Tomorrow’s classroom, today

While even the most tech-literate of educators say the physical classroom is a critical part of the learning experience, Chris Mallet says that virtual reality is already playing a crucial role in extending classroom-based activities.

Whether you think Facebook’s view of the ‘metaverse’ is a good thing, or prefer the more tongue-in-cheek assessment that went viral and even received a response from Mark Zuckerberg, technology has already had a seismic impact on the way we work, socialise and play.

Educators have been experimenting with the virtual world in the classroom for many years – with varying degrees of success. But as technology catches up with our aspirations of what the virtual world can truly offer learners, what should we be making of this latest revolution?

I recently spoke with some of the brightest minds on their understanding of the impact of technology on education. Given that they all have their feet firmly planted in the reality of educating, I was eager to find out how they thought the concept of the classroom might change in the metaverse. 

Were they expecting their students to start checking into virtual reality (VR) class registration at the start of every day, or did they think that the real, physical community of the classroom would still hold sway? 

Did they differentiate between social VR experiences in which a teacher and student interact synchronously in a 3D environment from an asynchronous “solo learner” model which promotes self-paced safe learning?

There remains a strong feeling among even the most tech-literate of educators that the physical classroom is still a critical part of the learning experience. A huge amount of socialising goes on in every classroom that a good teacher deploys as part of their teaching. If we were ever going to move to entirely online learning, we’d lose a lot of that.

It’s no different to all the experiences we know we lost when, at the height of the pandemic, we were conducting all our meetings in a remote Zoom or Teams environment instead of face-to-face.

But there is also a growing acknowledgement that VR can play a key role in extending classroom-based activities. It can allow a school or college to reach beyond what they can offer within their campus. It can give more hands-on experiences and expertise not usually available in the classroom. It can connect people studying in remote learning settings. And if we complement these experiences with a debriefing from a teacher, then the benefits for a learner can be truly transformational.

One recent example that I was particularly taken with was from George Brown College in Toronto. As part of its event planning course, they built a digital ‘twin’ of the Hilton Hotel. In a social VR experience, 30 students were able to practice setting up rooms and virtually moving things around while getting live feedback from their teacher. That just wouldn’t be possible in the classroom – and probably wouldn’t be practical in the real Hotel either!

We are of course talking about a whole new way of teaching, and those interested in the area still need to agree what parts of the metaverse will be truly valuable when it comes to learning. The general consensus seems to be coalescing around the view that VR in the classroom works best when a teacher acts as the mentor, scaffolding the learning that the tech has enabled. And everyone agrees on the worst outcome – simply using VR to replicate what is already happening in the real classroom. 

The naysayers worry that VR will just create greater inequality. They say it isn’t so much about the costs of buying kit – grants are available from the Department for Education – but about those who get access to the ‘real thing’ versus those who get the VR version. They worry that the metaverse will just see a recreation of the real-world inclusivity issues that we already face.

But I’d argue that’s not always the case. 

Organisations such as my own, Bodyswaps, have already been able to show how asynchronous “solo learner” VR can be more effective than in-classroom role-playing sessions at teaching students how to acquire soft skills. The latter is not only time-consuming for a teacher, but students find them awkward too. 

Young people can feel uncomfortable practising their interview techniques or networking skills under the gaze of their peers, especially if they are shy or unconfident. Students who struggle to express themselves eloquently can feel embarrassed and humiliated – they aren’t comfortable making mistakes in a public forum and often feel judged when they do so. What they need is a safe environment where they aren’t self-conscious, where failure is accepted, that offers feedback, and that allows them to make incremental improvements at a pace that suits them.

This is exactly what a VR experience can deliver. It allows students to practice virtually by themselves in a safe space within a format that young people find attractive and engaging. VR can simulate professional settings such as job interviews or dealing with difficult colleagues and customers.

Using artificial intelligence and gaming technology, we ask the students a number of questions, assess the responses, and adapt the scenario on the basis of those responses. Eye contact, posture, verbal and non-verbal communication are all analysed, assessed and fed back to the student. Elements that the students struggle with can then be shared with teachers. 

This is a virtual classroom that works. It helps deliver the soft skills employers value, in an environment students find safe and in a way that they immediately engage with and are attracted to. In the colleges we work with, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.  In fact, 84% of students say that they now feel more confident about the prospect of a ‘real life’ interview.

Whether the metaverse is built in the way Zuckerberg et al imagine it or not, we’re already able to merge virtual life with real life to teach and equip all students with the soft skills that most don’t learn about in the classroom. Helping to create confident students who go off to interviews and get the jobs can only be a good thing.

Chris Mallet is Co-founder & CEO at Bodyswaps, a soft skills training solution offering a library of VR and mobile simulations for management, diversity and employability training.  To book a meeting and arrange a demonstration of Bodyswaps please visit https://bodyswaps.co/


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