Gone are the days where learning was simply a matter of remembering what was spoken in a classroom. Facts that are simply heard or read have limited half-lives in our memory circuits, while those that are felt or experienced last longer. Modern technology like virtual reality (VR) can offer learners the capacity to experience information. And when they do, they can understand situations deeply and remember them vividly.

Take for example a 2018 study conducted by computational social scientist David Markowitz and his colleagues. These investigators explored whether immersive virtual reality was effective for teaching people the consequences of climate change. They found that after experiencing immersive VR, people acquired new knowledge about climate science and, in some cases, displayed improved attitudes toward the environment after VR exposure. The analyses also revealed that the more time people spent in this environment, the more they learned.

Contrary to popular belief, new technologies may actually make us more human than less human. By offering powerful experiences, virtual reality may make us more empathetic, altruistic and understanding toward each other. In 2018, cognitive scientists Daniel Żuromski and his colleagues explained that “digital humanism” is a reality. When you’re immersed in an environment, you really “get it.” You see things from another person’s point of view, and this perspective lasts. If a learner is not predisposed to helping others, they may benefit from immersive technology. Imagine the consequences of applying this research to toxic bosses and office conflicts. While words may fall on deaf ears, showing people what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes could help learners develop skills conducive to a peaceful work environment.

VR can also help you see how self-image affects the way you interact with others. For instance, people given attractive avatars have shown to be more confident interacting in the virtual world than those given unattractive avatars. In a 2017 study led by computer scientist Ye Pan, self-avatars helped people learn soft skills like trust and co-operation.

In the brain, VR is effective at promoting learning by helping users feel the learning “in their bones.” In 2019, Giuseppe Riva and his colleagues explained that this phenomenon called “embodied simulation” joins the mind and body when learning. When the mind and body come together, people feel more internally coherent and can navigate the world and control their bodies effectively. Think of how effective this strategy can be in corporations where people feel burned out or disengaged. This mind-body coherence could be just what employees need. In many ways, engaging the mind and body in VR is similar to mindfulness or meditation and can be used as an alternative.

In the real world, people encounter more than just words. They have to deal with distractions in the environment. VR offers people the ability to face challenges that approximate those in the real world. In VR settings, learners can experience their reactions to disruptions more intimately. Imagine you have to stand on stage to give a presentation to the board. Practicing this in a VR environment while seeing a simulation of your heart racing can give you the necessary insights to conquer your fears.

Of course, as with most technology, you want to ensure that you moderate your exposure to simulated realities. You don’t want to have these simulations replace reality, like how a child may try to swipe right on an actual book because of isolated exposure to Kindle texts. Since VR is likely to work in some instances but not others, it’s best to implement and test those applications that provide potential high-yield with little risk. Applications that boost self-confidence, environmental sensitivity, trust, co-operation, engagement and resilience are likely to be a good investment in the long-run.

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