Knowledge and skills are a source of incredible power, but their acquisition requires a significant time investment and depends upon access to the appropriate resources, skilled instruction and sufficient practice opportunities.
This simple fact is at the root of the global knowledge divide; a gap which is not just geographic, but socio-economic and gendered.
The internet has kick-started an international education revolution, but so far this has been largely restricted to the democratisation of information and data, rather than knowledge and skills.
This is because swathes of the population are still unable to access the high-quality teaching, costly resources and rare practice opportunities required to drive high-competency skills development. Barriers of time, expense and geography are proving harder to overcome than the optimistic early e-learning champions expected.
However, as immersive and extended reality (XR) technologies improve in both quality and accessibility, new opportunities are emerging for remote skill acquisition. Early signs point towards a radical levelling of the playing field, with existing elites set to eventually lose their grip on the knowledge monopoly.
The opportunities presented by XR tech
Immersive learning experiences are achieved in virtual environments by combining 3D, 360-degree video footage with sound effects and haptic communication (movement and touch). Such experiences can be customised completely depending on the desired learning outcome, and inbuilt AI can gather endless data points on user participation and performance in learning tasks.
In 2021, it’s not necessary for learners to have access to a VR headset to access XR learning material; the content can be created to be just as impactful when accessed via smartphone, laptop or desktop. Users just need to log on to a remote platform to access the immersive content, which can often be downloaded for later use in locations with poor internet connectivity.
When learners (school students, university students or older adults) access immersive, interactive educational content via a virtual or augmented reality platform, they are presented with opportunities to physically engage with the learning material. This might mean that they ‘carry out’ a dissection or chemical experiment, ‘examine’ a patient, ‘repair’ a broken machine – all without leaving their homes or classrooms.
This interactive element of XR learning helps to drive faster skill acquisition, also promoting longer knowledge retention and increasing learner confidence. Other advantages are multiple: for learners, there’s a low cost of access and no need to travel. For education institutions, it becomes possible to create and distribute cost-effective, infinitely scalable and customisable education programmes with inbuilt progress-tracking and bespoke AI-driven feedback to enhance learner development.
Training doctors in Ethiopia
In 2020, my own company Virti became directly involved in a pioneering project to democratise access to high-quality medical training.
“When learners (school students, university students or older adults) access immersive, interactive educational content via a virtual or augmented reality platform, they are presented with opportunities to physically engage with the learning material. This might mean that they ‘carry out’ a dissection or chemical experiment, ‘examine’ a patient, ‘repair’ a broken machine – all without leaving their homes or classrooms”
Just before the start of the pandemic, members of our team participated in a visit to Bahir Dar University hospital in Ethiopia, on a mission to explore the feasibility of rolling out XR training with students and junior medics there.
The team members worked with Ethiopian doctors to capture footage of a sawbone workshop. The 360-degree video footage is being used to create a pilot VR workshop that will be accessed by future Ethiopian residents coming into the hospital, and to test the feasibility of this mode of teaching. It’s hoped that this will reduce costs associated with implant companies donating expensive artificial bones, the costs of the demonstration equipment and the travel costs incurred.
If successful, similar VR learning experiences could be rapidly upscaled and delivered across resource-poor healthcare systems (such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa) where the internet infrastructure exists.
The barriers to progress
The main obstacles slowing down the global dissemination of XR tech for learning are, firstly, internet access, and secondly, hardware and content creation costs.
These barriers are likely to considerably reduce in size as this decade progresses. Hardware costs will fall as technology advances, and content can be shared between institutions. Internet access – both broadband and 4/5G – is being rolled out at rapid pace, with Cisco predicting that 5.3 billion people will be online by 2023.
XR technology is, of course, not going to provide a one-stop solution to educational inequality around the globe. However, I am optimistic that it will have a significant impact in imporiving education outcomes and opportunities amongst previously disadvantaged communities.
With the COVID pandemic providing additional momentum to the growth of XR tech in the education space, it’s more than likely that XR learning and its associated advantages will soon be a recognised sector gold standard.
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