Virtual Reality. Is there still a difference between the virtual and real experience in learning any more?

There was a time when ‘virtual reality’ sounded exciting, when it contained the promise of spaces where we could leave our physical bodies behind and interact in other worlds in other ways. We dreamt of a time when we could connect with people around the globe in hitherto impossible ways, where we could project ourselves beyond our physical location.

Today, we’ve got Webex and Call of Duty, which allow me to do pretty much the same thing.

The virtual is no longer a thing of the future, it’s a thing that i do at Fleet Services [Note for American readers – Fleet Services is the epitome of dull. It has a Burger King, a place to buy travel pillows and an emergency toilet. Feel free to insert your own dull location here. This is the joy of the virtual, you can copy and paste your own tedium right into it].

Probably three quarters of my working life is spent interacting online. I am an inhabitant of many virtual spaces; informal social spaces, shopping spaces and communication spaces and formal work spaces, networking spaces and trade spaces. I display the multiple personas and identities that are inherent in the virtual sphere, choosing the most appropriate one for each occasion. I learn online, carry out banking online and arrange volley ball online. I’m almost totally virtualised.

But, there are differences. It’s very hard to build relationships online. It’s harder to build a relationship with someone that you are training, and harder to build a relationship with someone that you are learning from. We miss elements of nuance and gesture, even in videoconference environments, it’s just not the same. Sure, these issues improve all the time, but as it stands, the virtual is still in second place.

In terms of learning, there are advantages that can be leveraged off the fact that people behave differently online. It’s a common technique to use scenarios in learning, but people behave differently in online learning scenarios than they do in real ones. We are more conditioned to leave our ‘reality’ behind when we are online, certainly more so than when we are in a seminar room.

The main advantage that the virtual offers is timeliness. I can carry out many times more activities within the online space than i could possibly hope to achieve in the real world. It’s decimated my travel time and enabled me to work globally, that simply would not be possible without the enhanced levels of interaction and feedback that i can get. Sure, it’s not quite the Matrix, but Webex is a phenomenal tool for collaborative working and learning. it will get better over time, but it’s certainly a great foundation.

The next advances that we see are likely to be around bandwidth, enabling more video, and interfaces, allowing speech to text to do away with the keyboard. These will be enabling technologies. Looking at areas like virtual mentoring and coaching, where the flow of conversation and interaction needs to be seamless, these things can only help.

So, there’s still a significant gap between the virtual and the real, but the barriers are already tumbling down.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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