The current education system is evolving, and the pace is quickening. This change is required. Our current model, while good for some students, leaves many other equally bright and motivated students behind simply because the way they learn might not fit into the rigid mould of the current school system. Currently there is a push towards a more democratic system, which allows students agency over their own education. A major driving factor behind this shift is the evolution of digital technology, and its use as a tool for educating students. Personal laptops and free self-paced online courses are giving students access to vast reams of knowledge that was previously taught only in books and by teachers. The next step in the democratisation of the schooling system is giving these students the agency and environment with which they can best take in this important information. An emerging technology that answers this challenge is Virtual Reality (VR). VR not only allows for fairer, more accessible methods of teaching but also gives students the experience they need to help set them up for the workforce and future careers. By using VR, high quality education and career opportunities are no longer restricted by location, high costs or the gatekeepers of nepotistic systems.

The concept of democratising education isn’t a new idea but has come into prevalence over the last few years due to todays’ more egalitarian points of view and questions surrounding previous social hierarchies. The traditional school system came out of the needs of the industrial revolution. It encouraged a factory-belt approach to education where the same content was given to everyone at the same pace, regardless of each student's individual learning styles. Some students came out as lawyers and doctors but a lot of others took the manual roles required to run the factories at the time. That predominantly rote learning method worked fine for the time period, but the structure of our workforce has changed drastically since then as has our understanding of learning itself. Automation and AI has led to a decreased demand for labour and number crunching white collar jobs. We’ve moved towards a mastery based society in which workers need to be adaptable to their ever-changing workplace and shifting careers. No longer should education be based on how many hours kids sit in a classroom, but their deep understanding of the concepts being taught. Yet, schools still require students to attend six hours a day, five days a week, sitting at a desk in a classroom while an overworked, underpaid teacher attempts to blaze through too much content for their thirty student size classroom. All the while that student in the back (who didn’t fully grasp fractions back in primary school) is too scared to ask questions about the topic covered in their year eleven maths class because they “really should be past that point by now”. This system, while it has obviously been effective for some, simply leaves too many students behind and this factor is largely what has driven the current digital evolution. Digital technology has already shown itself to be the perfect tool for evolving our school learning to better fit the needs of today’s workforce.

Digital technology has allowed for everyone to become better connected while the internet has made almost infinite amounts of content free and readily available to anyone with a connection. In the context of education there is a huge range of free, high quality online courses available from qualified experts in all fields and all manner of international world class educators. These are called ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs). MOOCs let students anywhere in the world participate in courses and watch lectures on almost any topic. MOOCs can also provide certifications in their subject, making them a great substitute for those who can’t afford expensive uni fees to take the same course in person. Further to this, MOOCs are also self-paced, giving students the freedom to learn at a speed comfortable to them. Overall MOOCs have been a key digital tool for democratising the modern education system and the availability of knowledge. Yet, they suffer from a huge problem: they have a drop out rate of close to 90%. Many studies have investigated the reasons for this extremely high dropout rate and found the leading factors to be disengaging activities and overall dissatisfaction with the structure of the course (eg. pace of delivery or uninteresting content and content delivery). MOOCs may be an efficient and democratic way of learning but to truly be effective tools they need to overcome this high dropout rate and the proven engagement issues. If only we could deliver this content in a more engaging way that allowed students agency over how they interacted with the material (hint hint, there is and we do it). This highly engaging immersive learning method forms the basis of the Mindflight7 approach and our philosophy towards education and training. From our testing, student interactions and feedback, we’ve already found that VR as a tool for learning is extremely engaging for students. How could it not be, we literally allow them to take off into a whole range of new worlds, direct from the classroom. Virtual Reality is able to bring content and experiences to life in a way no other medium can touch. VR also gives users more agency over how they consume the content than other learning methods. If a student wants to focus on a certain aspect of a topic they are usually allowed to do so in the virtual world. This directly addresses what the academic literature has found to be the two biggest problems contributing to the high dropout rate of MOOCs. Therefore, we can see that VR could be the perfect delivery method to evolve those unengaging MOOCs as it would potentially help solve the dropout problem. The combination of VR and MOOCs could revolutionise the way we teach and learn, leading to a democratic education system that is more aligned with the demands of today's working world. MIndflight7 is here to blaze the trail. Yet VR as a digital technology can do more for the democratisation of education beyond just delivering MOOCs.

The biggest influence behind our currently undemocratic education system is cost. While the wealthy schools and their students can afford things like lab equipment, camps, field trips and private tutors, many less funded and less fortunate schools simply can’t provide the same benefits. This detracts from the quality of the education, meaning students from lower funded schools have harder times getting into the better universities and finding the better paying jobs. This cycle perpetuates and the wealth gap just increases. On the other hand, the cost of producing VR content is the same no matter how expensive the real life equivalent may be. For example, it costs the same to simulate going to the moon as it does going to the park. Therefore, VR enables students who would otherwise miss out due to cost, to benefit from the same experiences previously only available to students of the wealthiest schools. While giving students of all socioeconomic backgrounds access to similar educational experiences is core to the idea of democratising education, giving teachers equal access to tools to use in their classrooms is just as important and a point we are mindful of.

Providing teachers with the opportunity to offer high-quality educational material through VR allows them to devote more time to important aspects of their job instead of duplicating existing content. Teachers are already extremely overworked, averaging close to 50 hours a week. The Victorian Education Union (Australia) found that full-time teachers work 14-15 hours overtime, including 5-6 hours over the weekend. Taking the burden off teachers to produce content that already exists will reduce their workload allowing them to focus on their time in the classroom and overall, improve the quality of their teaching. A VR incursion model not only provides this content, but provides it in the most engaging way! VR career inspiration experiences which act as springboards for the teacher to use to supplement student learning. Our incursions don't replace the role of teachers, they compliment them.

Beyond our delivery of VR career exploration opportunities, it’s important that students are able to apply their learning in the context of a workplace. VR can be used as a testing bed for putting the lessons learnt by students into practise in a workplace environment. Workplace based VR content provides a unique ‘window on work’ opportunity for students to get the exposure they may have otherwise missed out on. Previously, if high schoolers or university students wanted workplace experience they would need to seek out a placement or internship, often through limited networks at best. Yet, it’s been shown that internships can be illegal or unethical and sometimes operate in violation of Fair Labour Acts through the exploitation of unpaid intern labour. As internships are often unpaid this also means that only those who can afford to work for free are able to accept them. These are often students from wealthier backgrounds who are supported by their parents. Overall, the current system for gaining workplace experience is fraught with unethical behaviour and is structurally undemocratic. By moving these experiences to virtual reality, and delivering them direct to any school, we allow students a cheaper and safer way of getting exposure to any workplace they can imagine, and some that they can only dream about.

The pandemic has shown that education not only needs to but is very well able to adapt to our modern digital world - and quickly. It’s forced many educators to adopt new techniques and adapt to new technology. We will continue the push to use immersive digital technology like VR and MOOCs to help shorten this gap and evolve towards a fairer, more accessible, more democratic education system.