Learning in the Virtual Round

The Ross School of Business takes a mixed-reality technology meant for the entertainment industry and adapts it to the educational experience.

SmartStage classroom at University of Michigan

A course in progress in the SmartStage classroom at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.


AS MANY BUSINESS professors continue to refine their online teaching over videoconferencing platforms, others have been fortunate enough to have virtual classroom technology already at their disposal. That has been the case for faculty teaching in the online MBA program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor. Even before the pandemic forced most schools to deliver education over videoconferencing platforms, faculty in the online MBA program at the Ross School had been teaching live sessions in the school’s newly installed virtual classroom.

Measuring approximately 13 feet by 13 feet, the Digital Education Studio was designed and built in partnership with White Light, a virtual entertainment company based in the United Kingdom. Opened in the summer of 2019, the mixed-reality classroom uses White Light’s SmartStage technology, which was originally created to augment live entertainment events and sports analysis with three-dimensional interactive elements.

The space is lined with LED video walls, which allow instructors and students to create the illusion of any environment—whether it’s a physical classroom, a manufacturing facility, a farming operation, or a retail space. Instructors and remote participants then can interact with content and each other. After students log into the space via Zoom conferencing software, they can see the lecturer and themselves in a virtual lecture hall.

A two-camera system, set up on a rolling dolly, allows instructors to toggle between two different perspectives. The system is supported by White Light’s servers and control center in London. As the classroom’s designers explain in a White Light case study, “content for the LED walls, 360-degree set extension, and any augmented reality for foreground objects are all created and tracked as one synchronized system.” In other words, the system allows faculty to teach more as if they were in a physical classroom. At the same time, it helps remote learners “see themselves and their peers on screen, making them feel more included in the discussion.”

The school had been considering variations of traditional “green-screen” technologies, in which presenters stand in front of a green background on which images can be digitally projected. However, in this scenario, only viewers can see the projected image, not the presenter. When school representatives saw White Light’s demo of SmartStage at a consumer electronics show, they saw the potential to use it in a way that would allow instructors and students, attending in person and remotely, to all see and interact with the same images and each other in real time.

Faculty receive formal training in using the space to grow accustomed to different ways of teaching, such as how to engage with individual students versus the entire classroom or how to manage the multiple camera angles. Students, too, receive instruction regarding what to expect before they start taking courses in the studio. Before each course, they are provided with a “netiquette” document that explains what technology they’ll need, how to use their microphones, and where to point their webcams, so that they’ll be comfortable using the technology.


Although professors require the additional training to use the SmartStage classroom, the experience of teaching with the technology is “less unnatural than in previous online studios that we’ve had,” says Wally Hopp, associate dean of part-time MBA programs. “I’ve taught classes where I was just looking at a computer screen while I stood in a single spot—that felt very awkward and stilted. But in the new classroom, the students are up on the wall, so it’s very much like you’re looking into a classroom where you can see all of your students—who’s bored, who’s raising their hands. If you want to walk up to an individual student, you can approach the student on the display wall and the camera will show the rest of the classroom that engagement.”

One very different aspect of teaching in the SmartStage classroom is that an off-scene director guides instructors throughout the course, letting them know when to look at specific cameras, interact with virtual elements, or engage with specific students. “In the classroom, you don’t have someone giving you stage instructions, but here you do,” says Hopp. “But you get comfortable with it fairly quickly. In the old days, when I had to stand on a spot and push buttons and so forth—I never got used to that.”


The true benefit of the room, says Hopp, is its capacity to combine virtual and physical elements, as well as create the sense of “walking through” actual spaces. For example, instructors can seem as if they are interacting with three-dimensional objects floating overhead or create charts that appear to be hovering in the air.

Instructors also can take students through a virtual tour of business environments. For example, Hopp owns a bakery, where he filmed a walkthrough for his class. “This will allow me to take my students to ‘visit’ the bakery,” says Hopp. “Down the road, we’ll be able to take them through actual factories from some of our individual collaborators, or through spaces at the University of Michigan Hospital, for instance. This isn’t just, ‘Let me bring up this PowerPoint presentation,’ but ‘Let’s step into this room.’” The room also can bring in guest speakers remotely in more realistic and interactive ways.


So far, the studio has supported anywhere from 72 students in the first cohort of online MBA students to hundreds of students attending executive education offerings. For example, Maxim Sytch, an associate professor of management and organizations, used the studio to co-teach Leading People and Organizations to online MBA students. In a Ross School publication, he notes that his experience in using the classroom was surprisingly similar to teaching in person.

“I can see the students’ faces, their reactions to the discussion, both verbal or nonverbal, and I can feel the level of energy in the class and how it varies,” Sytch says. “I can call on and speak with the entire class or a chosen student, and I have access to a wide range of teaching tools that approximate a physical classroom—whiteboard, videos, breakout rooms, slides, etc.” Although discussions might be more animated in person, other activities, such as group projects, become more effective in the virtual space.

“While it takes valuable class time for students to move to and return from physical breakout rooms, it can be instantly done in a virtual classroom,” says Sytch. “As an instructor, I can visit those breakout rooms instantly, which allows me to spend more time with students rather than walking from one room to another.”

It requires only two people to deliver a course—primarily the instructor and director. That means that this model is scalable, if the school decides to open a second similar classroom in the future, Hopp says.

So far, the biggest challenge in using the room has been scheduling—with just one space available, faculty must compete for the best time slots. “Not many people want to have sessions at 3 o’clock in the morning,” says Eliot Gattegno, managing director of the Ross School’s office of digital education. Late evening slots are especially popular because of the appeal of the online MBA and exec ed programs to working professionals. The room primarily is used to support the online MBA. The school has received requests to use the space to deliver executive education, hold virtual events, and present supplementary materials for residential classes.

The school’s initial investment in the technology received support from the dean and the school’s advisory board, as well as philanthropic donors. The school will continue to invest in developing the hardware and software for educational delivery.

Gattegno sees an additional benefit to the expanded use of virtual classrooms at more colleges and universities—the ability to create more environmentally sustainable learning experiences. “Usually, we have professors and students flying around the world, generating a significant carbon footprint,” he says. The Ross School plans to track closely students’ reception of this studio experience, to determine whether technologies such as SmartStage could provide an alternative to frequent travel, generating “massive cost savings” to the institution.  


As business educators seek to create rich, interactive virtual online learning experiences, Hopp and Gattegno advise them to start with their objectives—not the technology. “First, think through the experience you want to deliver to students. Know what you want your programs to look like,” Hopp says. With that information, educators can be better prepared to look for solutions that suit their purposes—even if, as in the case of White Light, that solution might not have been used in education before.

Gattegno points out that the applicability of this type of technology wasn’t immediately evident, but as they engaged in further conversations, “we realized that this was the right style of tool for learning.”


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