Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Miklos Sarvary on Virtual World

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Miklos Sarvary on Virtual World
April 2010 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


Carmine Gallo
Miklos Sarvary,
Professor of Marketing and Dean of Executive Education at INSEAD


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  • Recently there was an article in Outlook Business, which highlighted the growing popularity of virtual space and the virtual campus set up by Insead in Second Life. So, what is this virtual campus all about?
    Inspired by Miklos Sarvary, Professor of Marketing, Dean of Executive Education, and Director of the Learning Innovation Center at INSEAD, our virtual campus in Second Life was created in 2006 as an initiative of the Center, whose goal is to increase the impact of programs across the school by exploring new technologies and innovations in program design.

  • Why did Insead build a virtual campus? What prompted the institute to create a virtual campus in Second Life? What are the challenges that you faced in setting up this campus?
    We built the virtual campus in Second Life in order to experiment with new tools for teaching, research and networking, and to extend the learning opportunities. It helps to reinforce our global links and provide cost-effective opportunities for our alumni to stay connected to the school. As a business school, we also wanted to be in the best position to see how the digital market place was being used by corporations and how this phenomenon would evolve for real and virtual businesses.
    The challenges are similar to those faced when introducing any new technology: there is often a lag between what we would like to do and the adoption rate by others! The technology has evolved quickly but there are still barriers such as corporate firewall issues and lack of adequate graphic drivers that some of our participants face. For faculty, there is a need to invest some additional time to become familiar with the new medium and to adapt their teaching approach, especially in terms of managing classroom interaction.

  • How much did it cost Insead for building and maintaining the Second Life virtual campus?
    The cost of the virtual campus is relatively low (about $1000 to buy the virtual island) followed by monthly maintenance costs (paid to Linden Lab) of about $150 or so. Besides that, there has been some small investment to design and develop the virtual campus and to make incremental improvements, but the overhead costs of managing online events are really very low.

  • What are the benefits offered to participants in Second Life campus? How different is virtual campus from the online distance learning offered by Insead? Does it offer the same value proposition to its customers/ students as that of its distance learning or real-life campus?
    Our Second Life campus is intended to enhance and extend our current programs by offering alternative options for virtual collaboration and learning. We do not imagine that it would ever replace our face-to-face interactions which are key to the success of our programs, together with our virtual solutions. Likewise, the 3D digital environment is very different from the short online course modules and other web-based tools that we offer. They do not compete with each other, but are part of the rich portfolio of options that we offer. Our aim is to propose the most appropriate and compelling tools, taking into account both the desired pedagogical outcome and client preferences.

  • How does Inseadís virtual campus work in Second Life? What is the process involved for an aspiring participant to enroll for an MBA program? Could you please elaborate on the operating and business models of your virtual campus?
    Our approach has been to experiment with different uses of the virtual environment to see what works best. Some benefits became immediately evident. For example, we regularly hold MBA information sessions in Second Life so that prospective candidates can find out more and ask questions without necessarily having to travel to one of our three campuses. In parallel, of course we continue to hold real information sessions across the globe, but it is difficult for us to visit every region as frequently as we would wish, so this is a way for us to remain accessible, especially for some of the more remote geographic locations.
    This medium is also an excellent way to open up discussions about marketing in the digital arena, because participants can actually experience the environment instead of just hearing about it. As part of our MBA curriculum, we regularly offer marketing classes in Second Life where participants have to create an avatar and meet in the virtual classroom.
    It is also a convenient way to keep our alumni connected to the school. Through live video-streaming we can transmit real events that are taking place and invite virtual participants to join from anywhere in the world! Our alumni can benefit from continued learning and stay networked with their peers at a very low cost.
    Research is another area which has proved fruitful in Second Life. Our faculty can set up the conditions they require to monitor consumer behavior patterns and social norms, and run projects in conjunction with our behavioral lab in Paris. These are just some of the ways that we have been using the virtual campus so far, but new ideas are continually being hatched!

  • In what way does the virtual campus generate revenue for Insead? What are the gateways for the inflow and outflow of revenue for Inseadís virtual campus?
    The virtual campus is one solution amongst many that we propose to clients and program directors when designing a pedagogical experience, if appropriate. It is factored into our revenue model on the basis of project management and faculty time, as many of our other components. It also serves to raise awareness by keeping INSEAD on the digital map as one of the most innovative business schools in the world! Our virtual campus is a low-cost solution with high impact!

  • How do you compare the environment of a virtual campus with that of a physical calssroom for both the faculty and the participants?
    The Second Life environment requires an initial time investment for users to create an account, adjust their avatar and get used to moving about, but once this is done, it is fully immersive and very engaging! Communication can be on three levels, by voice, text chat and IM, so participants usually enjoy the whole experience of adopting a persona and interacting with each other in a physical 3D environment. There is a virtual bar and many open spaces, where participants can meet up before or after the class session to network, just like in real life!
    For faculty, the challenge is to manage the interaction without seeing real faces and to minimize the initial distractions when participants are flying around the classroom!

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