The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions in all fields of human endeavour, and education has been the hardest hit, at all levels. Many face-to-face institutions have pivoted to some form of technology-mediated delivery, with online education coming to the forefront. However, technical and vocational training institutions have faced an insurmountable barrier, since most of their offerings seek to develop practical skills that require some element of hands-on training. Theoretical components of such training can conceivably be imparted through online means, but the equipment and materials required to address the hands-on component necessitate the provision of a physical environment.
While video content has been widely used as a learning support, especially to demonstrate practical techniques, it has not proven to be a substitute for practical training. One interesting alternative to hands-on instruction could be the introduction of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) techniques into technical and vocational training. AR allows the student to interactively experience a real-world environment where actual objects are enhanced with computer-generated information that can take one or more of many forms, such as visible, audible, etc. For example, a student using AR glasses while working on an automobile engine would be able to see instructions showing how much and in which order the bolts should be tightened, without the student having to refer to a paper manual.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, has the capability of bringing the laboratory to the student. Thus, students could experience a full 360-degree view of the same engine and manipulate its various components from their classroom (or even their home) without being anywhere near an actual engine! VR also has the capability of allowing students to “virtually” walk through hazardous environments that would otherwise be impossible to experience. Combining this with haptic feedback can make the training extremely realistic. Good examples of such environments are the simulators used for training airline pilots.
Another huge advantage of these technologies is the possibility for the student to repeat a practical experience as many times as needed to master a particular skill,without any additional inconvenience or expense. However, these environments do come with a price tag. Typical AR/VR systems utilise very large amounts of bandwidth and computing power. These would have to become more affordable by several orders of magnitude for these technologies to become mainstream, especially in TVET systems, which are typically financially constrained. The second major barrier to widespread acceptance is the absence of agreed standards for rich content. Without
standards, every purveyor of AR/VR content develops materials for its own needs and requirements, giving no thought to the reuse or repurposing of such content.
With standards firmly established, however, one could easily envisage a brand new ecosystem of AR/VR open educational resources!
The world now realises that technology-enabled learning has become an integral part of the teaching/learning landscape, and blended approaches — online and in person — will be the new norm. However, this does raise the possibility of widening the gap between technologically advanced countries and the rest. Add the above AR/VR technologies and the gap could easily become a gaping chasm, uncrossable except by a few. A revolutionary reduction in bandwidth and computation costs will be required to ensure an equitable distribution of skills and knowledge across the globe.