Q&A: Encouraging VR learning with Bodyswaps

Following the collaboration between innovative virtual reality (VR) company Bodyswaps and Sandwell College that helps young people to develop vital interview skills using transformative technology, CEO and co-founder Chris Mallet shared the inspiration behind the global project with ET

What was the inspiration behind the creation of Bodyswaps? 

In 2009 I graduated from my business school and I certainly knew a lot about management. But I certainly wasn’t ready to be a manager. Learning communication or leadership on video goes about as far as learning to swim on powerpoint…

Years later, as my co-founder Julien Denoel and I were running a VR marketing agency, we spent a significant time reading academic articles about virtual embodiment, ie having a body in VR, and behavioural change. One such article particularly stuck with us: a British researcher named Mel Slater had devised an experience in which women suffering from severe depression were tasked with comforting a crying child, before swapping perspective to receive their own empathetic words from the child’s perspective. The study showed that there were long-lasting positive effects from just those few minutes.

And so when SAGE Publishing, an education publisher, approached us in 2019 with a desire to explore VR for training nurses in psychiatry, we thought it would be interesting for students to learn by experiencing how they come across from a patient’s point of view. Following great feedback, we thought: what about helping people truly prepare to be a manager?

And so 10 years after I graduated, we set out to solve the problem I felt then. That’s how Bodyswaps was born.

How do you think the collaboration of Bodyswaps with Sandwell College will impact the way students engage with interviews?

The first benefit that the teams at Sandwell have witnessed is engagement. Even when there might be a slight reluctance from students to come down to the VR Lab, once they’re in, they don’t want to leave! We saw above 85% of students willing to recommend the experience to their peers – that’s unheard of for employability training. So whereas the take-up on things offered by the Career Center, like mock-interviews, can sometimes be low, this is a way to motivate students to give interview training a go.

But obviously engagement is worthless if it doesn’t help the student actually get jobs. At Sandwell, we saw students reporting greater awareness of ways to improve their interview skills, from basics like eye contact to more advanced storytelling techniques. In the end, students reported feeling more confident ahead of real-interviews. That means everyone gets a better shot at getting the jobs they deserve, which is a big part of FE’s purpose.

What do you see for the future of VR in education? 

Let’s put the fun and exciting aspects aside for a minute. When it comes to strict learning performance, VR has been shown to outperform any other education technology for specific use cases. I don’t think VR should be used for everything and the worst thing that could happen is for VR to become a cheap ersatz of the classroom for institutions looking to make more money by enrolling more students remotely.

But when it comes to knowledge best understood spatially, like anatomy or architecture, to vocational topics requiring hands-on practice like welding or working at heights, or for soft skills best explored in safe simulations, like giving feedback, then VR is without a doubt the learning medium of the future.

So I see VR as a new superpower for the educator, a way to provide personalised experiential learning to everyone. We’ve talked to many institutions delivering remote classes in VR today, with others looking to provide every student with their own headset. The future might be closer than some think.

What would you say to any students who are interested in getting involved with virtual learning?

If you’re lucky enough to have your own headset, you can start exploring on your own. There’s tons of fantastic free or very affordable educational content available out there – we’ve actually compiled a Top 10.

If you don’t have a headset, try and speak to faculties. For decades education has remained relatively unchanged, but the combination of world events and new technologies means most institutions have an open-mind right now when it comes to experimenting.

You might also like: Sandwell College training students with virtual reality in global study

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