In the blink of an eye, virtual reality can take you from a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan to a first responder’s mission in Nepal, from practicing surgery in Nigeria to tracking storms from earth observation satellites across South America. Virtual reality adds a new dimension to the learning experience: presence, the feeling of actually being in another place.
Learning from this new generation technology is becoming available at your fingertips for a minimal cost. Although virtual reality is still in its infancy, its cutting-edge approach and storytelling is already impacting development education, where it can draw us closer to the many development challenges we face.
What Exactly is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality refers to technology that generates realistic images, sounds, and other sensory inputs that replicate an environment. A headset completely immerses the individual in the environment being generated. Immersion is a word you will hear quite a bit related to virtual reality: immersive learning, immersive simulations, or immersive applications. The most famous virtul reality tool now is probably Oculus Rift.
The technology can be used to develop a “flight simulator” for just about any skill, where students can practice and learn under the same conditions where they will use their skills. As learners move and look in different directions, they will watch the virtual world from a different direction, just like in real life.
Much of early virtual reality (and still much of the educational content) was directed toward the sciences—biology, anatomy, geology, and astronomy—where simulations are natural. Architecture, literature, history, and economics are beginning to benefit as well.
Examples of Virtual Reality
Virtual tours allow learners to immerse themselves in worlds they would have otherwise never experienced.
- Google’s Pioneer Expeditions are virtual “field trips” to various destinations, such as the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and even Mars using (relatively) low-cost cardboard kits.
- David Attenborough’s First Life VR is a 10-minute documentary that transports the viewer to the Cambrian Oceans as they were more than 500 million years ago.
- Alchemy VR offers a virtual reality exploration of the Great Barrier Reef through a partnership with Samsung, Google Expeditions, Sony, HTC, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Australian Museum in Sydney.
- Schell Games generates virtual reality gaming experiences for education that promote systems thinking and spatial recognition.
Virtual reality can enhance medical education, particularly in areas with a shortage of skilled doctors.
- HelpMeSee wants to train 30,000 people for a procedure to treat cataract blindness using a simulator that replicates the human eye and feel of live surgery.
- Doctors in Miami mapped the heart of a baby born with only one lung and half a heart in virtual reality, using 360-degree imaging to plan a pioneering, life-saving surgery technique.
- Health and safety trainings use virtual reality for workplace education: repeated exposure to simulations allows learners to mitigate and potentially overcome panic that might occur in real-life hazardous situations.
- For professional education and development, virtual reality is being used for training exercises, overcoming social anxiety, and developing communication skills.
How the Open Learning Campus—and You—Can Benefit
Now the development community is looking into virtual reality for building capacity and awareness—through storytelling, simulations of alternative planning choices, facilitating dialogues with partners and clients on policy and investment choices—which can help achieve our twin goals of eradicating extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.
This type of immersive learning in the Open Learning Campus can provide learners a real opportunity to learn by doing, thereby increasing motivation and retention. It also provides a huge confidence boost to the learner, who is able to master skills in a virtual arena before applying these skills in real-world contexts. Immersive learning environments also allow learning from failures and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
One obvious way is through simulations, such as the virtual reality film produced by the World Bank that immerses learners in the world of Syrian refugees. The United Nation’s Virtual Reality Series Project created a series of virtual reality movies to address Sustainable Development Goals, giving a voice to the stories behind development challenges. Clouds Over Sidra follows a teenage Syrian refugee girl living in the Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan since the summer of 2013—when she goes to school, her makeshift tent, and even to the football pitch. Waves of Grace captures a young woman’s struggle amid an Ebola epidemic. After surviving a bout with the disease that stole the lives of her family, Decontee, a Liberian native, uses her immunity to help children orphaned by Ebola. Inside Impact is another virtual reality film series featuring stories of positive social impact from around the globe. The first follows President Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative’s journey for a firsthand look at their efforts in Kenya and Tanzania.
Watching Out for the Risks
Virtual reality is still a new field and some of its side effects are not fully understood. For example, there is little to no research on the health effects of sustained exposure to virtual reality headsets. In the gaming world, the total immersion of virtual reality could potentially isolate users from reality and social contact.
Then there is the data being generated. When Oculus Rift is used in education, if we use “traceability,” we will know what content is most viewed, what exercises are chosen or not, which are repeated, and so on, to give timely feedback. However, this creates a host of ethical issues, all of which need to be discussed, disentangled, and redrawn as ethical educational practice.
Although we should be aware of the risks, it is time for us to “do and learn” as far as the many useful applications of virtual reality to the education of development community are concerned. We in the Open Learning Campus are ready to move forward in the immersive learning experience, with your support!
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