In the long-running debate between the proponents of traditional learning methods and those of more creative and practical techniques, innovative technologies are shifting the needle in favour of the revolutionaries. Experiential learning, in particular, is reaching a tipping point, leveraging innovation to profoundly transform the way we gain knowledge.
Related to the “learning by doing” theory – the idea that we are capable of learning more about something when we perform the action than when we passively receive information about it – experiential learning relies on actually experiencing what is being taught. It emerged in the 1970s and has won some favour over the years; but today, it offers fascinating new opportunities to learn differently thanks to immersive technologies that “can bridge the gap between theoretical and practical,” explains Hani Abu Ghazaleh, founder of Mental.
VR for Good Grades
Mental, an XR software development company first established in Abu Dhabi in 2018, offers vocational or corporate training and courses using virtual reality (VR) and web immersive content (web VR), with a single objective in mind: to create a more engaging, memorable, personal, and faster learning experience.
Contrary to MOOC (massive open online courses) players like Coursera, Mental creates customised digital environments, be it a digital twin or a fictional place, in which trainees immerse themselves. “When you’re engaged, you’re more likely to remember what you’re being taught. Let’s say you have a fire safety programme. The way they teach it in high school is as a PowerPoint presentation. The way we do it is by having you physically walk to a fire extinguisher, pull the pin, pick up the hose, aim at the base, and spray. The simulation will not move forward until you take [each] action,” explains Abu Ghazaleh.
On top of this content, the platform also features a learning management system that can track KPIs from VR and share precious real-time insights with both trainees and trainers. “Take a national security defence trainee, for example. We can measure everything, including eye movement. Are they looking? Are they paying attention to the hazards or the threats around them? Things that, in regular educational platforms, would be impossible to do,” says Abu Ghazaleh.
This capability gap between what a regular website can achieve and what new technologies can deliver illustrates perfectly how digital transformation is constantly transforming the way we live. And learning is no exception. While online courses are slowly gaining traction, platforms like Mental are proposing a completely fresh approach. As Abu Ghazaleh simply put it, “In essence, what we’re doing is basically serious games.”
Gaming Out VR Learning
Indeed, the Mental team used game theory to develop their solution, which makes sense considering that Abu Ghazaleh had spent almost 15 years in the gaming industry working for the likes of Activision Blizzard. “VR was on my radar since 2013. I was wondering how we could use this technology for something more meaningful,” he recalls. The answer came in the form of Mental. By 2017, Abu Ghazaleh had a prototype and a virtual environment, which was shown to Alef Education. “They immediately asked to do a project with us. They were interested in a [virtual] mission to Mars, teaching students everything about the trip – from the launch to zero gravity to experiencing spacewalking, taking samples of the Mars atmosphere, landing the shuttle, etc. The results were outstanding. That was our first indication that there was a game to be played in education,” he says. In the midst of the pandemic, with hygiene concerns keeping users away from VR headsets, Mental pivoted from a services company to an online learning platform.
Now, Abu Ghazaleh is very much aware of the fact that not everybody owns, can use, or even wants to use a VR set. As he says, “If you can’t get to the target users, the programme is not going to be successful, no matter how fancy it is in VR.” So, when Mental ran a compliance training and certification programme for the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (Taqa) for example, they developed a web application in VR that also works with a regular mouse – demonstrating along the way that a VR solution, usually better suited for technical training, can also help with soft skills.
Although VR headsets are not commonplace yet and immersive technologies still require a lot of optimisation, Abu Ghazaleh is “pretty confident that the next-generation computing machine is going to be a wearable and it’s going to get lighter and a lot more sophisticated. It won’t replace the mobile, like mobile computing did not replace computers. It’s just another way to have a higher level of engagement with the Internet. Businesses like ours try to find a use case and make it successful,” he explains.
And successful it is. Today, the Hub 71-based start-up boasts three-year relationships with large organisations and government bodies in the UAE whose employees not only successfully achieved training sessions but enjoyed them. “These are businesspeople; they’re not doing this as a favour to us, they have to see results,” says Abu Ghazaleh, who concludes, “What we’re focused on now is training, and VR is the sandbox where we do it.”