VR_lead
Along with VR, immersive teaching methods leverage augmented and mixed reality to put students right inside a topic Image Credit: Shutterstock

What could be a better way to learn French than walking down the streets of Paris and soaking in the sights, sounds and culture of the place? But what if you could do this from the comforts of your university, without spending a dirham on travel or accommodation?

In 2015, Harvard University piloted a virtual reality (VR) project that sent foreign language students on four virtual tours of Parisian quarters, in search of “perceptual, empathetic and culturally immersive experiences” that would purportedly enhance their perceived value of language and culture learning.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the University of Newcastle has set VR and augmented reality (AR) on the “Road to Birth”, which takes students of the university’s School of Nursing and Midwifery through the various stages of childbirth, even challenging them to deal with complications and emergencies.

Market reality

Gartner estimates that, by 2021, 60 per cent of US-based higher education institutions will intentionally use VR to create an enhanced simulation and learning environment.

Apart from VR, immersive teaching methods leverage augmented and mixed reality to put students right inside a topic.

Fadi Abdul Khalek, General Manager, SAE Dubai, asserts that immersive learning creates a highly engaging experience and ensures that the learner spends more time on learning, hence producing better outcomes. “Also, discoveries in cognitive science have proved that learning by practice is the best way to learn and is the most effective for knowledge retention,” he adds.

UAE-­­­a fertile ground for immersive tech

Dr.Rami El Khatib, Dean of Student Affairs & Associate Professor, Faculty of Communication, Arts and Sciences, Canadian University Dubai (CUD), observes that the UAE has a young and dynamic higher education sector, which means it is able to modernise and adapt to new learning styles that go beyond the standard teaching approaches of traditional systems. “With a youthful population and a society built upon innovation, this a fertile environment for universities to embrace immersive learning in all its forms, from the application of cutting-edge technology in labs to the simulation of real-world business scenarios in the classroom,” says Dr El Khatib.

With a youthful population and a society built upon innovation, this a fertile environment for universities to embrace immersive learning in all its forms, from the application of cutting-edge technology in labs to the simulation of real-world business scenarios in the classroom.

- Dr. Rami El Khatib, Dean of Student Affairs & Associate Professor, Faculty of Communication, Arts and Sciences, Canadian University Dubai (CUD)

CUD has taken the immersive route for all its programmes – from business, communications and design, to engineering and environmental and health sciences.

Dr Arijit Sikdar, Associate Professor, Faculty of Business at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD), too points out that various universities in the UAE are using simulations in different courses, where students make real-time decisions and “face the consequences as would be experienced in real life”. He offers the example of the PhoneVentures simulation, where UOWD MBA students are tasked with taking a fictitious company into new markets and increasing sales, while simultaneously competing with other students.

The students felt that the business simulation was very helpful with implementing the knowledge that they had learnt in class. They learnt how to make practical decisions and see the consequences.

- Dr Arijit Sikdar, Associate Professor, Faculty of Business at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD)

“The students felt that the business simulation was very helpful with implementing the knowledge that they had learnt in class. They learnt how to make practical decisions and see the consequences.”

But hold on…

Khalek believes costs remain one of the biggest obstacles that academic institutions face as they attempt to embed immersive learning environments at a large scale among their students. “The cost of transforming a single lesson, with a single learning outcome, into a virtual reality game-based learning module used to be anywhere between $3,000 (Dh10,800) to $5,000. When you multiply this by the many thousands of lessons and learning hours that need to be converted, the overall cost becomes unrealistic.”

And even though the cost of producing immersive learning environments has come down drastically in recent years, it remains “an insurmountable hurdle” for many institutions.

The cost of transforming a single lesson, with a single learning outcome, into a virtual reality game-based learning module used to be anywhere between $3,000 (Dh10,800) to $5,000. When you multiply this by the many thousands of lessons and learning hours that need to be converted, the overall cost becomes unrealistic.

- Fadi Abdul Khalek, General Manager, SAE Dubai

So, for now, Khalek notes that institutions are taking small steps by developing immersive environments on a small-scale to supplement existing teaching and learning tools.

The story goes that when he was only six-years old, Thomas Edison, one of the world’s most prolific inventors, set fire to the family’s barn just because he wanted to see what would happen. For this experiment, his father gave him a public whipping. Well, if only Edison had access to a virtual, augmented or mixed-reality barn, he could have set fire to it as many times as he wanted. Perhaps his father too would have joined in.