The world is changing fast, and we’ve been changing as well at IOG to help public service leaders keep up with the new opportunities and challenges that technology is bringing to government. The latest frontier that we’ve been exploring is Virtual Reality and how it can be integrated into our leadership programs, starting with the Digital Executive Leadership Program.
In spring 2021 we saw a unique opportunity to incorporate this leading-edge technology into our latest cohort of the Digital Executive Leadership Program (DELP). After some small-scale pilots and testing last fall, we made the decision to take the Virtual Reality plunge for Cohort 9 of DELP that was held this past May! Each participant received an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset to use for the week-long program and we incorporated approximately 90 minutes of activities using the Oculus system into each day’s program. This included a collaborative design-thinking activity, a 3-D data visualization exercise, self-directed exploration of various VR experiences, and an end-of-program workshop and graduation ceremony.
Below is a short video clip that will give you a better sense as to how we have been using this new technology in our virtual classroom:
Before describing the results, let’s take a moment to answer the question of what exactly we mean by Virtual Reality (or VR as it is commonly known by its acronym). VR refers to the use of headsets connected to computers that allow people to see, hear, and interact with computer generated images in a fully immersive 360-degree environment – as the name suggests, a “virtual” recreation of reality (or at least the reality of a software developer’s imagination!). VR is distinct from a similar term you may have heard called “Augmented Reality” (or simply AR). AR overlays computerized images over the real world using either a smartphone or a specialized headset that can look like high-tech eyeglasses. This video by GCFLearnFree.org is a good explanation of the differences between VR and AR.
So you may be asking yourself, “VR…AR…it all sounds like yet another technology fad. Why should I care?” – great question! While these technologies aren’t actually all that new, for many years they were largely relegated to either high-tech research labs or entertainment facilities given their cost and complexity. However, as computing technology has continued its rapid advancement VR and AR have become much more practical and powerful and in recent years have started to cross the threshold from being a niche technology to a mass consumer product. The release of the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset by Facebook in 2020 has been a particular game changer for the industry with it being estimated that over 5 million units of this consumer-focused VR system have been sold in just the past year. In fact Facebook has doubled-down on VR in recent months with the news that almost a fifth of their workforce is now focused on VR and AR (approximately 10,000 employees!) and that they have launched a “Metaverse product group” to build out its virtual social spaces – meanwhile other tech companies including Apple are also ramping up their investments in VR and AR.
Our primary goals behind incorporating VR into our digital leadership program were two-fold. First, as this technology becomes increasingly mainstream, we felt that it is important to give public sector leaders first-hand experience with it to help them to start thinking about how this technology may impact their organizations in the not-too-distant future. Secondly, as COVID has pushed our work-lives more fully online we saw the possibilities that VR could offer to remotely connect people and allow for more immersive digital collaboration experiences.
I’m happy to report that the reviews from our participants on this experiment with VR were overwhelmingly positive! Virtually all of them found that it not only increased their understanding of the technology itself, but also improved their learning outcomes and enhanced their connection and interaction with other participants. Here is what a couple of our participants said about their experiences:
“No question that this was a game-changer. I’ve used VR a number of times at other conferences, though it is significantly more advanced and I really appreciated seeing how it could be applied to the world of working with distributed teams.”
“I was skeptical of VR going into the program, but this won me over and showed me glimmers of how it could be used that I will remember for the future. I also think that the VR was useful in terms of brining the group members closer together.”
In my view our experiences so far are just the tip of the iceberg as to how we can incorporate VR technology into training, not to mention the potential impacts on the business of government itself. We are excited to continue to explore these possibilities and will be once again be incorporating VR into our next cohort of the Digital Executive Leadership Program taking place October 25-29, 2021 – I hope to see you there!
Director of Digital Leadership Programs, Institute on Governance