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VR in Education: From 'Neat to Have' to 'Need to Have'

By Robert Dillon, Director of Innovative Learning, School District of University City

Robert Dillon, Director of Innovative Learning, School District of University City

Can virtual reality help us better connect with people? Throughout the early stages of virtual reality, the answer to this question was a resounding no. The idea of putting of goggles and escaping from reality itself didn’t seem like a way to connect back to the skills needed for success in the modern workplace. Recently though, the answer to this question is more nuanced. Some of the emerging purposes for virtual reality can actually help us to grow how we listen to understand and communicate with conviction and purpose.

Virtual reality has crossed into a place where it has moved from neat to have and nice to have, and it is approaching the need to have for schools and students. It has always been an exciting gaming platform and an opportunity to explore new things, but virtual reality is becoming a powerful way for learners to gain knowledge and understanding. Consider these three areas of virtual reality that aren’t the learning that we normally associate with this technology.

"Consider how bringing the tool of virtual reality to students can be a positive way for technology to play a role in connecting students to others and bringing their strengths into societal solution making in deep and powerful ways"

Empathy is an essential modern learning skill, and VR can play a role. Most modern careers require a high degree of problem solving and excellent designers of solutions begin with a user-based approach that requires strong empathy skills. These skills allow for solutions to be as effective as possible for the issue at hand. Students need support in practicing empathy and virtual reality can play a role. Research in this area and the emerging experiences in virtual reality to make this effective have been coming for the past five or more years, and they are reaching a place where they have been fine tuned for all learners.

Jeremy Bailenson, researcher at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has been leading some of the research in this area. In a Wired magazine article, he stated, “we are entering an era that is unprecedented in human history, where you can transform the self and experience anything the animator can fathom. The research shows it can have a deep effect on behavior.”

This research coupled with the exploration that Chris Milk takes us on in his TED talk begins to unpack how virtual reality can help us to better connect with others. Milk in his talk says this about virtual reality. “It connects humans to other humans in a profound way I’ve never before seen in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perception of each other. That is why I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.” Moving from a place to play games to a game changer is the arc that we see in virtual reality.

The list of virtual experiences that students can simulate continues to grow, but it includes experiencing issues with homelessness, racial profiling by police, life in solitary confinement, and the plight of refugees.

Growing empathy is only the first skill needed that virtual reality can support. We also need students that can talk passionately and persuasively about topics of critical importance, and the communication skills to do this in front of an audience can be elusive for many students. Enter another emerging tool of virtual reality. The use of this technology to practice the art of presentation. Companies like Virtual Speech are allowing low stakes entry points to practice the art of public speaking. Imagine “standing” in a virtual space with 200 people in the virtual audience moving, shuffling around, and on their devices. The student steps onto this stage without the fear of embarrassment from peers, but with some positive stress to practice an emerging skill. They talk for ten seconds, forget their place, and they hit the reset button. An iterative process begins without losing instructional time and supporting learners at their current level of success.

Eventually we want all of our students to be excellent in communicating their ideas and having the knowledge and confidence to step into a presentation and persuade or inform their audience, but virtual reality can help scaffold and support students into this place. Technology in this case is allowing us to grow more connected to those around us. It is also helping to mitigate one of the significant fears of many students and adults.

Coupled with empathy and public discourse is the final area that has virtual reality helping us to connect with others. It is the ability to practice interviewing skills. Interviewing and then landing a position with a company often comes from excelling at the intangibles as many have similar skills and experiences. One of these skills is connecting with the people in the room. How can we get more students and young adults in more of these rooms to practice and grow their effectiveness at interviewing?

Virtual reality will now allow students to practice interviewing at a frequency that can grow their effectiveness. They can shape the questions, the context, and the number of people in the room. They can practice discrete skills and iterate on their performance. Doing a mock interview in front of your peers once a semester isn’t the type of high quality practice needed to allow students that have systemic disadvantages to overcome the barriers to entry in careers of their choice. Virtual reality can be a tool to connect them to more individuals and bring their unique and essential voice into places where they can make social change.

Consider how bringing the tool of virtual reality to students can be a positive way for technology to play a role in connecting students to others and bringing their strengths into societal solution making in deep and powerful ways.

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