Today’s employers are looking to hire graduates with a strong set of transferable skills, sometimes referred to as core competencies or employment skills. Employers acknowledge that possessing these skills is crucial to workplace success in addition to job-specific training; this is something we hear often through our program advisory groups when we ask them how we can prepare our students “in here” to be successful “out there.” Recently, the Government of Alberta (2021) released the 2030: Building Skills for Jobs initiative, which is focused on ensuring students have skills and competencies that allow them to adapt to the changing demands and opportunities of the global workforce. Lethbridge College (2020) has acknowledged how important these skills are through their Student Core Competencies initiative and through various other projects, initiatives, and opportunities for student learning both inside and outside of the classroom.
In recent years, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) have been widely used to train for specific workforce skills. These technologies have also been successfully leveraged to assist college students in building core competencies. Programs that use immersive experiences to build transferrable skills in future graduates can greatly benefit from intentionally including core competency development in their curriculum and programming.
Employers have stated that Canada’s current education system, training programs, and labour market initiatives are inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate this new skills economy (RBC, 2018). In fact, seven in ten employers believe a skills gap exists in their industry (Career Development in the Canadian Workplace: National Business Survey, 2018). Employers recognize that hiring someone that is highly skilled in skills directly related to their field neglects the intangible skills that often require people to demonstrate success in the workplace. Employers are also noticing that a developed set of core competencies represents social, emotional, and intellectual skills that are not directly tied to their role, but greatly contributes to their success (CERIC, 2018). Employers acknowledge that core competencies assist employees in not only excelling at their work, but also in adapting to workplace culture, preparing for leadership roles, and being overall happy and productive employees.
Core competencies may be built through various curriculum activities and assessments both inside and outside of the classroom. Core competency development is swiftly gathering momentum in post-secondary institutions. According to a 2018 publication on the modern workforce by Royal Bank of Canada, “the next generation is entering the workforce at a time of profound economic, social and technological change. We know it. Canada’s youth know it. And we’re not doing enough about it. For young Canadians to flourish at a time of profound economic, social and technological change, we need to make this mobility a priority. We need to understand how young Canadians can move within and between jobs. How they can always be training for what comes next” (p.5). Colleges are seeking to stay ahead and to train graduates for these rapidly changing conditions by giving them opportunities to develop not only job-related skills, but also broader competencies that will serve them in any career, whether here in Canada or globally.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are educational technologies that can be specifically utilized to develop job– and trade–related skills. These educational technologies simulate the workplace by allowing users to interact with an immersive environment. During a VR simulation, the “participant observer is totally immersed in a completely synthetic world, which may or may not mimic the properties of a real-world environment, either existing or fictional, but which may also exceed the bounds of physical reality by creating a world in which the physical laws governing gravity, time and material properties no longer hold” (Milgram et. al., 1994, p.283).
VR incorporates audio and video feedback and may also allow other types of sensory experiences such as haptic feedback that can give the participant physical cues as they move through a learning experience. This is a powerful type of formative feedback. Pedagogical expertise and knowledge in curriculum and assessment help to strengthen the design and development of AR/VR learning experiences. Using human-centred design principles to understand learners and considering how formative and summative feedback play a role in an immersive experience are examples of how curriculum and learning experience design can be incorporate into VR/AR training. The following are examples of projects in which this type of technology has been successfully leveraged in competency development:
- Medical Training: Medical students practicing in a VR environment before engaging in actual surgery has proven incredibly beneficial (Calatayud et. al, 2010). In an example from the University of British Columbia, medical students were able to view a brain and manipulate it, as in the case of Dr. Claudia Krebs’ neuroscience research. She and her students used augmented reality and the Microsoft Hololens to create a holographic 3D model of the brain with several layers of information that students could view from all angels and manipulate to build greater understanding of the human brain.
- Safety Training: Oftentimes, students can use VR technologies to practice job–related skills that they otherwise could not yet perform safely as novices. VR may allow them to practice high–risk activities and acquire skills without putting themselves in danger. A great example of this is electrical arc flash training, which would usually require the closure of a plant to be able to train employees and allow them to practice.
- Navigating Career Paths: College students are able to learn how to fly an airplane in a VR flight simulator and wind turbine technicians have the chance to stand on top of a structure 300 feet in the air to experience a day in a potential job and see if it’s the right career fit for them.
- Public Speaking: VR apps help people practice their communication skills through public speaking experiences. In one application, available simulations include job interviews, professional receptions, restaurant dinners, keynote addresses, thesis defenses, lecture preparation for tutors and professors, foreign language practice, wedding speeches, investor pitches, court expert witness preparations, and even TED Talks.
- Customer Service and Patient Care: A study by Stevens et. al. (2006) recognized that working with a virtual patient could help medical students improve their communication and note–taking skills in clinical scenarios. A recent collaboration between Lethbridge College’s START initiative and Red Iron Labs tech studio has created an experience for healthcare professionals who work with dementia patients. Using the immersive experience designed in the CareGiVR project, students will interact in highly realistic scenarios with virtual subjects who demonstrate a range of emotions and responses. This will allow caregivers to practice these interactions, gain immediate feedback to sharpen their skills, and improve quality of care.
- Global Awareness: Engaging in virtual or 360-degree journalism can take viewers to the other side of the world to experience what someone else may be living through, such as a natural disaster or a political conflict. The competency of global citizenship values empathy as an important skill for understanding others across borders and cultural divides. Yet building this empathy for others who live far away can be a challenge, as they are perceived as both geographically and psychologically distant (Bachen et al., 2012). A study of over 300 high school students examined the effects of playing a simulation game that allowed players to inhabit the lives of others around the world. The study found that, compared with the control group, the students who also played the simulation game in addition to their regular curriculum were able to demonstrate more global empathy and also interest in learning about others around the world (Bachen et. al. 2012).
- Empathy Building: “Becoming Homeless” is an immersive virtual reality experience from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (2020) where participants have the chance to spend days in the life of someone who can no longer afford a home. Learners can interact in virtual reality with the environment to attempt to save their home and to protect themselves and their belongings while they walk in another person’s shoes and face the adversity of living with diminishing resources. The goal of this experience is building empathy.
- Resilience under Pressure: The research performed by the Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment (ELITE) team explores how to create resilient army officers by putting them through a series of stressful virtual situations before they may experience them in the real world (for example, losing a comrade or leader in action). These experiences present junior leaders with opportunities to practice critical interpersonal skills.
- Making Difficult Decisions: Automated customizable scenarios and are also currently using AI to develop “virtual humans” (Hill, 2014) who act as managers or direct reports. These virtual humans can detect gestures and non-verbal behaviours and respond accordingly to test participants on their decision–making and leadership skills. Through engaging with these virtual humans and scenarios, leadership and decision-making skills can be practiced and honed.
Although educators and students acknowledge that learners develop employment skills throughout their post-secondary experience, an intentional approach to core competency implementation and assessment is necessary so that graduates can track, earn, and share their competency development with future employers. Upon graduation, a list of academic course names is likely not as valuable as a checklist of verifiably demonstrated competencies that are directly related to a job or career. Co-curricular records, digital portfolios, and badging systems are examples of ways that post-secondary institutions are trying to address the assessment of competency development and subsequent communication to potential employers.
Virtual and interactive learning environments can be used effectively to build both technical and core competency skills for students. Although utilizing VR and AR is not particularly difficult from a technological standpoint, immersive experiences and core competency development should be intentionally designed and strategically included in curriculum as part of the student experience. These experiences should also be aligned with employers’ needs and build the core competencies required of successful employees.
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