Before the advent of the Internet, an avatar was defined as the incarnation of a Hindu deity. In today’s high-tech world, avatars have morphed into computer-generated facsimiles of real people. Sign on to a web site, choose a representative character, and let your electronic alter-ego roam a virtual world where life mirrors everyday existence.
And that’s exactly what Michael Kraten, Assistant Professor of Accounting, is doing. He uses virtual reality (VR) to teach students in the Sawyer Business School, allowing them to sign on to classes from remote locations. His avatar delivers lectures, answers questions and motivates students to excel just as he does in real-life classes, thus easing the strain on campus facilities and limiting students’ commuting time.
Of course, Kraten’s avatar doesn’t actually “talk.” Kraten uses a microphone to deliver lectures via broadband to the Internet. Students with high-speed connections can hear him, speak with each other, and interact verbally as if they were physically in the same room (students with dial-up connections have to rely on text messaging to communicate).
Virtual reality also allows Kraten to expand his students learning experience. Guest lecturers across the globe can sign on, select an avatar and share real-life business scenarios with students without incurring costly travel expenses or losing time away from work. This fall, John Bailey, a financial services expert in New York and publisher of Market Health, spoke via virtual reality to one of Kraten’s classes about market trends and the importance of saving for retirement. Virtual reality offers other benefits as well. Last year, Kraten took an undergraduate class on a virtual tour of Avnet, a Fortune 500 technology company headquartered in Phoenix. He is planning additional corporate tours this year to virtual campuses which resemble their brick and mortar counterparts.
According to Kraten, vitual reality “is the most cost effective way of connecting the people of Suffolk with people around the world with a minimum of effort to accomplish our global mission.”