“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Building on this pearl of Confucian wisdom, Dr Christian Schott from Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Management is providing experiential learning for the 21st Century through the use of virtual reality (VR).

Learning through reflection on doing has always been an important tool in educating students by enabling them to bridge theory and practice, and for students of sustainable tourism, the field trip is crucial to understanding the realities of life in the far-flung paradises people want to visit.

But it is hard to reconcile emissions-producing plane trips to a Pacific island being affected by climate change, with a course focused on sustainability.

Enter the immersive, interactive and complex environments offered by VR, which Schott—with contributions by Maciu Raivoka from Victoria University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning and Alan Proctor-Thomson (Burnt Pixel)—has utilised to replicate an island in Fiji in the throes of developing a local tourism industry. It’s a case study, but like nothing currently seen in the area of sustainability studies.

“Using VR like this for teaching freshens things up. It’s a true step forward, in terms of helping students understand material,” Schott says.

“There is a very strong case for VR being an experiential learning tool. You experience, you reflect on it, and from all that, you learn. Very powerful. We are the only ones using VR to teach sustainability in this way.”

Understanding the needs of local communities impacted by tourism is an essential part of sustainable development, so the virtual island is also populated with actual residents whose stories, perspectives and aspirations the students can listen to for a more complete understanding of the situation.

“You need that human contact and interaction. So we brought in the stories of about 14 different stakeholders on the island by videoing them speaking to questions. They were then incorporated into the island in the place where they were filmed for their interview,” says Schott.

“It’s all about keeping it as authentic as possible, so the students come away with the idea that this is relevant, this is really happening, these are real people dealing with real issues, and this is why sustainability really is important.”

Taking new and innovative approaches to education through experience is a passion of Schott’s, and one he initially began exploring by playing music that connected students to a country’s culture, coupled with basic information at the beginning of his lectures. From there, he added an informal quiz to celebrate students existing knowledge, Google Earth visits to popular tourist destinations—complete with 360 degree photos—and then took the next step by exploring VR.

Using gaming software paired with the HTC Vive (VR headset) creates a highly immersive experience that also incorporates great sound, like the crashing of waves, which is “quite important to emotionally connect you with and situate you on that island”.

“It comes down to the question of how can we make this material relevant, because then there can also be an emotional investment in what’s being learned. That’s what I wanted to achieve,” Schott says.

Being recognised for ‘Enhancing Approaches to Leadership Education and Development’ by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International) in their annual Innovations That Inspire showcase is a testament to what has already been achieved.

As is the invitation Schott received to speak last month at the other key global accreditation body’s (EFMD) annual conference in Copenhagen, where he addressed more than 500 Deans and Associate Deans of the world’s leading business schools on how his innovation enhances learning and employability. 

With the success of the innovative adoption of VR has also come much interest from other groups looking to use the technology in similar ways. So much so that Schott has developed a “road map” to creating a virtual field trip, and has become a staunch advocate for the use of VR in education to “present information in a meaningful way, so students actually get it and then they care”.

“We are making the case for experiential learning as a particular educational concept, and we are looking at what you need in an environment for experiential learning so we can incorporate it in VR environments,” Schott says about his current research.

“We are finding that many of these aspects are already inherent in VR and we can utilise this. I think we have something much broader to share with the education community about VR’s potential for education”

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