The point of the Modern Learning body of work is to consider things which are ‘real’ today, but will be pervasive in the 3-5 year window: do we understand what they are, where their potential lies, what the early case studies are, how they fit into our broader learning methodology, potential risks, the layers of hyperbole and marketing, what is fad, and what is fact.
Virtual Reality is commercially mainstream, but expensive, often awkward (both socially and technologically), and niche. I thought it would be useful to explore the potential through four frames: Space, Interaction, Manipulation, and Connection. This is not an exclusive taxonomy, but may provide a starting point.
Virtual Reality allows us to explore spaces, and to do so in ways which avoid limitation, cost, or risk. Consider three aspects of this: the ‘Unreachable or Forbidden’, the ‘Dangerous or Outlawed’, and the ‘Expensive or Crowded’.
Through VR i can climb Everest, from either side, without a permit. I can visit the International Space Station, or revisit the Apollo 11 moon landing. I can travel without cost, and i can stand in the Louvre, examining the Mona Lisa, without having to crane my neck above three hundred other tourists. Essentially, VR allows us to make ‘space’, and hence distance, manageable, frictionless, and also empty and uncontrolled.
We can Interact with things and people, situations, and events, in imaginative, creative, and consequence free ways. Consider these three things: ‘Social Cohesion and Effect’, ‘Empathy and Inclusion’, ‘Behaviour and Change’. Through VR we can interact with other people, individually or in groups, and explore their responses and intent, their reaction and inner thoughts, although of course none of that is intrinsic to the technology of VR itself. It’s down to the scripting or scenarios, the efficacy and accuracy of chatbots, or the creativity of actor/avatars. In other words, nothing inherent in the technology of VR will deliver the social experience (although it may deliver the visual imagery of such). Certainly there is much interest around Diversity, Inclusion, and the potential of VR to impact work around Bullying, but again, use your lens as a Learning Scientist to deconstruct why: again, nothing inherent in the technology will make us more tolerant, more fair, or self reflective, although it may provide us the space and opportunity for such. Certainly it provides us with space to rehearse and prototype new behaviours, and to dynamically experience the effects.
VR scenarios enable us to manipulate the world around us (or even other worlds), in ways that transcend reality: consider ‘Physics and Space’, ‘Problem Solving and Creativity’, and ‘Rehearsal and Prototype’. In VR worlds things like friction, weight, and mass, become a matter of choice, not of fact. We can creatively interact without risk or impact. This allows us to rehearse and prototype approaches and techniques, at relatively low cost. Crucially, this manipulation may include rehearsing new frames of understanding, hence new spaces for cognition, and perhaps creative new approaches to problem solving. It may also allow us to manipulate encounters through dynamic rehearsal, where we switch avatars to explore different dimensions of a situation.
Finally, the question of Connection. Undoubtedly VR offers us new opportunity in this space: consider these three ways; the ‘Virtual Bridge’, ‘Collaboration and Co-Creation’, and ‘Trust and Belonging’. Under that notion of ‘globally local’, we can connect e.g. a London and New York office within one virtual space. That allows us to interact ‘locally’, in ways which may impact on e.g. Trust (which is typically experiential at formation). We could explore mazes and problems together. We could manipulate or interact in encounters together. Or we can just hang out together. Of course, just hanging out may be useful for social cohesion, but if we are able to be creative in novel or new ways, or co-creative, that is particularly relevant for a Socially Dynamic Organisation, which will need to constantly reinvent it’s truth. And we know from the Trust and Communities research that the choreography, ritual, and artefacts, associated with engagement into a community are central to a sense of belonging and trust, so perhaps we can again be ‘globally local’ in how we build out our tribes.
The context of the Modern Learning professional is not to know, today, how to buy a solution, but rather to understand, in the mid term, how the potential of a new technology may act in service of broad capability building. Essentially, can a technology enable us to build out new capability, to improve efficiency, to be fairer or more inclusive, or to innovate and scale. If not, it may simply be a wonderful fad or distraction. But if it can, it is almost certainly subject to our building a broad ability, within learning methodology and approach, to use it in the right ways. As ever, success, and excellence, will be features of design that are enabled and powered by technology. Technology itself will not be the answer, no matter how lovely it is.