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The power and promise of immersive learning

Through virtual simulations of real-world scenarios, immersive learning makes it possible to teach someone in a safe and engaging environment.
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Brett Nel, Ulink.
Brett Nel, Ulink.

Immersive learning uses technology like virtual reality (VR) to simulate real-world scenarios, making it possible to teach someone in a safe and engaging environment. In action, this approach to teaching is being utilised to give students the opportunity to meet people from around the world and learn different languages; it’s being leveraged to allow people to take a realistic trip to Mars and it’s even being used to help people learn the actions required to perform lifesaving procedures like CPR.

Although it may be tempting to think of this way of learning as being all about technology, Glenn Gillis, CEO and co-founder of Sea Monster Entertainment, is quick to point out this isn’t the case. “We often think that technology can solve all our problems, but it doesn’t. Yes, these new technologies give us incredible opportunities to do things differently, but we can’t just digitise the syllabus we’ve been using in classrooms for so many years and expect this to make an impact. We actually need to go back to basics and use technology to do things that aren’t possible in the real world,” he notes.

It’s about using digital platforms to layer stories and rich content over the learning material to drive better learning outcomes. “This is true whether you’re trying to teach children at school or employees in a workplace.”

If a student can gain hands-on experience in a simulated environment, their brain thinks they are actually doing something and this improves knowledge retention and information recall.

Brett Nel, Ulink

Marco Rosa, director and co-owner at formula D_, agrees. “Not only does this technology allow for deeper immersion, but it also improves access. With immersive learning, a person who will never get the chance to visit the pyramids in Egypt can now ‘experience’ them in a meaningful way. It’s about putting people in environments and scenarios that would otherwise not be possible.”

You can also add various layers of learning content to the experience. One example of this is a virtual laboratory that formula D_ created to allow students to safely conduct science experiments. “With this virtual lab, students can see what happens to the chemicals on a molecular level and how things change when you mix two chemicals together. This provides better context, which improves understanding and boosts interest in the subject matter.”

Stumbling blocks


Unfortunately, if you look at your typical e-learning approaches across corporate environments and in schools, it’s often more about ticking a box than it is about inspiring anyone to engage with, and really remember, the material, says Gillis. And we saw this during Covid, when the teacher who was standing in front of the classroom full of children was simply moved onto Zoom, teaching students through a screen. “And that’s fine, if that’s what you want to achieve,” he says.

But if you really want to make sure that people walk away having had a rich and memorable experience, you need to think outside of the box and really do things differently. “We’re still doing a lot of poor e-learning that isn’t inspiring or effective,” he asserts.

If we want to equip future generations with the skills they need to unlock value, we need to radically change how we think about content and experiences; this will revolutionise education across South Africa and the African continent.

The dirty and the dangerous

Immersive learning is especially effective in scenarios where you want to train people without putting them in dirty or dangerous situations, says Sea Monster’s Glenn Gillis. A few years ago, Sea Monster created this kind of solution for ArcelorMittal, the largest steel producer on the African continent. The company’s employees are often recruited to work in extreme conditions and at heights. As such, the brand needed a way to test employees for acrophobia in a realistic environment, without endangering their safety. Sea Monster designed a virtual reality experience to test for a fear of heights by exposing prospective employees to a realistic simulation of the brand’s plant where they are taken to heights and asked to perform a series of tasks. If the trainee manages to complete the tasks accurately, and in a timely manner, they pass the test and can move onto the rest of their training. If they exhibit a fear of heights, they’re reassigned to a more suitable field of work.

Brett Nel, MD, Ulink, is focused on the use of these technologies to enhance learning within classrooms in schools. The company’s main VR solution, ClassVR, provides curriculum-aligned content that teachers can use to create ‘playlists’ that are deployed to the student’s VR headsets. “Because we’re offering students a fully immersive experience, we’re able to increase long-term memory retention by as much as 36%. If a student can gain hands-on experience in a simulated environment, their brain thinks they are actually doing something and this improves knowledge retention and information recall,” he says.

But when talking about this technology, Nel stresses that a major digital divide exists between the haves and the have-nots. “It’s still very early days for VR in schools. What we’re seeing is that it’s quite easy for more affluent schools to invest in these technologies and for these children to access the latest and greatest tools. This is great, but the cost of this kind of thing makes it totally inaccessible to students at underprivileged schools.”

Nel says Ulink is actively working to address this divide by donating one headset to an underprivileged school every time an eight headset box is purchased by a school that can afford it. In this way, it’s working to ensure that more and more classrooms are exposed to these innovative technologies. “The hope is to bridge the gap and even to work with other brands that are interested in earmarking some of their social economic development budgets on helping schools enhance their tech capabilities.”

One of the best ways to learn is through play, says Rosa. “It’s incredible to be able to experience things in real life, but we must remember that one of the major limitations of doing things in real life is that it can be quite impractical. Where the necessary technology is available, immersive learning opens up a world of opportunities for people to learn without fear of making mistakes.”

If we want immersive learning to have a real impact, we need to change some of our more steadfast beliefs about what does and doesn’t constitute learning, continues Gillis. We need to focus on the user and focus on what creates a valuable, memorable experience for them. “As far as learning is concerned, I really think that there’s a whole world waiting for us and we’re all just starting on what is set to be an incredibly exciting journey.”

* This feature was first published in the June edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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10 Aug
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