Entering the Virtual World

For the fourth time, the young man drags down the eyepiece, grabs the welding apparatus and bends over the pieces of metal. In this line of work, precision is everything, so the young man steadies his hand until a green light flashes up: success. He leaves the simulator to let his colleague perform the task—in a virtual world without sparks flying around. Both work for a construction company, which supplements welding trainings with virtual reality simulations. Trainees earn the required manual dexterity in a safe and controlled environment. For these two, the future looks bright, as the computer predicts a 92% chance of passing the next practical test.

Learning by Virtually Doing

Virtual reality (VR) is a new and innovative delivery method in education. As a powerful counterpart to theoretical foundations, VR grounds learning in experience. Technical and vocational trainings (TVET) have begun integrating VR simulations into their curriculum. Other fields are catching on. Whether doctors are virtually performing brain surgeries, historians walking through ancient Rome, politicians practicing speeches in front of crowds or managers exercising how to give critical feedback, time and space are no longer a constraint. Learning spaces are transformed and virtually accessible anywhere and anytime.

Fueling the Digital Revolution

The effects of AR and VR on students are under-researched but promising. This research study by Hall, Stiles and Horwitz demonstrates that the impact of an immersive virtual simulation experience leads to higher retention rates than simply watching a video. A different study correlates an increase in motivation of students to the gamification of new content. Anyone who has ever tried Oculus Rift echoes that the experience is absorbing and intense. More importantly, however, tactile technologies such as VR offer access to a “second life” in which learning can happen more safely and perhaps more sincerely. Virtual methods have the potential to radically change how content is being delivered and experienced.

Improving Education Equity

But for me, the key of VR in learning is not to improve education for those who already get a lot – and the best – of it. Algorithms can personalize learning based on big data and match the outcomes to attractive jobs. Hereby, algorithms adapt to each student’s learning process rather than treating everybody the same way, as MOOCs did in the early days of digitization. In the past, scalable solutions were theory- and knowledge-based. Now, innovative delivery methods such as VR can establish scalable new environments for practical learning, giving opportunities to students who previously did not have access to labs, shop floors or other expensive facilities and tools.

Taking Massive Hurdles

The challenges in education could not be more pressing: Today, more students globally need to learn more than ever before, and their profiles, biographies and language backgrounds vary immensely. Meanwhile, skills are stagnating and costs are skyrocketing. The education sector alone, as a local actor with limited financial resources, cannot develop expensive AI and VR technology in order to scale its delivery globally and efficiently. To do so, scalable learning content for practical skills needs to be created by an array of experts. And one potential partner is out there already: the gaming industry with its massive investments in AR and VR technologies. Even if not all will like it: in order to efficiently develop learning technologies, education leaders have to also go where the money is. After all, lots of young people will benefit from it.