Thomas Lowry Winthrop is hyperventilating into a brown paper bag, panicking over a presentation he has to give to the partners in his startup investment firm, BlueSky Ventures. He’s got nothing and needs help fast.
“You were the one that told me to go out there and do something. I did and now everything’s falling apart, and you’ve got to save me! Please!” he begs during a video call from his office, which is as disheveled as his hair.
BlueSky Ventures isn’t a real business, and Winthrop isn’t a real person. But his panic-inducing pitch meeting is the sort of problem that real entrepreneurs face with regularity. The video call is the opening scene of a new virtual course designed by Wharton Interactive to teach business skills through a games-based course called an ARC, or alternate reality course. BlueSky Ventures is a 60-minute, on-demand ARC that leads players through a series of decisions and interactions designed to teach strategies for entrepreneurial success. Actors, business data, graphics, and digital documents help the lesson come alive and really stick.
“When people have a-ha moments, they remember things better. The game is designed to have all these a-ha moments where pieces fit into place and you’re like, ‘I got it!’” said Ethan Mollick, a Wharton management professor who is academic director of Wharton Interactive.
With a choose-your-own-adventure style, the game is structured to move players methodically and logically through problem-solving. The ARC platform tracks the players’ decision-making and allows them to keep practicing until they get it right.
“We want to get the learner into this idea of flow because that’s when the brain starts to do that pattern recognition that we want them to take forward and apply in the real world,” said Sarah Toms, executive director of Wharton Interactive. “That’s what our games are allowing them to do, and that’s why the stickiness happens.”
Toms and Mollick began working on this pioneering approach to education about a decade ago, founding Wharton Interactive in 2018 over a shared interest in business, technology, and research that proves classroom instruction isn’t the only way to learn. They also have a shared mission to “democratize education” by making it more accessible to more people. Alternate reality courses provide educational benefits at scale because they can be played by anyone, anywhere. BlueSky Ventures, which is free, has already been played by more than 10,000 users on all seven continents. The lessons embedded in the game go beyond entrepreneurship; players also learn about management and leadership along the way.
“What we want to see is an explosion of different approaches to learning,” Mollick said. Alternate reality courses are “complementing what’s done in the classroom and not replacing it. It’s adding a new modality of teaching.”
To help them launch the alternate reality courses, Mollick and Toms assembled a lean team of experts that includes technologists, digital marketers, fiction writers, and Philadelphia-area actors. BlueSky Ventures launched last summer after being tested in Mollick’s classroom. In addition to BlueSky Ventures, there is a three-week, paid course in Entrepreneurship Strategy, and another three-week, paid course in Leadership and Corporate Venturing.
The most recent ARC to launch is Machine Learning for Business Decisions: Level 1. It is a data application that was built in partnership with the Analytics at Wharton and Wharton Customer Analytics teams. It combines an immersive ARC game with hundreds of thousands of rows of real Evite customer data and machine learning code. The game isn’t meant to be played solely by data scientists, Toms said. It’s for anyone who wants to “look under the hood” and see what it takes to leverage machine learning to guide business decisions.
“One thing we do know about contemporary careers is that you can’t just be an expert in one discipline. You need to understand all these different disciplines,” she said, noting that Wharton Interactive’s experiences forge these connections. “For example, in our data apps, even somebody who’s never written a line of code in their life will learn to think like a data analyst, seeing first-hand the logic under the hood, and why learning these critical skills is going to help them communicate better with their data teams.”
Toms and Mollick have their sights set even higher for Wharton Interactive. The alternate reality courses are already being used by universities and companies globally. They hope to partner with high schools, nonprofits, and international organizations to get the games into their hands, as well. Ultimately, they see ARCs as a way to expand the reach of Wharton’s expertise.
“The vision is very large. We’re designing it from the ground up to be adaptable to that vision,” Mollick said.