David and Sandra Whelan take the plunge into a new, virtual reality and come up winners.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Coming from a web development background and with a passionate interest in tech, David Whelan vividly remembers the day he viewed the first VR headset on Kickstarter (the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects).
“The moment I put that headset on, it was transformative,” says David. “I just saw the immediate potential and the concept for ENGAGE began formulating in my mind from that very first experience.”
David was always interested in education and was an enthusiastic student with an aptitude for history and mathematics. However, being dyslexic and in an education system that catered to the mainstream, the sense of ‘missing out’ stayed with him.
”As an adult, I could look back with keen insight as to how my potential through traditional learning practices and methodologies had not been reached but not only that, it became crystal clear to me that the world of VR had a place in the evolution of how we learn and that the immersive and accessible experiences it offered could be ground-breaking,” says David.
But he didn’t have the patience to wait for somebody else to bring this to the world and set about making it happen.
So David gathered together a team of passionate, like-minded, creative people and ENGAGE was born as an online virtual social learning and presentation platform. Now a powerful virtual reality collaboration and creation tool, it allows educators and corporate trainers to host meetings, classes, private tutorials, training sessions and presentations with people from all over the world, participating in a safe, virtual, multi-user environment.
“It is designed to either complement and enhance classroom teaching, or for use in a standalone environment, providing distance learners with access and opportunities to connect at a new level with their fellow students. Its potential is limitless,” David explains.
To do all of that “would have been impossible without Sandra,” adds David, “whose wholehearted support and operational genius as COO of Immersive VR Education has helped take the business from a €1,000 (US$1,115) Kickstart investment through to a market flotation when on 12th March 2018, VR Education (the parent company of Immersive VR Education) listed on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange and on the Enterprise Securities Market, a market regulated by Euronext Dublin.”
Jumping right in to our interview, what are some examples of how ENGAGE is being used in the education sector right now?
Sandra: We are thrilled with what we are seeing right now. We are very proud of our collaboration with Oxford University in the UK which has recently completed an exciting 10-part lecture series entirely within ENGAGE platform.
The topics are diverse, sometimes challenging but always interesting, ranging from ‘What is Radiotherapy’ by Professor Martin Christlieb, Department of Oncology, to ‘Earthquakes’, delivered by Post-Doctoral Researcher Austin Elliot from the Department of Earth Sciences.
The result is a truly immersive series of experiences for the audience.
The beauty of ENGAGE is that because the sessions were recorded together with all of the presentation tools and special effects, they now form part of the VR library which can be accessed by new student audiences worldwide, individually or in groups, by simply using a VR headset.
”…because the sessions were recorded together with all of the presentation tools and special effects, they now form part of the VR library which can be accessed by new student audiences worldwide, individually or in groups, by simply using a VR headset.’
David: In a separate initiative and one which is truly inspirational on every level is the work being done by Oxford University through the development of the Life-Saving Instruction for Emergencies (LIFE) project. Life-saving skills are in dire need in many parts of the developing world. 1 in 13 children die before their 5th birthday in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the WHO. More than half of these deaths could be prevented through better training programs and strengthening the local health system.
However, the scarcity of training centers means access to healthcare training is a challenge. Oxford University devised a plan to tackle the problem head-on, by using Oxford-based doctors to remotely train Kenya-based doctors locally using VR.
Oxford University created mobile and VR simulation trainings to teach doctors in the developing World. Working with the ENGAGE platform and team, Oxford developed life-like training scenarios that transcended location. The simulated environments include a hospital, patients, medicines and medical devices and focus on the resuscitation of babies. On-hand trainers from Oxford University provide students with real life scenarios and how best to respond in real-time, ensuring high-quality learning. VR is proving its life-saving potential, reducing infant mortality in the region overall.
These are the large-scale, high-profile initiatives, but equally, we have individual teachers and tutors who are taking the first steps themselves to transfer their presentation assets into ENGAGE and lead the way for their schools and students so it’s fair to say that we do have a solution that can work from individuals to schools, colleges and MOOC providers.
How easy is it to introduce into a school or college?
Sandra: We work hard to make the onboarding process as easy as possible and it really depends of the size of the institution as well as the project brief. From experience, we work to an 8-week plan which incorporates the introductory phase and scoping discussions through to curriculum planning, development, training and tech support once the project is up and running.
What are the real benefits it brings to learning?
David: There are many multi-faceted benefits. Any teacher reading this will know what it is like to pursue that sometime elusive ‘eureka moment’ where the student connects to the subject matter, to the message, to that potential of advancing their learning experience! With ENGAGE, we aim to accelerate that process by working to:
Simplify complexity. Create simulated environments to aid the subject matter, making it simpler and easy to understand for students of all levels. Conduct your class on the surface of the Moon, or on the ocean floor, stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon or within the strands of a DNA helix. It’s all possible with our extensive special effects’ library as a resource from within the platform.
Facilitate effective learning. Information retention is enhanced when students learn by experiencing it in a virtual environment.
Reduce distractions. The fully immersive environment ensures the students’ full engagement and heightens their concentration and focus on the subject matter.
Sandra: It also increases accessibility to course content cost effectively – by eliminating the need for a designated physical location for a student, by using immersive environments and digital objects whilst still retaining the classroom learning structure for distance learners.
Is it expensive to implement? What costs are associated with it? How does this compare to other costs of learning?
Sandra: We have three options in our pricing structure at present:
LITE. A basic version for users who wish to try out some of the features of ENGAGE can be downloaded free of charge.
PRO. A comprehensive feature-rich version, for professionals who would like to communicate, teach and learn in VR. You can see the current pricing for PRO at this page: https://app.engagevr.io/pro A comparison can be found at the link between LITE and PRO functionality can be found here: https://app.engagevr.io/comparison
ENTERPRISE. A comprehensive, feature-rich version for Corporations and Education Institutes is quoted based on design brief and on-site requirements.
For more information on this, contact us at [email protected].
Associated costs to be considered are the actual VR headsets which users either purchase directly or as part of the Enterprise package Prices start from US$400 upwards.
We work with each client on the business case for implementing ENGAGE.
ROI from savings on overheads and expenses as well as the strategic benefits from maximizing usage of the platform become pretty clear from the outset which is always an exciting phase of the business development process for us.
Okay, switching gears completely: What is the state of education these days?
David: I have never felt more optimistic for education than I do right now.
‘I have never felt more optimistic for education than I do right now.’
What makes you say that?
David: We live in a world where the youth of today are asserting their collective voice and using their knowledge, their confidence, their passion to tell the older generations that our world is changing. How inspiring is that? I applaud the teachers and mentors and parents for fostering that very precious spirit.
Is ENGAGE involved in solving some of the issues and challenges of education?
David: I like to think that we are playing our part in democratizing education. Students just need a VR headset and in three simple steps, this powerful VR tool is accessible to people worldwide interested in participating in a safe, virtual, multi-user environment. ENGAGE provides the student with the ‘virtual sense’ of attending a real university, being taught by real professors and attended by real people who all interact in a natural way, just like in the real world. Being taught by the best minds together with their peers. This is very difficult using typical distance learning tools. Virtual Reality removes this barrier.
What do you believe technology’s role in education is or should be?
David: To facilitate; to serve as a learning tool to everyone from toddlers to adults; at the highest level to help us expand the boundaries of current understanding and most importantly to help remove barriers that exist in the world for those that wish to learn.
Any advice for other start-ups in the edtech sector?
David: Persist and surround yourself with good people.
What makes you say that?
Because it takes time to become an overnight success! Belief is a strong ally in the start-up world as is the outstanding support of a creative and passionate team of people behind you.
‘…it takes time to become an overnight success! Belief is a strong ally in the start-up world as is the outstanding support of a creative and passionate team of people behind you.’
What lessons have you learned in the past couple years?
To celebrate success and take nothing for granted and when you’re going through hell…keep going!
Where do you see VR in education in the future?
David: It will be mainstream. For example, as educators, Shenandoah University has always understood the transformational role VR can play in education. The Virginian University has realised that more and more expertly trained professionals will be required to meet the future demand for VR services. They announced the launch of two new courses in 2019; a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science in VR/AR Design.
By partnering with us at Immersive VR Education, educators at the university will be in a position to create their own custom VR content using the ENGAGE platform. Students alike will also be able to build their own virtual worlds and scenes that create simulated life experiences. This is very exciting for us.
We already see medical, military, science and architecture professionals using VR to disrupt their industries while also reducing costs. VR has the potential to greatly change almost every industry in the next number of years, not least the education sector.
Once again, a big congratulations on your successes! Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning AR/VR, edtech, education, technology, teaching/learning, student engagement, or anything else for that matter?
David: Winning this award represents exactly where we want to be in the world of education technology—leading the charge in the growth and development in teaching and learning practices all around the world. Our goal has always been to make education interesting, informative, interactive and most importantly accessible to all. Learning is power—it’s what gives you a start in life and enables the world to keep moving forward. No matter what your age or where you are, everyone deserves the opportunity to learn.
‘Learning is power—it’s what gives you a start in life and enables the world to keep moving forward. No matter what your age or where you are, everyone deserves the opportunity to learn.’
And we believe so strongly that VR has a pivotal role to play in the world of education—and ENGAGE can be the backbone of this. The platform itself is unparalleled in its ability to immerse the user into their learning experience, in order to increase learning retention and engagement.
Most people, children and adults alike, are eager to learn; they want to take in knowledge about the world around them, but to attract and hold attention it must be interesting, relevant and where possible, exciting. And learning by its very nature is exciting—taking in information that you never knew before, seeing its application in real life—this can be a fascinating experience if presented in the right way. That’s exactly what ENGAGE gives to users: a chance to present this knowledge the way it should be seen and heard.
We would be delighted to offer all EdTech Digest readers the chance to try our ENGAGE demo to get a flavor of what we mean. Contact us at [email protected] and let’s work to make that happen!
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. He oversees The EdTech Awards, the world’s largest recognition program dedicated solely to edtech. Featuring edtech’s best and brightest, the annual program shines a spotlight on innovators, leaders, and trendsetters across the K-12, higher ed, and skills & workforce sectors. Write to: [email protected]