The way we learn has changed a lot over the last 100 years or so. Our grandparents and great-grandparents learned by rote, repeating facts and writing out spellings, numbers, rules and formulae. The idea was to simply sear the facts and systems into the minds of the learner. Critical thinking wasn’t important and ‘learning how to learn’ was glossed over in favor of simply rote memorizing the important data.
This worked to produce a workforce of people that could follow orders, but it meant that other emerging economies where education focused more on thinking, understanding and exploring began to catch us up, with more coders, creators and engineers coming out of those school systems. So, we started to change the way we educate people, and we put more focus on the other parts of learning – things like systems, and reasoning, and we started to produce more well-rounded graduates.
Now we’re entering another shift, and we’re putting the focus on learning by doing and experiencing, and that’s exactly what immersive learning and VR can help us with. You may have heard about immersion learning for languages – the idea that if you put someone in an environment where they’re forced to speak a specific language it will serve them well in the long term. That’s exactly what immersive virtual reality does, except that instead of the focus being on languages, it can be on other elements of learning instead.
Medical students can use immersive learning to get ‘hands on’ experience with heart surgery and other complex procedures early on in their careers. This means that they have a context for all the other stuff that they are learning. Engineers can go out ‘on site’ to experience the difficult working conditions that they might encounter working in cold environments or out at sea, so that they get a foundational understanding of what it’s like to be in those environments and see why the safety stuff matters so much.
Immersive virtual reality opens up whole ranges of experiences that people otherwise would not be able to have. It makes it possible for novices to operate heavy machines, use expensive equipment and go to dangerous places without the risk or expense associated with those things. It means that people can get more realistic practice, and use their learning time more wisely.
There are even some attempts to make immersive experiences that will let a neurotypical person experience life as someone with sensory disorders or disabilities by giving them a more realistic idea of what the world looks like to those people. These experiences can help those who are working towards becoming psychologists, psychiatrists and care workers, giving them more empathy.
Virtual reality is just one part of learning, and it’s certainly an area where things are ‘gamified’ but it is not the only thing that people are learning with. IT is, however, a hugely important and flexible part of the learning experience and one that we will see a lot more of in the next few years.