Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Learning by experiencing in the virtually real world

Virtual reality can greatly enhance learning through the use of experiential techniques

It is often said that campus life in university is the best phase of your life. For a number of years, students live and learn in a confined community setting designed to facilitate the pursuit of knowledge. And then, one day, they graduate and face the real world.

This model of a confined campus community serves little purpose today. The world is changing so rapidly that students entering university today would struggle to make sense of the world they enter upon graduation. That is, unless the campus community is specifically designed to have a porous boundary and be tightly interwoven with the real world. This has become a compelling imperative for universities today.

Engaging with the real world through porous boundaries can and must take many forms. Research collaborations and consultations with industry could help maintain the balance between pure and applied research. The faculty could be expanded to include practitioners, such as authors, statisticians, business leaders, conservationists and policymakers. Students could be encouraged to learn experientially, by attempting to identify and solve real-life problems in the world around them. While the range of solving real-life problems is somewhat limited by the practical constraints of time, geography and cost, the portal of virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) opens a nearly infinite vista of immersive learning opportunities.

In recent years, VR/AR has emerged as an effective enabler of experiential learning. The efficacy of VR/AR tools for learning has been scientifically established for more than a decade now. However, most prior research has taken place in experimental conditions and controlled lab settings that involve expensive VR/AR equipment and room facilities. Today, costs associated with VR/AR have dropped substantially—you could buy a cardboard VR viewer for under 500, and view VR/AR content for free using your smartphone. Universities looking to build a porous boundary with the real world would do well to take a close look at the potential of VR/AR.

The possibilities are endless and exciting, spanning a gamut of disciplines and learner types. In biology, for example, the rote memorization of the names and characteristics of species and genera continues to intimidate the brightest of students. On the other hand, imagine taking a walk through the dense Amazon jungle. You look around, taking in the infinite diversity of plant and animal life around you. You listen to the sounds of the forest. You turn to pay attention to the flitting movement you sense with your peripheral vision, and observe a dazzling blue butterfly. Now, you pause, and click on it. You see that it is the Morpho rhetenor, and learn about how the structural arrangement of the scales covering its wings causes its iridescence.

Or perhaps you’re a maths student trying to break away from Euclidean planes. But hyperbolic planes are hard to comprehend. How could it be that you take four left turns but not end up at the same spot where you started? If you tried this with a VR headset that puts you inside a hyperbolic space, you would actually take a walk around and see that you end up in the same spot only after taking six left turns.

Consider a truly inter-disciplinary problem such as climate change and carbon emissions. Plunge into an infinity pool at a resort in the Maldives, and fast forward 100 years into the future. Watch how the island gets submerged, and when—based on current CO2 emission trends. Choose an alternate level of emissions and replay. Learn how the actions we take today would result in the outcomes we would face in the future.

Alright, maths and science lend themselves nicely to VR/AR, but what if you’re a student at business school? Immerse yourself in a heated board room discussion about a tough decision needing to be taken on a negotiation with the labour union. Observe the body language of the CEO, the facial expressions of directors, the awkward silences and the shape of the discussion as it evolves. Now, switch channels and observe the cultural differences with the same decision being discussed by the board of an American company.

Or play the role of an interviewer at a Fortune 500 company and learn about unconscious bias and implicit stereotyping. Virtually meet dozens of candidates representing different demographic backgrounds and make real-time hiring decisions. Play back the data analysis on your decisions to gain awareness of the potential pitfalls of implicit stereotyping.

Such examples and use-cases abound. Quite apart from being an effective pedagogical tool, VR/AR can also become a novel medium for artistic and creative expression to encompass new modes of film-making. Media labs and maker-spaces with a VR/AR component would spur innovative art forms by letting students experiment with VR/AR. Moreover, the great attention to detail required to create VR/AR scenes necessitates deep and rigorous knowledge of the content.

Media labs at modern universities have been conceived with the hypothesis that VR/AR’s utilities as a storytelling tool can spark deep, contextual inquiry-driven learning, foster attentional engagement, develop students’ critical thinking/problem-solving skills, and nurture a broader appropriation of academic concepts, skills and attitudes. A new journey has begun.

Kapil Viswanathan is vice-chairman of Krea University.