Neoma’s virtual campus
Neoma students are represented by 3D avatars in the online world © Neoma

From a lectern beneath three giant screens, Professor Alain Goudey gives lessons on digital transformation to students from around the globe in a lecture hall that can potentially seat hundreds. All of this, however, is in the virtual realm — one that offers a glimpse of a potential future for business education.

His employer, Neoma Business School in France, is one of many forward-thinking European institutions that are stepping into the metaverse — an immersive digital world where students are represented by 3D avatars. This is because of its potential to make learning more interactive, but also because of the commercial opportunities. Management consultancy McKinsey estimates the metaverse will generate up to $5tn in value by 2030.

“It’s very important for business schools to be at the forefront of educating future managers about the metaverse,” says Goudey, a professor of marketing and associate dean for digital at Neoma. “It is going to shape the world of tomorrow.”

Although the metaverse is hailed by some as the next generation of the internet, business schools do not agree on an exact definition. Nor do they agree how — or even if — it will work in practice.

At Neoma, students experience the metaverse as avatars in a virtual campus. The school has also developed several virtual reality case studies that submerge students in actual corporate dilemmas, enabling them to apply theory in practice. “Immersion enhances the power of the role-play and the simulation,” Prof Goudey says. “It’s amazing to see how deeply it is impacting pedagogy.”

Alain Goudey of Neoma
Professor Alain Goudey of Neoma

He says Neoma hopes to embed VR in the virtual campus to enhance the learning experience for remote participants.

The potential of the metaverse has been thrust into the public psyche in the past year by technology companies such as Meta (formerly Facebook), which are racing to create avatar-filled virtual worlds. Now, some of these tech giants are working with business schools to enhance the educational experience with immersive technologies.

Polimi Graduate School of Management in Milan intends to deliver seminars with Microsoft in which participants on the International Flex Executive MBA will learn about potential business opportunities in the metaverse.

In addition, Polimi is planning for EMBA participants to try out VR headsets and experience various scenarios, enabled by Fadpro, an edtech start-up part-owned by the school. These will include virtual trips to companies, allowing students to gain first-hand business experience without physically having to travel to the location.

Looking ahead, Polimi’s dean, Federico Frattini, believes the metaverse could work well for teaching “soft skills” such as leadership and teamwork. This is because it can enable students to pick up on non-verbal behaviours — gestures, posture — more easily than when video-conferencing. “This is a context in which replicating a physical environment through technology can improve learning outcomes,” Frattini says.

Investment in sophisticated tools for interactive learning has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed business schools into the virtual realm.

“In our sector, there has been a certain hesitancy to adopt new technology for fear of it not being good enough,” says Barbara Stöttinger, dean of WU Executive Academy in Vienna. “What the pandemic has done is opened up our minds. It has shown us the possibilities and the speed with which we can innovate.”

Management students attend a presentation on Neoma Business School’s virtual lecture theatre © Neoma

This year, WU has partnered with Tomorrow’s Education, an edtech start-up, to launch its Professional Master of Sustainability, Entrepreneurship and Technology. The programme is delivered entirely in the school’s virtual campus, accessible through an online app. “We need to think about the next generation who will grow up in the metaverse,” Stöttinger says. “Eventually, it will be a must for us to be there. This investment makes us future-proof.”

Institutions see the metaverse as a way for students to interact more meaningfully, but also as a platform to create business opportunities.

At Essca School of Management in France, students on the MSc International Business 4.0 programme create their own avatar in Second Life, the long-established 3D online world, and spend time observing how other avatars behave. Each student then identifies a potential commercial opportunity for a luxury brand in the metaverse, such as selling digital goods, and creates a virtual prototype.

“We need to prepare our students to be ready for the future,” says Orsolya Sadik-Rozsnyai, head of the Essca online campus, noting that luxury houses are exploring business opportunities around virtual goods and non-fungible tokens.

For business schools, she says, the challenge is avoiding using technology for technology’s sake. “The metaverse could be the next iteration of the internet but, until we find the right use cases, it will remain a fantasy,” she argues.

In spite of the metaverse’s exciting possibilities, business schools remain a long way from realising its full potential, says David Lefevre, professor of practice in digital innovation at London’s Imperial College Business School. “It’s a fantastically beguiling idea of an alternative universe that we inhabit, but the metaverse at the moment is more of an aspiration,” he says.

Key challenges include ensuring interoperability, which would enable students to move freely between different virtual worlds. High energy consumption is also a concern. “The resources required to operate the virtual environment, whether in the cloud or locally, are considerable,” says Tamim Elbasha, associate dean of learning and quality development at France’s Audencia Business School.

Neoma’s virtual campus
Prof Goudey and colleagues meet in avatar form

Roselva Tunstall, director of the edtech lab at ESMT Berlin, raises further doubts. “Digital accessibility is a challenge,” she says, pointing out that virtual reality can be expensive and can also cause motion sickness. Faculty and staff would also require training in order to deliver classes using these tools, she adds.

Other schools cite data privacy and protection concerns as barriers to bringing business education into the metaverse. In any case, Tunstall says it is unlikely to supplant traditional teaching methods. “The metaverse is not meant to replace, it’s meant to enhance.”

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