developed in partnership with KPMG, the observatory enables people to visualize everything from cryptocurrency transactions to migration patterns. It is housed within Imperial’s Data Science Institute, which aims to put the UK at the forefront of data science and features an enveloping circular wall of 64 monitors with 313 degrees of surround vision, powered by 32 computers.

At Imperial businesses work together using the observatory to generate insight to help them improve their products and services and stay competitive. Researchers also use the observatory to better understand areas such as online fraud, climate change and the solar system.

In addition to researchers and businesses, students are also using it, according to Mark Kennedy, director of the KPMG Centre for Business Analytics at Imperial. “We’re already using data visualizations to teach people to identify critical events in complex live data streams – from money laundering to hack-attacks in live markets,” he says. “This is just the beginning of exciting developments that will accelerate much wider use of data sets that are otherwise hard to understand.”


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