Business schools are packed with courses devoted to high-tech entrepreneurship, financial accounting and academic theories on leadership.
Far less common are courses that teach students the “people skills” necessary to put their newly acquired knowledge to use.
In the business world, where relationship-building is essential, these “soft” skills — personal confidence, negotiation, active listening, calm and flexibility — can play an outsize role. But they’re often treated like inborn traits, skills more likely to be won in a genetic lottery than cultivated in a classroom.
At Fordham University in New York this semester, business professors are challenging this notion with a high-tech teaching tool that is making its way into more and more classrooms: virtual reality. Instead of listening to lectures or poring over textbooks, students enrolled in Fordham’s “Exploring Entrepreneurship” class are donning VR goggles that temporarily remove them from the classroom and place them in simulations designed to build professional skills.
In one simulation, students learn how to network among groups of strangers gathered in a room. In others, they lead negotiations at a high-stakes business meeting in a conference room or give presentations in front of colleagues. While a handful of students are immersed in a simulation, their virtual selves are broadcast on a projector for the rest of the class to watch, and critique, in real time.
The students in the VR experience are given new names, genders and voices so their true identities remain anonymous, which enhances the realism, according Lyron Bentovim, the professor leading the class alongside professor Christine Janssen.
Bentovim is also CEO of the Glimpse Group, the NYC-based AR/VR company behind the technology students are using in class. The Glimpse Group serves as a holding company for several VR and AR startups. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is a passionate VR advocate who believes in its ability to reinvent educational environments. He said students who learn in a simulated environment talk differently from the way students who are more heavily reliant on textbooks talk.
“Your brain actually assumes you’ve experienced the simulated environment and it brings educational concepts to life for students,” he said. “When they leave class they don’t say, ‘We learned about negotiating today,’ they say, ‘I negotiated today,’ or ‘I led a business meeting today.’
“When you have the headset on, it feels real and that experience creates confidence,” Bentovim added.
The market for virtual reality applications is quickly growing and will continue to do so as the cost of equipment falls, giving students and schools greater access to technology, according to Meredith Thompson, David Kaser and Kara Grijalva, whose book, Envisioning Virtual Reality, was published by Carnegie Mellon University’s ETC Press earlier this year.
The authors note that VR has particularly promising applications in what they refer to as “low-resource settings,” environments with limited educational budgets located in low- and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Citing the work of South African VR expert Dave Lockwood, the authors write that in many low-resource education settings, students may not be learning in their native language and textbooks, and that materials may not be available in a language in which both teacher and student are proficient.
“VR overcomes language as a barrier by turning content visual, leveling the linguistic environment and creating a universal experience,” the authors add.
Beyond their in-class VR, the Glimpse Group recently introduced a new way for Fordham students to experience class from outside the classroom. They call it “Project Chimera,” an immersive educational broadcast that mixes virtual reality with 180-degree video and real life. With a VR headset strapped on, students elsewhere can sit in on the class in real time as if they were physically present, and even participate with each other, the teacher and local students via a custom avatar.
A video made at Fordham shows students using VR headsets to join a real-world college classroom re-created in the virtual world as the class unfolds in real time. Using the headset, remote students are able to participate with fellow students, take notes and get the attention of the instructor to ask questions.
Looking to the future, Bentovim predicts that VR will become a feature in classrooms at every level of education. More advanced versions of Project Chimera, he said, could even negate the need for a classroom altogether, allowing people to join in an immersive classroom environment no matter where they are.
“VR could change how educational institutions think about budgeting as well,” he said. “Let’s say you wanted to simulate what it’s like to work as a geologist or teach a class about manufacturing in Japan. Now, you can take the whole class to Japan with the click of a button.”
Researchers are already beginning to investigate whether VR offers a meaningful substitute for real-world experiences.
A 2016 study concluded that virtual reality can be a successful replacement for lab experiences. European researchers randomly selected 189 students from an undergraduate biology course and had them practice “streaking out bacteria on agar plates in a virtual environment.”
The students were later assessed on their ability to perform the same exercise in a real lab. The results showed that there were no significant differences between students who practiced in a virtual environment and those who practiced in a physical lab.
“Our data show that vLABs function just as well as face-to-face tutorials in preparing students for a physical lab activity in microbiology,” the study concluded.