Immersive Tech Transforming Learning

Experiential learning enabled by technologies such as VR and AR are set to disrupt learning as we know it, but what will the future of learning actually look like?

Photography by Tom Atkinson @R3Digital

There is a lot of speculation about what will be the VR “killer app” but for me that’s actually asking all the wrong questions. For starters, it’s not all about just Virtual Reality, or Augmented Reality for that matter.

There is a whole spectrum of immersive technologies out there — and whether you choose to call that spectrum Mixed Reality or XR (which in turn can stand either for Cross Reality or Extended Reality, depending on who you ask) it encompasses a variety of ways in which we can blend the physical and digital worlds. Or as HoloLens inventor Alex Kipman puts it — the world of atoms and the world of bits.

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But the main problem with that question is that it misses the point that these technologies are not about one application, they represent the evolution of personal computing and will revolutionize the way we interact with machines.

Yet if you held my feet to a fire and made me choose one area of application which I thought held the most exciting potential for immersive tech, I would have to say it was learning.

We all instinctively realize that it’s much easier to learn something by doing yourself than by watching, reading, or being told the same information. So it isn’t really that surprising that technologies that immerse you in various scenarios so that the experiences and actions within it feel naturally like your own will be a powerful vehicle for training various skills and sharing knowledge. I firmly believe that experiential learning is the future of education.

But predicting what that future will look like isn’t straightforward either, because immersive technologies can be used to teach almost anything to anyone. And that was the idea behind the immersive learning showcase at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) that took place this weekend in Dubai.

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The event, which is an initiative from the Varkey Foundation aims to improve the quality and access to education for people around the world. This year the forum focused on how we can prepare young people for the world of 2030 and beyond, and educators debated ways to make technology part of the solution.

One way to do that is to use emerging technologies such as VR, AR (or whatever flavour or alphabet soup you opt for) to engage learners with experiences that they might not otherwise have been able to access.

And the Immersive Learning Showcase at GESF demonstrated just how broad the range of those experiences can be. From empathy-inducing pieces by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) to visiting heritage and historic sites on the newly launched Cyark entering an Amazonian shaman’s state of trance with Awavena to performing surgery with realistic haptic feedback in virtual simulation programmes designed with direct feedback from surgeons, as was showcased by FundamentalVR it shows that — as VHIL’s Director Professor Jeremy Bailenson puts it in his latest book Experience on Demand — there is almost no skill that cannot be taught or improved by simulation.

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Around the corner from those demonstrations at the Future Talks stage, we also saw a range of discussions happening amongst educators, authors, researchers, technologists, creative content makers and tech journalists to unpick what exactly immersive technologies were already achieving in the learning space, and trying to shine a light on what might come next. See below for an overview of the highlights and full videos of the talks.

Practice makes perfect — widening access and accelerating learning through VR

Immersive technologies can help close the talent gap, as almost any skill can be improved by virtual instruction. Research shows that our brains treat VR experiences in ways which are fundamentally similar to real ones. For example, children who had been given a VR experience of swimming with whales often formed “false memories,” and came to believe and remember that they had physically been to SeaWorld to see an Orca. This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for teachers using this technology to enrich and deliver the curriculum, but also to provide students with access to places and experiences which would normally be beyond their reach due to financial, geographical or safety constraints. VR is the most psychologically powerful medium in history because it allows learners to achieve both psychological presence and leverage embodied cognition. People learn better by doing than by watching, and learn best by realistically simulating motor actions in the brain. Unlike speech, nonverbal behaviour is automatic, a direct pipeline to our mental states, emotions, and identities, which influence cognition. Access to knowledge and training via these technologies can therefore be instrumental in tapping the vast amount of untapped potential in the world, and address the chronic shortage of trained professionals in areas such as teaching, healthcare and the digital economy. Immersive technologies could go a long way in opening up real opportunities to millions whose talents aren’t currently used and truly democratizing learning on a global scale. Where the Internet democratized knowledge, immersive technologies will democratize experience. Watch this video on YouTube

Will Virtual Environments Replace the Classroom?

Immersive technologies could play a crucial role in modernizing our current education systems, moving away from the 1800s model to something that is more accessible to students everywhere and also more suitable for teaching skills relevant to the digital age. In his novel Ready Player One, Ernest Cline sets out a powerful vision of a virtual classroom, but how close are we to achieving this, and is that indeed the most desirable outcome?

There is an argument to be made for slow, steady, and considered integration of immersive technologies in the classroom, yet how is this to be achieved without jeopardizing the benefits afforded by structured, in-class learning? Watch this video on YouTube

Virtual Super-Teacher — scaling up personalised learning

Imagine teaching a class with hundreds of students, yet being able to pay perfect attention to each one, detecting the slightest hint of confusion and projecting the appropriate reaction accordingly. This would effectively give teachers super-powers they could not dream of leveraging in normal classroom environment. And this scenario is much than we might think. Since VR technology relies on motion capture to work, it already has inbuilt mechanisms that are capable of analysing the body language of both teachers and pupils. This analysis creates a digital footprint that can be used to assess learning behaviour and personalize learning for maximum impact. In the not-so-distant future, AI and machine learning will be able to use this information to predict the future performance of students and to adjust materials accordingly. It is the fulfilment of the vision that futurists such as Isaac Asimov have predicted, which makes it possible to infinitely scale one-to-one instruction, giving students and teachers (quite literally) the best of all worlds. Watch this video on YouTube

Teaching digital skills through Virtual Storytelling

Computing and storytelling is currently changing, expanding from a 2-dimensional frame into more 3-dimensional and immersive platforms. However, the students that have access to these new technologies (such as augmented, virtual, and mixed realities) still suffer from wide inequity gaps. How can we ensure that youth from all communities have access to these new mediums and are prepared for a future workforce that might rely on them? How can leaders in the content creation industry bridge the gap to educators to assist with this process? Watch this video on YouTube

Teaching Empathy

When one imagines the world from another’s perspective, the gap between oneself and the other decreases. This is why VR is particularly effective in imparting so-called soft skills, which have traditionally proved difficult to train. It has the power to literally make you walk in the shoes of another. Empathy is something we can choose to experience, and arguably something that we all need to be trained in if we are to achieve meaningful societal change. VR experiences can be designed to avoid stereotypes and false narratives and thus tackle bias. Will educators look to incorporate such mechanisms in the curriculum, and if so, what are the considerations and potential pitfalls in doing so? And can VR actually be used to teach students undesirable skills? Can you teach violence as well as tolerance? Where do we draw the line between education and indoctrination? Watch this video on YouTube

For companies looking to get into Immersive technologies such as VR/AR/MR/XR our Virtual Reality Consultancy services offer guidance on how these technologies can enhance and support your brand strategy.

Alice Bonasio is a VR Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow @alicebonasio on Twitter.

Originally published at Tech Trends.