VR - the empath machine of the emerging tech world
In a world that is increasingly physically disconnected, Henley Business School Africa is using technology to reintroduce the human touch to a virtual world and bring its people together.
Dubbed #HenleyEXPLORE by the three ‘explorers’ of the pilot team; Phillip Mabitle, Siqu Nsele and Louise Claassen, the business school is using virtual reality not just to enhance remote teaching but to take it to the next level by bringing people together in the way that a flat screen interaction like Zoom or MS Teams never can. Using Oculus Quest 2.0 headsets, people now meet in social VR spaces, hear one another speak in terms of their actual spatial proximity rather than echoing off a flat screen environment.
“It’s a very different coding experience,” explains Claassen, who is an executive fellow at Henley and guides its Virtual Reality design effort. “When you transition from Zoom to an AltSpace (a social VR platform) environment, students tell us that it actually feels as if they are together properly for the first time, even though some of them have been studying together for an entire year beforehand. Virtual Reality is very visceral and very vivid. If you’re on my left in a social gathering, then when you speak, I’ll hear it in my left ear, and so on.”
The main delivery platform at the moment though remains the Post Graduate Diploma in Management Practice for Africa. The inaugural year long course is coming to an end now, with the next class ready to begin in October.
In many ways, the first class was a pilot project for the entire VR project, allowing The Explorers to prototype the classes and the technology and take them both to the next level. In the beginning VR headsets were cardboard, allowing users to fit in their smartphones to them which then created an immersive experience as they watched VR films on their devices. While remarkably capable, Cardboard VR is only able to create an immersive VR film experience.
By the second block, Henley had secured the brand-new Oculus Quest 2 headsets, Oculus is owned by Facebook, and was encouraging students to buy these. The Oculus Quest 2 allows for a much broader range of VR experiences. By March this year, the business school had gone out and bought 40 headsets of their own for VR executive education programmes, the first of which was a six-day immersion for Nedbank CIB as part of their graduate programme Higher Certificate in Management Practice course.
Students watched specially made films on agri-tech and renewable energy in Kenya on their headsets and then went on into a question-and-answer session with the founding entrepreneurs and MDs of these companies. Students also experienced key business meetings in AltSpace; they were in Johannesburg and their guest speakers in Nairobi, but they were virtually in the same room.
The next frontier for the team is collaborative virtual reality, where participants will be in a virtual room together creating 3D models, working on a whiteboard and more, as avatars, as seamlessly and as efficiently as if they were in a room on the Witkoppen campus.
“What VR gives you is a truly connected experience,” Claassen explains. “VR is called the empathy machine of the emerging technology world; it allows you presence and embodiment. Presence because you are not looking at the story, you are immersed in the story and embodiment because your body actually physiologically responds to the stimuli you are receiving, at a cellular level.”
The importance of VR is that it is an incredible tool for immersive learning which in itself has far higher rates of knowledge retention than any other teaching methodology. There’s no end to the application of the technology, only the imagination of the people themselves. In another example, Henley Africa is working with its own faculty members to link VR content to link the UN Sustainable Development goals to their business context.
“We’re finding faculty who want to use the technology and we are partnering with them to redesign the learning experience,” explains Claassen.
The Explorers have formed VR Lab One with a target of running 100 labs, evangelising the VR gospel and inducting people into the world of VR, using the Oculus Quest 2 headset. So far, 18 have been held, says Claassen, and the findings have been an epiphany for the hosts, helping them to amend, adjust and improve what they’re offering from what they’re learning on the ground.
They partnered with Black Rhino in Kenya to produce three VR films, which were shown to the Nedbank group and the PG Dip Africa cohort, and is now making a fourth film, this time in South Africa, with VR Capture, for Transnet. All the while they are curating VR films that are available, and plan on creating their own case studies so that they can be used in teaching.
As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously uttered “It is 2021. It is a lot easier to move bits around than it is atoms.” It’s what drives The Explorers.
For Henley Africa dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley, the evolution of VR is one of a number of fast-moving and important innovations that have been taking place at the business school over the last 18 months.
“We were able to pivot to online learning seamlessly before South Africa was first placed under lockdown last March. Since then, we have designed new courses, short and long. Virtual Reality in its most basic form has always been part of our immersive learning arsenal but has come into its own with the PG Dip (Africa) and, as The Explorers are showing, with remote learning.”
Successfully building the leaders who build the businesses that build Africa, says Foster-Pedley, means that learning will have to be remote by sheer geographic necessity – especially if Africa is to make full use of the opportunities offered by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
“What Louise and the team are teaching us, is how vital it is to create connectivity in the process and virtually reintroduce empathy through technology, where paradoxically technology allowed us to connect but stripped away the human touch.”
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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