Relevant insights into the future role of VR as a practical teaching tool. A growing trend prior to Covid-19, Virtual Reality technology is now becoming a very possible means of reshaping the future of education.
In a previous article, I discussed the pedagogical opportunities created by the development of virtual reality (VR) resources. With the tech giants leading the charge and next gen’s insatiable appetite for such technology, the future was already looking pretty bright for VR-driven educational solutions. Many arguments (e.g., more experience-based teaching, greater immersion available to more students, performance monitoring and adapting teaching in real-time to student behavior) led me to believe that VR could help shape the future of education.
In January 2020, the World Health Organization announced a startlingly Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). In response, governments around the world imposed lockdown measures, of varying stringency, then companies and schools closed their doors. In the end, education programs had to adapt – some more successful than other – to Covid-19 and our new reality. This has affected all – or nearly all – education programs.
The new health-related restrictions drastically changed the way we teach. Overnight, blended or Hyflex learning solutions went from the drawing board to the (virtual) classroom, as the sole viable option for institutions to maintain an adequate level of teaching quality amid the pandemic.
A way forward for practical courses
While these solutions had already proven effective for theory-based courses, it was far less clear if they would work for practical classes. It stands to reason that a corporate strategy or a marketing class could easily shift to an online forum but how were universities going to offer an operational teaching experience over the Internet? How could an instructor teach a student how to ‘box corner’ a tablecloth or resolve a technical problem without interacting with them face-to-face?
To rise to this new challenge, virtual reality quickly emerged as the most viable option. By enabling students to integrate a virtual world, the technology helps students to develop practical and interpersonal skills in situations that mimic reality or even different realities. VR tools allow students to enter actual work situations so they can practice what they’ve learned. Given the immersive aspect of VR amid an ‘almost real’ environment, the instructor (and in fact the students themselves) can evaluate their knowledge of the concepts as well as whether they’ve actually acquired that knowledge. VR’s flexibility means that stressful, demanding and surprising situations can be simulated, which of course reflects a real-life working environment.
Herein lies the advantage of these new pedagogical tools: adaption. Scenarios can be changed limitlessly and the tool can be tailored to the individual needs of the student. A professor can’t completely adapt the pace of the course for each and every student without leaving the others in the lurch; however, VR enables students to go back and repeat an activity until it’s fully locked in without slowing the class down or embarrassing the student in front of fellow students. Lastly, the current immersion programs allow users to quickly forget that the situation is not actually real, as users’ bearings can be adapted to plunge them into a physical context that it is completely unlike their real one.
A few schools, including the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, had bet on immersion and virtual reality before the pandemic. All courses had to adapt to the Covid-19 crisis. All of them? Almost. In fact, courses that had already incorporated VR tools proved to be much more resilient. Despite the pandemic, virtual reality tools remained accessible in the same way, making it possible to learn normally even if the context wasn’t normal at all.
The virtual has never felt more real
Just yesterday, VR seemed like science fiction; today it has become part of reality. Travel has ground to a halt, Zoom and Teams have become crucial to the development of companies and organizations, and the virtual has never felt more real. Let’s be clear however, education may have adapted to Covid-related restrictions but the corporate world is still in desperate need of trained employees that can hit the ground running.
Of course, there are fewer internships out there for students, but the needs of the world of work have not dried up by any means. The challenge facing the academic realm is sizeable, and the strategic choices in terms of pedagogy will help or hinder colleges and universities rise to that challenge. Where there are challenges, however, there are opportunities for developing and implementing new methods that are more resilient and pedagogical.
Whether, or to what extent, virtual reality will be part of the future of education is an open question. Hopefully, social distancing rules will eventually be loosened, allowing more traditional ways of teaching to return. Yet it seems plausible that the acceleration of the development of digital resources for teaching purposes has already ushered in a sea change for education systems. Given this, VR could increasingly be integrated in the coming years and pave the way for new types of training programs. To do so, schools will need to be convinced of the real advantage of these tools, which will undoubtedly include lower costs and better results. Only by demonstrating this added value will they prove their effectiveness as a learning tool.