Behind the goggles: Students can use VR to explore career pathways


Learn, work, retire — that has been the traditional life cycle for generations. However, according to the Georgetown University Center of Education’s report “Failure to Launch,” that path may no longer be linear.

The increased need for 21st century skill development after high school has lengthened the time it takes for young people to settle into a career, creating a new phase of transition from academic preparation to full employment. As a result, many young Americans are now struggling to make that transition. One out of three adults in their early 20s and just over half of adults in their late 20s are employed in full-time jobs. Research indicates that the next generation of college students — Generation Z — will continue along this trajectory unless something is done to disrupt it.

Fortunately, advancements in technology are providing positive solutions for educators and their students. For instance, the popularity of virtual reality (VR) is vastly improving the way students are learning and exploring environments they otherwise would not. With technology being a natural fit for Generation Z, the possibilities for increasing the use of VR for learning are promising.

Based on our observations in facilitating K-12 experiential learning programs for more than 25 years, members of Gen Z are more connected and technology-literate than generations that preceded them. Additionally, they display attributes that will help them become successful 21st century leaders.

As true digital natives, they demonstrate deftness in virtual chat rooms; abilities to solve problems as multi-dimensional, virtual teams; and willingness to engage with peers globally through Snapchats, Facebook live broadcasts, and more. They know how to effectively collaborate and communicate — albeit online and not necessarily face-to-face.

Members of Gen Z are concerned about global issues like terrorism, hunger and poverty, health crises and diseases, and devastation from natural disasters. They demonstrate a desire to help and to solve problems. Many are passionate about global causes and are eager to lead in creating a solution. They simply need some assistance in figuring out how.

While what is described may be interpreted as a positive outlook, a major hurdle still remains for this generation.

More than previous generations, Gen Z members demand meaning in their career choices or risk idling in neutral as the global economy drives forward at a rapid pace. Failure to connect passions with a career choice will only exacerbate their struggle to transition into a gainful and meaningful employment.

Advancements in technology pose a unique opportunity to stand in the current gap — to help guide Gen Z toward a more successful pathway by finding ways to demonstrate how clusters of careers connect to real-world issues. Leveraging their comfort and building connections using some of the very tools they have grown up with can play an important role in helping this generation.

One example is using virtual reality (VR) as a portal to allow the user to put on the shoes of a professional in a specific career area. The potential is literally limitless.

Consider how the integration of VR in medical education has opened the door for graduate and medical students to learn human anatomy in engaging ways. Or how it’s allowed K-12 classes to take virtual field trips to explore the world.

As proof that immersion learning in the digital space can enhance most any course, let’s view one of Envision’s medical-focused programs as a case study.

As part of a summer immersion program targeted at high school students and focused on career exploration in health and medicine, students learned about and then practiced simple medical procedures in a virtual operating room.

Students immediately connected what they learned during instruction to a virtual world of practice. While the obvious front-facing benefit of using VR is the immersive feel and direct engagement of the learner with an inaccessible environment, the VR experience actually provides more than virtual hands-on practice.

They witnessed first-hand the portal effect — providing students an ability to “feel” what it’s like to be in an operating room and immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and distractions that occur during a surgery — an important learning tool that would be bordering on impossible to reproduce in a real-world setting.

As a result, some students determined that they are too squeamish for surgery. For others, it likely ignited an eagerness to learn more about the practice of medicine, providing students valuable information on their potential career pathway and giving them permission to wholly engage and take ownership to persist through the remainder of their schooling and into fulfilling careers.

The utility of VR in experiential learning is limited only by the creativity and imagination of the course designer. Investigating a virtual crime scene, exploring the surface of the moon or observing the interactions of species on the Great Barrier Reef are just some examples of how this technology could be used as a tool to enhance course content. As VR advances and prices drop, there will be new opportunities to embrace and integrate VR at the middle and high school levels.

Virtual reality represents a once-in-a-generation revolution in the career education space — an ability to virtually place students in the shoes of professionals. Coupling this technology with physical, immersive and hands-on experiences can further enhance the learning gains. VR provides educators a solution to assist Gen Z (and others) in connecting passion with career and ultimately will help to decrease launch time needed to settle into a fruitful and rewarding career.

Andrew Potter is the chief academic officer at Envision, and Jan Sikorsky is its vice president of product planning and developments.