Is Virtual Reality Better than the Real World for Learning?

We must equip people to be more resilient in a tech-fueled future.

I’m not a virtual reality expert or a gamer, but I am very curious about the experiences VR offers, especially when it comes to learning.

This led me to attend a panel on leading-edge behaviors from the virtual world led by Toshi Hoo, Emerging Media Lab Director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF).

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The virtual world is rather freeing, not to mention good for the world’s carbon footprint.

We were at IFTF’s annual “10-Year Forecast” event powered by the Future 50 Partnership, hosted here in the heart of Silicon Valley. Toshi had assembled a mixed-media panel of speakers – two of the speakers were participating as their avatar selves and had designed game-like virtual representations who moved in sync with them in the real world.

If the panelist raised an arm, the avatar raised its arm. When the panelist opened their mouth to speak, so did the avatar.

Those who saw Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One – about a virtual reality universe set in 2045 –know what I mean. The audience experienced what Toshi saw from his Oculus headset on a big screen as he interviewed the avatars. It was my first experience with social VR.

When I told I my 16-year-old son, a typical teenager who grew up designing virtual worlds in Minecraft, what I saw, his response was, “Why would anyone live in the real world over the virtual world?”

You make decisions 

In the virtual world, you decide how you want to look and anything you want to change is possible with a click. And since money is no object, you can dress and decorate your space exactly as you want without actually consuming resources.

Unlike the real world, you can interact with avatar friends from anywhere since there aren’t limitations of geographic proximity.

My son argued that the virtual world is rather freeing, not to mention good for the world’s carbon footprint. He might be on to something. But what I had in mind wasn’t quite the same as my son.

What piqued my interest was that VR was a place where you have an immersive experience in a real-life environment anywhere in the world.

One of the questions I’m trying to answer during my residency at IFTF: Which practices are most promising for compressing learning time so the learner can better keep pace with the rate of change and pair with machines? I’m adding VR to the list.

A game changer

Globalization and digitization are transforming business and workforce needs, and adults across the workforce increasingly need skilling, reskilling and upskilling to retain, find and advance at work. VR could be a gamechanger when it comes to learning and training.

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Today’s education and training systems are not keeping up with the current demand for skills.

Creating an avatar and learning from your home or workplace removes the stigma or anxiety a person in their 40s, 50s, or 60s might have about going back to school.

It also allows employees to be placed in actual work environments from anywhere in the world so they can learn by doing – without the difficulties of reproducing and replicating the workplace.

Companies have caught on to this concept and are using VR technologies for workforce development and trainings. STRIVR is partnering with Walmart to help train employees across North America, distributing 17,000 Oculus Go headsets to train staff.

There are also less risks practicing something in VR that might be dangerous in the real world, where employees might not get an opportunity to try this otherwise.

Working and learning

The way we’ve trained the workforce is outdated. IFTF just released a new report, AI Forces Shaping Work & Learning in 2030, exploring the coming work-and-learn ecosystem.

Accenture recently launched It’s Learning. Just Not As We Know It, which reveals that today’s education and training systems are not keeping up with the current demand for skills, let alone tomorrow’s new demands.

We must equip people to be more resilient in a tech-fueled world so why not turn to tech to do just that?

This article first appeared on the IFTF Future Now blog and was republished with permission.

Van Ton-Quinlivan is an Executive in Residence at the Institute for the Future and the Executive Vice Chancellor of Workforce and Digital Futures at California Community Colleges.

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