SAP partners with nonprofits for VR effort to address student learning gaps

SAP announced a partnership with national nonprofit JFF Labs to create the Skill Immersion Lab, an effort to meld VR technology with instructor guidance and discussion.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced educators to adopt a host of new methods to educate students and virtual reality tools are helping teachers get through to learners in a variety of environments.

With a curriculum developed by Talespin, the program has been rolled out in New York City, Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota as well as rural Louisiana. Students from historically disenfranchised communities aged 14 to 20 participated in the program.

Already, the program is producing promising results. According to SAP, 85% of learners said they were more confident speaking with others and 79% reported an improvement in their ability to understand other opinions.

The focus of the program is teamwork, leadership and communication, all things that studies have shown are valued highly by colleges, universities and employers across the country.

Kristina Francis, executive director of JFFLabs Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities, told ZDNet that immersive learning can help young people build the core communication skills they will need in school, at work, and in their community throughout their lives.

The simulated scenarios in immersive environments can help them develop strategies for navigating complex and potentially high-stress situations, such as adjusting to new environments, Francis added.

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“Virtual Reality programming gives a unique opportunity for youth to practice different skills without fear of judgement. Participants could express vulnerability, allowing them to learn more than they would during a traditional program,” said Isabel LaBonte-Clark, program director for Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities. “Youth participants walked away from the program as more confident communicators, teammates, and mentors. Virtual Reality is the future of youth programming.”

Katie Booth, head of SAP’s North America Corporate Social Responsibility program, said the aim of the program was to use virtual reality as an effective teaching tool. They embarked on the effort with JFF Labs after a PwC study found that people who are taught using virtual reality technology are 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content and four times more focused than their e-learning peers — which helps students improve their employability skills.

“We specifically wanted to work with learners in communities that do not typically get first-access to technology like this,” Booth said, noting that the first round of programming began in July and ran for four to six weeks.

It rolled out out at three locations across the US: BTECH High School in New York City, Boys and Girls Club in St. Paul, and Quad YouthBuild in Louisiana. Overall, 50 students took part, with particular effort being put into choosing sites from diverse parts of the country.

“We want to help young learners not only get jobs but have successful careers. Communication and durable — or ‘soft’ — skills are crucial for both of these. We believe the Skill Immersion Lab serves a significant purpose in normal times, but might be critical during a pandemic, with the decrease in face-to-face communications and the rise of remote learning,” Booth said.

“Nearly 90 percent of the learners said, in post-program feedback, that this technology was fun to use and that it was a more exciting way to learn. We believe this can play an important role not just in learning the content but also in retaining it — and our results did indicate this.”

The Talespin curriculum comes in two sections — Leading Through Uncertainty and Effective Feedback — that are designed to teach students about effective leadership, fundamental communication and interpersonal skills in difficult situations.

One site indicated that it may be more helpful if the program is tailored to specific sectors or job types like customer service, and Booth said the next step in scaling access to the technology is having different program tracts and customizable content.

“Especially during a pandemic where access to technology has been a major barrier for many communities. We know immersive learning works. The question we were seeking to verify, and which we had a high degree of confidence in, was will immersive technology be as effective for students, especially those in historically-underserved communities? As we learned, that answer is largely yes,” Booth told ZDNet.

“The program helped students improve in being empathetic and confident communicators. There were of course some learnings which we’re looking into incorporating—such as being able to offer different program tracts and building a stronger bridge to the virtual environments for students. Overall, we were very happy with the results, which substantiate our vision that all learners should have access to immersive technologies.”

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