Alternate Reality Training for Management Education: A Third Way to Teach Management

Submitted by: Ethan Mollick (US), Wharton School of Business

Summary: As a b-school professor, I realize that business education is stuck between two limited approaches to learning - classroom teaching and practical experience. Alternate Reality Training, based on Alternate Reality Gaming, joins thousands of current and aspiring business students together in a scenario that plays out over the course of an academic year or longer. This will allow them to practice management, and exposes them to lessons impossible through classroom instruction or internships.

Full Description: As a business school professor, I realize that business education is stuck between two limited approaches to learning. Classroom education doesn’t offer a chance to practice, and practical experience usually requires students to act as interns or other roles that are below those of the business leaders they aspire to be. To address these gaps, we don’t need to change either our approach to the classroom or to the practical, instead we should introduce a new type of technology-moderated teaching to compliment them: Alternate Reality Training (ART). Based on the concept of Alternate Reality Gaming, ART joins hundreds (or even thousands) of business students together in a scenario that plays out over the course of an academic year or longer. Students will be assigned high-level roles in one of several large fictional companies or institutions. They will be expected to self-organize and coordinate to address an ongoing and evolving set of business scenarios, in which the actions of students, or groups of students, affect the scenario’s outcome. By spending just a few hours a week, and using the tools they would as executives (email, financial and market data, etc.), they will apply what they have learned in the classroom to running these fictional companies. It will give them a unique chance to work with other students from around the world; address unstructured and unspecified problems; and gain experience with applying knowledge at a very high level.

One of the real advantages of ART is that scenarios do not need to be limited to a school, region, country, or even to MBAs. To gain exposure to business and management education, engineering undergrads could be assigned roles in the fictional organization, as could political scientists or other disciplines. In fact, the more diverse the ART scenario, the more students will learn interacting with different types of people, and experimenting with different approaches to management. Training for educators would be relatively straight-forward, since ART is a compliment, not a replacement, for existing curricula. It would provide a safe test-bed for students to experiment with what they learn in class. Additionally, we can harness what has been learned by Alternate Reality Games (which sometimes have tens of thousands of participants) to brief students and help them organize quickly and efficiently. I anticipate that student training would be done using on-line materials over the course of a couple of hours. It certainly would be the most efficient and least costly way for students to actually practice real skills that they learn about in the classroom.

Fortunately, Alternate Reality Games over the last few years have helped demonstrate that building an ART is perfectly feasible. Practically, it would require a group of scholars and designers to develop the basic scenario, and then 5-10 “game-masters” to run the scenario on an ongoing basis. Costs would be relatively negligible after initial set-up and game-master salaries, and could even be recouped by a modest per-student fee. There have been some attempts to use Alternate Reality Games for educational purposes (look up A World Without Oil) that prove that the concept is scalable and workable. And ARTs would allow students to learn and practice vital management skills that take place over long time periods, and thus are otherwise impossible to teach: for example, students might monitor numerous potential problems, alerting others only when a problem has become significant. Or, students might be asked to improve communications channels with another organization, requiring them to build a reciprocal relationship. These types of situations require weeks to unfold, so the pace and nature of an ART might be the only way students can practice these approaches. For relatively little investment, we can offer a radical new approach to management education that compliments both classroom learning and practical experience.