Is virtual reality the key to careers education?

While careers education is vital, it can take up a lot of teacher time. One college, however, leaves the lessons to artificial intelligence – and is reaping the rewards, finds Kate Parker
9th February 2022, 3:00pm
Virtual, reality, career


Is virtual reality the key to careers education?

What does your school do to prepare students for their first-ever job interview? Perhaps you run through potential questions in tutor time, teach interview technique or have teachers pose as hiring managers for mock interviews.

These approaches may help, but they all take up teacher time and require a certain level of expertise. But what if there was an approach that involved little teacher input and had been shown to have great results?

Sandwell College, in the West Midlands, may have found such an approach. There, students don virtual reality headsets and are transported into a boardroom, where they are met by avatars who conduct the interview in real time.

This experience occurs in the college’s “Fab Lab”, which is full of emerging technology used to assist teaching and learning, and is produced by Bodyswaps, a VR and mobile platform for soft skills training. And, according to Ben Haddock, the college’s emerging technologies demonstrator, the use of VR to teach career skills has been transformational for students.

“It’s amazing: pop a headset on almost anyone, whether that’s a student, a teacher, someone who’s older or younger, and it really captures their imagination,” he says.

While a lot of schools and colleges have dabbled in VR, it’s not common for this type of technology to be used on a large scale. But, as Haddock explains, rolling out this approach for all students seemed to be the perfect solution to some big issues that the college was facing with student motivation and confidence, particularly around developing workplace skills. And with many students leaving the college and going directly into an apprenticeship or full-time job, this was a crucial problem to address.

“We are located in the West Midlands, in one of the most deprived areas of the country,” says Haddock. “Our student groups are very quiet, they don’t want to speak up, and it can be quite difficult to engage them in these sorts of soft skills.”

How virtual reality can transform careers education

The use of VR seemed to hold the potential to “engage and enthuse” students in a new way, and so the college decided it was worth a try.

But how exactly does the approach work? Haddock explains that the experience is split into three modules. The first focuses on managing anxiety through breathing exercises, and goes over different techniques for answering questions. Students are shown videos of others using the techniques, and then get a chance to practise themselves.

The next module is a personality test, which helps students to identify their strengths within a workplace, and highlights careers suited to them. The final module is the VR practice interview, which students can repeat as many times as they like.

Once the interview is over, students are given the opportunity to “body swap” with themselves, and see their behaviour from a third-person perspective. Artificial intelligence shares an analysis of their performance, including how quickly they spoke, what sort of language they used and what their body language was like.

As well as the job interviews, students can also take part in a career mindset development programme, in which they virtually experience the first day of work. In this, they have to introduce themselves, pitch an idea to a colleague and give some constructive criticism to someone.

How does the college fit all of this into the timetable? Well, at Sandwell interview practice takes place in tutorial time, just as it did before they started using VR. Previously, teachers ran in-person mock interviews and it would take them a couple of months to get through all their tutees. Now, they simply book a slot for a group in the Fab Lab, and let the technology do the rest.

But how affordable is all of this? Obviously, virtual reality headsets are not cheap.

Sandwell, admittedly, has had help here: the college had funding from the West Midlands Combined Authority to build the Fab Lab, and because the college has been working with Bodyswaps to help the software company develop its programmes, it has had a lower subscription fee. However, Haddock stresses that, just as Sandwell did, others could get funding from external partners.

“If you were to put in a funding bid, wherever you are in the country, for things like VR, I think you could get the funding quite easily,” he says.

The headsets are also not as expensive as they once were, he adds: “A couple of years ago, you’d be paying £1,000 per headset, but now it’s more like £300, which is a similar price to a laptop.”

However, he argues that VR can offer a much more immersive learning experience than a laptop - and schools don’t necessarily need to buy a class set of 30 headsets, as even five or 10 will still allow children to access this learning.

“It might appear to be quite complicated or difficult, but, actually, the pricing is quite reasonable. You just need to start small and grow from there,” says Haddock.

So, the cost needn’t be a prohibitive factor. But how much evidence is there that the approach really works?

Haddock has data to support the college’s use of this technology. Sandwell was one of five colleges that worked with Bodyswaps to develop this programme but it was the only one that used VR - the four other colleges used an app on a smartphone.

A joint survey across the colleges revealed a big difference in how much the students took from the programme when using VR compared with using a smartphone. Around 62 per cent of students who used VR said the skills they learned would help them to perform better in future professional experiences, compared with 40 per cent who took part via the app. And when it came to self-awareness, 73 per cent of those who used VR said they were able to identify areas for improvement for their own professional communication skills, compared with 56 per cent who used the app.

For Haddock, there is one other big positive to using VR that he believes has had a significant impact on the particular cohort of students he works with: it allows them to practise in private.

“Many of them have never done a practice interview before, and the thought of doing one is incredibly nerve-wracking. But VR is a way to have that experience without it being in front of anyone else,” he says.

“Often our students don’t want to present themselves in front of other people, and can get quite defensive around feedback. But in VR peers and teachers aren’t around to judge or criticise them: they have psychological safety. As a result, students are eager to take part.”

For shy students in particular, then, this could be a game-changer. And while getting over the fear of speaking in front of real people is important, perhaps having a first-round interview with an avatar will be a useful first step.

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