Dr Bianca Wright leads the immersive tech curriculum as an associate professor at Coventry University. Wright shared her thoughts with us about the future of virtual reality in a tertiary education context. We also delved into her opinions about soft skills training, and why VR could be a useful tool in this arena of instruction.
Her journalism and academic work on VR has focused on communicating the unique ability of this technology to communicate empathy, increase rates of engagement from users, and to help with unique self-expression.
What Are ‘Soft Skills?’
Like many other voices in tech and business, Wright is not fond of the ‘soft’ skills moniker. “This nomenclature is unhelpful because it implies, these skills aren’t important.” She sees soft skills as the abilities and techniques that will ultimately help “students to flourish in the workplace”.
Wright has taught enough 18 year old undergraduates to know that there is a “great divide” between the experience of entering university and entering the workplace. Graduates typically have a “great technical capacity, but an inability to function in a work environment”. Wright puts this down to a gap in soft skills learning. She argues that universities should not just be helping students to get a job, but also how to keep and flourish in one. Good communication and collaboration are crucial abilities that are collative with workplace excellence.
“Universities should not just be helping students to get a job, but also how to keep and flourish in one.”Dr. Bianca Wright
What Are The Most Important Soft Skills To Learn?
Dr. Wright sees many of the intangible skills that students, and ultimately professionals, need being about the way they work. In her decade of experience as a university-level educator, she has seen the pitfalls of schooling. Higher learning is often about “unlearning a lot of what they learnt in school”.
Wright argues that the main skill that school doesn’t nurture in young people is creative thinking. A lot of school is about memorisation and exam-taking. In addition, she argues that skills around collaboration, understanding personal bias, conflict management, and leadership are crucial for a happy and functional workplace.
VR Is A Solution For This Soft Skills Deficit
When we asked Dr Wright about how she thought soft skills training could be improved, she shared her thoughts about the power of VR as a training medium. For intangible inter-personal skills to be improved and honed, students need to be “put in a situation that they can navigate”. It can’t be a wrote simulation that they can memorise. Rather, it needs to be a changing environment that requires flexibility and creativity. VR is the perfect tool for “productive failure”. Many students have always tried to be perfect. VR teaches them that practice makes perfect.
Wright recalls a VR project she led that used a virtual recreation of the Coventry Blitz, when the town was attacked by bombers in 1940. The experience requires participants to save the cathedral, which is on fire, in Coventry. The realism of the experience created a visceral emotional and physiological response from users, as they try to find a way to put out the blaze. This heightened state creates a need for problem solving, crisis management, and creativity. These are precisely the skills needed for the less dramatic arena of the office.
What Makes VR Learning Unique
Wright has also used VR in a classroom context to transplant experiences into different contexts. Avatar creation gives students unique self-expression. VR allows for students to interact with and experiment in a way that the typical hierarchical classroom inhibits. However, when her students designed digital media for VR, they often tend to think of the technology first.
Wright suggests that projects should start with an outcome in mind, and use technology to serve that outcome. She says that “VR is like Dungeons & Dragons with a headset”. VR helps to take people into scenarios and ground the experience. They can collaboratively form an environment and embark on tentative exploration. It concretizes the experience for trainees.
What Will Future VR Soft Skills Training Look Like?
Soft skills training is often seen as a laborious imposition by many employees. Leadership is often pre-selected for based on the gut feeling of higher-ups, so many people fall through the cracks. Their leadership abilities just haven’t been developed and revealed yet. Conventional soft skills training approaches have no sense of flexibility or adaptability. Wright argues that these skills are so personal that there simply can’t be an effective “one size fits all” approach.
In order to get buy-in for businesses to invest in soft skills training experiences for VR, they need to understand it’s unique selling proposition. They also probably need to be a little bit brave. VR creates significantly higher engagement and learning retention rates in trainees. It facilities creativity and collaboration. VR is not the “solution” to a soft skills training deficit. Rather, it is a tool, that when used in collaboration with other methods, has the power to uniquely empower and educate students and professionals alike.