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Immersive Virtual Reality: Online Education for the Next Generation

How virtual reality could help make online classes better.

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While distance learning has gained popularity over the past decade, it’s still not always the most exhilarating way to study. Although online courses cover cognitive skills just fine, students miss out on an important dimension of learning: engaging other intelligences and more intensive interactivity. In fact, only 4 percent of students who enroll in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) will actually complete the course. Immersive virtual reality (VR) could radically change that experience.

But as immersive VR begins to establish itself in the education field, these online courses are about to get a serious makeover. Imagine watching an avatar teach your online marketing class, or virtually turning to a classmate participating from China for clarification on how you’ll work together to build a sustainable house in VR to later transfer to the real world. Immersive VR has serious potential to change distance education material for the better. So how will it affect student learning?

The challenges with distance learning

The Bloomberg Recruiter Report indicates that employers want job skills that go beyond cognitive ones. But the skills they most desire — communication, leadership, creative problem solving and strategic thinking skills — are the most difficult to find.

Meanwhile, students are increasingly engaging in online learning — as of 2016, one in four students now take distance learning classes. Students in these classes, however, aren’t able to develop these interpersonal skills as easily. That’s because they need to be developed by engaging in creative experiences, such as leading class discussions or working in groups.

A two-dimensional webpage for an online course can’t come close to replicating the power of an in-person experience. This is where immersive VR training comes in.

Immersive VR for training and education

Imagine you’re a surgeon, and a patient is rushed into your operating room. He’s been in a car crash and it’s your job to make critical decisions to save his life. Your heart races. You need to act fast — well, you need to act fast in this immersive VR app. Created by Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in conjunction with Immersive VR Education, the app is realistic enough to train medical professionals for real-life hospital situations.

Much of the work being done in the educational immersive VR space is for specific training purposes. It gives users the physical and emotional responses that they would have if they were there in person, helping them to make fewer mistakes on the job because they already recognize the environment.

What’s more, Stanford researchers say VR can actually help cure phobias, making people more confident. If this research is transferred to the education realm, it perhaps means those who engage with VR can become more confident on the job, too.

In addition to medical training, VR apps are used to guide individuals in a range of industries. One app was built to train workers how to safely use high-voltage switching equipment. Other apps by Immerse Learning teach pilots English while they’re in a virtual cockpit for effective communication with air traffic control, or train oil platform staff in lifeboat safety.

Immersive VR for more general distance learning courses isn’t far behind. In April, Project Sansar, a VR creation platform, announced that it would begin taking applications to test out its platform. High Fidelity has also launched a beta version of its open-source VR platform, helping individuals to build their own complex VR experiences.

Even more, Immersive VR for distance learning will be furthered by the development of Facebook’s social VR, which allows avatars to interact in virtual worlds — like a classroom, for example.

Immersive VR will help increase retention among students taking distance learning courses. This is especially true if the VR apps are gamified: Students will be able to actually take part in ancient worlds as opposed to merely looking at 2-D photos of them.

Take Time Machine, for instance. It’s a Jurassic Park-themed app that lets students get up close with dinosaurs to learn about prehistoric creatures and the possibility of human extinction. Google’s virtual reality field trip kit called Expeditions allows teachers to be tour guides for dozens of virtual reality locations — places like Mount Everest and Mars. And although last year the program was only available in selected schools, Google announced this month that it would make the platform available for the general public.

Overall, immersive VR helps users develop emotional, interpersonal, intrapersonal and spatial intelligences, giving them a diversity of skills they may use to engage with other material. And when it comes to job training, immersive VR gives users the opportunity to create more embodied rehearsals for reality — enabling them to test out various strategies and learn from failures — before going out into the real world.

So what steps must be taken for immersive reality to take hold in mainstream education? For one, the technology needs to develop further. And it will, especially with the Project Sansar and High Fidelity open source VR platforms. But from these, a real learning community needs to be created so developers can share and build on their processes.

Additionally, educators need to believe that an experiential learning approach is more effective in developing important interpersonal skills than typical consumer education. And finally, the sector needs funding resources. Investors are putting a lot of money into the VR video game industry (as a whole, it’s expected to generate $5.1 billion for 2016), but they need to look at how the immersive VR technology can be used more productively. And education is a good place to start.