The pandemic has dramatically disrupted traditional learning. While that disruption has widened gaps in access to education that existed along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, it has also accelerated advances in innovation that could help close those gaps.
More than a year after schools and training providers pivoted to remote learning, two trends have emerged. First, finding innovative ways to teach and learn is here to stay. Second, many educators who have gained a new appreciation for how technology can help students learn will forever be on the lookout for technical tools that support unique approaches to education. These tools will create pathways to new educational and career opportunities with students from under-resourced communities.
JFFLabs is the innovative unit of JFF, a national nonprofit that drives transformation in the American workforce and education systems. Kristina Francis, executive director of JFFLabs, believes that immersive learning currently represents one of the most promising options for changing traditional approaches to education and closing achievement gaps.
Together, JFFLabs and SAP are piloting an effort to introduce immersive learning to classrooms across the country.
“This time in history requires expanded access and new entry points for learning, education experiences, and innovation,” Francis said. “It requires corporations and school districts to partner to put resources and technology in the hands of our most marginalized and disadvantaged learners and, frankly, future leaders and innovators.”
A Need for “New Entry Points”
The program is called the Skill Immersion Lab. SAP and JFFLabs have rolled it out at three sites working with high school-aged learners: a high school in Queens, New York; a community center in St. Paul, Minnesota; and a workforce development center serving a rural area of Louisiana, which offers instruction to young people ages 16-24 who are unemployed and not in school.
The importance of finding new ways to engage and motivate students became clear during the pandemic. A June 2020 McKinsey report, citing data from Curriculum Associates, revealed that student engagement rates at schools that serve low-income populations lagged behind those serving high-income students. The data suggested that 60% of students from low-income families were regularly logging on to online instruction, compared to 90% of high-income students.
Students in the Skill Immersion Lab program are engaging in immersive experiences using desktop and virtual reality (VR) platforms to strengthen human skills, also called employability or “soft” skills, such as effective communication and leadership capabilities. The four-to-six-week courses feature curriculum from Talespin, a developer of a VR platform that learners can use to take part in interactive role-playing exercises, allowing them to practice interpersonal skills in virtual settings.
Research has shown that immersive technology is a powerful educational tool. According to PwC, people who are taught using virtual reality tech are 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content, four times more focused than their e-learning peers, and 275% more confident about applying the skills they learn after training. It’s also possible to train people more quickly and cost-effectively using VR.
Educators at the Skill Immersion Lab sites, who have been working with learners in their communities for years, say they welcome the opportunity to offer immersive learning experiences with students.
“A gap that we notice as mentors is the need for students to apply the skills they learn from seminar sessions into a real-world setting,” said a career readiness advisor at the Queens site. “Students learn a lot about the ‘what’ to communicate in a professional environment, but getting students to learn the ‘how’ and ‘why’ as they maneuver through multilevel relationships in the workplace is crucial to ensuring that they are prepared for the many types of communication scenarios they would experience in the workforce. Allowing students to engage in virtual reality experiences early on gives them a head start into building awareness through verbal and non-verbal communication, not only for themselves but also for others.”
The Skill Immersion Lab is also a critical opportunity to listen to learners who bring important lessons and skills from past experiences. Their feedback and engagement will push the program to be more relevant and effective for their own education and career goals.
An Effective Tool for Tough Topics
“It’s all about giving learners access to technology that is proven to be an effective teaching tool for tough topics,” says Katie Booth, who leads the SAP Corporate Social Responsibility team in North America. “We want to give them the language to think about things differently — and understand that they have a place within any environment, whether it’s a corporate setting or a community one. These deep communication skills will help them succeed.”
The Skill Immersion Lab holds significant promise, particularly with young learners located outside of wealthy, suburban, or urban areas. Young people are receiving early access to some of the most innovative and effective immersive learning tools on the market, and they’re using those tools to advance their communication skills and further the pursuit of their education and career goals.
As chief customer innovation officer for SAP North America, I’ve seen firsthand how innovative technology can help transform our customers’ businesses. The potential impact of this initiative is tremendous. Not only can it help educators build a deeper understanding of how new technology can empower young people, it can teach young learners some of the most important skills they need to succeed in life — and not just young learners in well-to-do communities, but any student, anywhere in the country.
It’s possible. As one of the nation’s first programs focused squarely on immersive learning experiences for this age group, the Skill Immersion Lab is paving the way.
Stephanie Nashawaty is chief customer innovation officer at SAP North America.
This article originally appeared on SAP BrandVoice on Forbes.