Immersive learning experiences in the metaverse

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As with all new technologies, figuring out the maturity of VR applications is part guesswork, part hindsight and mostly experimentation and review.

By Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director of Henley Africa

Next year will be the 15th anniversary of a phrase which, for those of us involved in education, began life as a curiosity, then a worry, then an exciting future to prepare for – and then a reality as we were accelerated into maturity and the ‘new normal’ by Covid-19.

I’m talking, of course, about “Massively Open Online Courses”, or MOOCs – a term coined in 2008 by Dave Cromier of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. Thanks to the pandemic, online learning, supported by web-based course materials, class forums and video-conferenced lectures is all just “learning”.

Based on our recent experience with virtual reality(VR) tools for the creation and facilitation of immersive learning experiences at Henley Business School Africa, it won’t be too long before these reach the same level of maturity. Virtual immersive learning may be a novelty today, but the potential is huge.

As with all new technologies, figuring out the maturity of VR applications is part guesswork, part hindsight and mostly experimentation and review. A lot of expectations were raised after Facebook rebranded its parent company as Meta in November last year, but finding the golden thread among all the hype is always a challenge. Technology’s potential is always tempered by human reality and mundanity. For example, this week a world-changing vaccine was announced for malaria, showing over 75 percent efficacy that will likely save the lives of millions of African children – at the same time we can't keep the lights on in Jozi.

But progress continues. With timing that, looking back, is almost supernatural in its prescience, a team working with my colleague Louise Claassen began experimenting with VR technology and cohorts of business students in late 2019.

One of the most successful ways of teaching business students how to put learning into action is to immerse them in an unusual situation. For many years, business schools have provided immersive learning opportunities by placing students for a short period of time in a foreign country to be exposed to different business practices and contexts. Being challenged to apply knowledge in a real environment outside that which is not familiar improves understanding of where theory meets practice. How other geographies and organisations
function in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways lends itself to producing well-rounded managers with a clear view of the world.

A very close second
Take Gikomba market in Nairobi. It’s one thing to explain the sheer size and scale of this second-hand clothing market (nothing of the like which exists in South Africa) and how it has its own unique micro-economic environment. It’s a different thing altogether to get on a plane and visit Gikomba, to sense the size and amount of activity, and exactly how traders interact with wholesalers, vendors and hawkers, and customers.

What our team of #HenleyExplorers, the name of the team experimenting with VR, has found is that although nothing can replace the physical experience of visiting Gikomba, a carefully created and facilitated VR experience comes a very close second. Much closer than you might think.

As Claassen puts it, in all of the feedback we’ve received, the whole experience feels remarkably real, in large part because of the qualities of presence and embodiment that a VR experience imparts. One of our core tenets when teaching business leaders is empathetic insight: that a major purpose of analysis is to generate insight, and empathy turbocharges insight. This is what the famous design thinking pioneers IDEO called‘ethnographic research’ – deep, high-touch, empathetic insights should be at the heart of decision-making from product design to people management to long term generation of value. That VR is often referred to as an “empathy machine” is no accident.

Claassen also says that VR helps address a shortfall of current online learning methods. It’s well understood that the level of recall shown by students about module content increases powerfully as you move from reading material (with low recall value) to practical experience (with high recall value). It’s early days, but so far, our experience is that immersive environments are very close to the top end of that scale.

And it’s not just for immersive experiences, students have told us that attending workshops in AltspaceVR, a 3D metaverse in which participants are represented as avatars, the artificiality of the space quickly fades into the background and interaction with speakers feels natural.

It helps, of course, that we have had superb partners who have been able to build immersive experiences that deliver – such as BlackRhinoVR in Nairobi, who have created more than half a dozen assets for us already, and are working on more as we speak.

It also helps that the cost of hardware continues to fall and is now reasonably accessible. Prices for equipment have halved and halved again in just a few years. With the current excitement around VR as both an entertainment and enterprise tool of extreme importance, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that investment will increase, reducing prices to the point where we can call this a tool for democratising education.

Indeed, if you compare the cost of a headset (a few hundred dollars) to the cost of flights and accommodation for a physical learning experience (a few thousand dollars), it’s not hyperbole to say that we are already on the edge of a new form of meta-learning.

This article was originally published in the first-ever edition of CIO Magazine, which is now available for download here.

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