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Sailing the VR Vessel of Illumination

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Dissolving pessimism and evoking optimism, VR reimagines  training and education setting the sails for new realities and ways of learning in soft skills. But is it all plain sailing?

Louis Marin (1984) frames utopian narratives as a journey, in which the construction of reality in out of the ordinary ways is encouraged. The Learning Loop draws clearly and unapologetically on utopian roots, it’s coordinates firmly set on sailing VR head on into industry and education to upskill employees and students alike in soft skills.

Echoing the sentiments of the Grandfather of VR,  Professor Tom Furness, The Learning Loop aims to use VR for social good, building a stronger and cohesive society post pandemic. A fundamental part of social good, is creating a socially just, supportive, and empathic society and workforce. Cue soft skills.

Soft Skills

Soft skills have traditionally been overshadowed by hard skills, though the pandemic has shown human interaction and robust communication skills is essential to maintaining i) social networks and ii) remote working. Two thirds (66%) of skills shortage vacancies are the result of a lack of people and personal skills, known as  soft skills (Department for Education, 2020). Put simply, action is needed to start meeting this challenge. Could VR have the answer?

Potentially, yes. In our research we identified five key themes to build a case for VR and soft skills training:

  • Ability to provide users with exposure to realistic, diverse scenarios in a safe and risk-free environment.
  • Cost efficient and green training solutions compared with in person training, supporting scalable and repeated learning episodes at distance.
  • Soft skill is challenging to effectively deliver in person as it is challenging to replicate in person interactions using roleplay.
  • Utilising blended learning approaches VR provides flexible and versatile education and training, with options for instantaneous feedback.
  • Provides support to bridge the soft skills training gap.

Reflecting the possibilities VR brings, the last 5 years have seen an incremental increase in VR companies exploring soft skills training and education. Yet they are still far and few between.  Notable companies developing VR simulations to deliver communication, empathy and presentations skills include, Mursion, Body Swaps and PwC.  Industry giants Walmart, Vodafone, Ernst & Young, Hilton and Lloyds have all adopted VR into employee training, firmly shifting VR into real life realties.

It seems everyone is hopping on to the bandwagon, right? Not so, as industry examples are few and far between. In education there are even few examples, certainly nothing mainstream.

Robin Ghurbhurun (2020)  reported only 4 in 10 FE staff have adequate digital capabilities, with a staggering 49% feeling unable to deliver quality teaching using digital (JISC, 2020).

In short (as obvious as it sounds) educators need support to have the confidence to move away from the deep-seated ingrained teaching and training pedagogies of yesteryear.

Of course, the pandemic has nudged many teetering educators and trainers into the digital pool of ed tech (albeit,  I quietly suspect kicking and screaming!). Yet more work is needed. Without this fundamental support, VR will simply remain part of a utopian education. Nothing more than a nice thought and something global giants are able to bring into their own rose-tinted realities as something novel.

PwC Report

Studies and research in this area are lacking,  the longer term impacts and translation into real world contexts are largely unknowns. In short, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg of understanding how VR can effectively support soft skills delivery

Framed as one of the most significant pieces of research in soft skills and IVR (given the number of blogs mirroring the findings), PwC’s (2020) in collaboration with Talespin report is one of the most current pieces of work in this field.   Investigating the impact of unconscious bias training using VR, PwC’s report offers some insight into IVR and soft skills training though there are shortcomings.

Sure, the latest VR HMD headset was used (Oculus Quest), yet it wasn’t exploited to its full potential relying on voice input. A closer examination reveals users read text out loud from multiple options and were not afforded the full benefit of hand controls.  Over the last month I have read more about haptics and hand motion tracking than I care to remember – Yet they are AWOL in PwC’s research, with no clear rationale for a voice only approach.

This must be one of the biggest shortcomings (and travesties) of all! Even using voice the experience is, well limited. After all, how many conversations do you have with a script displayed? We have to ask ourselves, as a society, as educators and trainers are we ready to accept interactions are formulaic and therefore reduce the act of human interaction as an algorithm?

AI conversational robots as reality?

Mehrabian (1939) reported 38% of what we say is shaped by paralinguistic communication (it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it) and 55% facial expression. Only 7% is verbal. Arguably, PwC (2020) were only partially successful in replicating a human interaction and subsequent training.

If VR soft skills training is really to transition out of utopia, it needs to be real ready i.e. truly representative of real life reality. Whether AI can realistically replicate in person human conversations is open to debate. Though if we accept this preposition , are we not accepting robots as new teachers in this utopian education, and if we are, how are we approaching ethics? (If we are thinking about them at all).

Mursion, have gone one step further than PwC and developed ‘the human in the loop approach. Effectively a real human puppets an avatar and the trainee interacts with the roleplay. This seems far more sensible, enabling real conversations and scenarios to play out – Personally, I am far more excited about this approach than utilising AI and conversational branching rigs that are out there.

It might sound like I am on a mission to discredit AI and the approach taken by PwC, though you couldn’t be further off the mark. What I am trying to articulate is there is a need for rigorous, robust and evaluation of IVR in soft skills training. That is both ethical, true to life and effective.

PwC’s report is just a small piece of an emerging picture, more work needs to be done to really get beneath the hood of this fascinating area. PwC have set the sector alive with a partial illumination of what is possible, though is just one perspective and one application with limitations. More exploratory work is needed if we are really going to sail, what is still a utopian education into a wider ocean.

The Learning Loop is striving to develop new, innovative approaches in partnership with industry to develop something that really works at scale. We’re already preparing our pilot study and will be going live with our first experiences in the first quarter of 2021 – Keep an eye out for a new ship in the waters! It is going to be an exciting voyage and one I personally hope fosters stronger and deeper human relationships to assist in a post pandemic recovery.


References

Department for Education (2020) Employer skills survey 2019: summary report [online]. London: Department for Education. Available from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/936488/ESS_2019_Summary_Report_Nov2020.pdf [Accessed 1 February 2021].

Ghurbhurun, R. (2020) Why are only four in 10 staff in FE comfortable with mainstream technology? [blog].  13 October. Available from: https://feweek.co.uk/2020/10/13/why-are-only-four-in-10-staff-in-fe-comfortable-with-mainstream-technology/ [Accessed 1 February 2021].

JISC (2020) Shaping the digital future of FE and skills – September 2020 [online]. Bristol, UK: JISC. Available from https://www.jisc.ac.uk/sites/default/files/shaping-the-digital-future-of-fe-and-skills-report.pdf [Accessed 1 February 2021].

Pwc (2020) The effectiveness of virtual reality soft skills training in the enterprise [online]. London: PricewaterhouseCoopers International Ltd. Available from https://www.pwc.com/us/en/services/consulting/technology/emerging-technology/assets/pwc-understanding-the-effectiveness-of-soft-skills-training-in-the-enterprise-a-study.pdf [Accessed 01 February 2021].

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