How virtual reality is breaking down barriers to education

6 Sep 2018

David Whelan. Image: VR Education Holdings

This Week on Leaders’ Insights, entrepreneur David Whelan explains how beneficial virtual reality can be in the educational realm.

David Whelan is the co-founder and CEO of VR Education Holdings (Immersive VR Education), an Irish software company that specialises in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in the education space. It recently dual-listed on the Irish and London Stock Exchange.

Whelan is also the multi-award-winning director and producer of Apollo 11 VR and Titanic VR.

His current focus is the development and deployment of an education and corporate training platform that is open to all globally, regardless of financial status or physical ability.

‘Many families cannot afford to send their children to third-level education, which has the detrimental effect of prohibiting many bright and wonderful minds from achieving their potential’

Describe your role and what you do.

My role has changed massively since the company was formed three years ago. I still do many things, such as directing and producing showcase experiences, but my number-one task is to attract the world’s best talent to work on our vision of quality education for all.

When I started the business, I was running at a million miles an hour, trying to do many things like raising money, speaking at events, producing marketing collaterals, directing our technical team etc. However, while it all needed to be done at the time, it meant that I could not devote my full attention to any one area for very long. Go forward three years and we addressed the issue by hiring some very smart people filling most of the company’s major roles, such as CFO, CTO, COO, head of marketing and head of studio. I now have a team of people all around me with different skills and expertise to lean on and learn from.

My role today is to ensure that all departments are working efficiently, ensuring that we achieve company targets and release deadlines. Being able to attract and manage people with big ambitions is key to being a successful CEO. I love the challenge and I am learning all the time.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Early in the year, we set out our objectives and we implement this into a scrum workflow within the business, which is separated further into two-week sprints and eight-week implementations. This gives me a good oversight as to what is going on throughout the organisation at any given time and it enables effective planning for future work.

Every now and again, we do get proposed projects that, although unexpected, are good opportunities to work with large institutes, so we look at available resources and plan accordingly. It wasn’t always like this, however, and in the early days it was organised chaos, as it is for many start-ups looking to make a name for themselves.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Distance learning and online training is facing a major challenge with learning retention and engagement. A large majority of online learning courses have high dropout rates and low retention levels.

Although issues with online learning have been well known for many years, there is an accelerated need for good online learning solutions as more and more people turn to the web. Factors such as availability of places and the cost of attending on-site universities, which is placing many millions of young people around the world into crippling debt before they even start their work life, are contributing to the need and demand for more quality online learning solutions. Many families cannot afford to send their children to third-level education, which has the detrimental effect of prohibiting many bright and wonderful minds from achieving their potential.

We are working to disrupt this completely by providing the end user the feeling of attending a traditional university, attended by highly qualified professors and populated by real people who all interact in a natural way, the same as you would in the real world. We have named the platform Engage as we are bringing back true, natural engagement using virtual reality. The reason people attend universities and training institutes is to be taught by the best minds and to support each other in peer groups. This is very difficult to achieve using video conferencing as you are disconnected from each other via a screen. Virtual reality removes this barrier.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

Online education is exploding in Asia and emerging markets, with expected growth in that area to grow from 90m online students today to 140m online students by 2021. Most of this growth is with students between the ages of 14 and 18. Providing them with just videos and text-based content and expecting them to come out the other end is not realistic and/or achievable for everybody. Distance learning, home schooling and online corporate training are all seeing major growth, so this sector is very attractive for any business to target.

We are currently working with leading educators from large institutes such as Oxford University, New Haven University and Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. We are also working with the BBC on VR education products. They are all helping to guide the development of our platform and the beneficial use cases for VR as a training and education platform.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Passion for an idea and an inherent stubbornness. It’s quite difficult to set up any company and you will always hit hurdles along the way; however, you have to keep your chin up and learn from your mistakes and strive to be better each day.

I remember the first moment I tried VR a few years back, and instantly I knew this was my future. I created a website that reviewed VR content within a few weeks of that first demo and this got me in touch with all the leading developers in the VR space at the time (some of which are working with me now).

Having three daughters myself and looking at how they would or could learn, I started to think of ways VR could improve education. After reviewing most of the available VR content at the time with only a handful of educational pieces, I spotted a gap in the market and set up the company with the help of my wife and COO, Sandra.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Has anybody every answered this question and said they didn’t learn from it? Thankfully, we haven’t made any major blunders as we are open to constructive feedback from experienced people who continue to give great expert advice. One misjudgement I have made in the past, however, was to underestimate the amount of money I would require executing my plan. Whatever number you have in your head, double it, and then add some more, as most people with a tech background only account for how much tech costs to develop, and do not account for the cost of customer acquisition.

‘There is no point burying your head in the sand and developing something that you feel is cool and hope others use it when it’s released. Get as much feedback as possible’

How do you get the best out of your team?

I listen to them. The most important thing you can do when you hire intelligent people is to listen to them and take on board what they are saying. You might not always action what they say but if they feel they are being listened to, they will respond positively and they will feel like they are part of a wider team, which they are. If you have employees who are unhappy, you can almost guarantee it’s not down to money; in most cases, the real cause is that they feel like they are not being listened to. Having your whole team communicate effectively and giving everybody a voice in some way is the best way to have a strong, productive team.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

Yes, I do see diversity as a real problem in certain areas of our business. We hire a lot of programmers who are predominantly male and it’s because it’s primarily males who seem to apply for this type of role. I don’t know why more females don’t take up programming roles.

This only seems to be an issue in our programming department, however, as we have female 3D computer artists, animators, audio engineers and our marketing team. On a senior level, both our COO and head of marketing are female. Normally, more than 33pc of our workforce is female; however, it could be a lot higher if we could hire female programmers, as programming can make up more than 50pc of our total workforce at present.

Who is your role model and why?

I wouldn’t say role model, but I do respect Barack Obama and what he achieved by becoming president of the United States. He worked hard and came from an unprivileged background to become president. He brought that country through the financial crisis, which was landed on his lap just months after he was elected. Given everything that went on during the recession and the fact that, by and large, he kept the US government stable, his tenure should be seen as a successful one. He certainly is, in my eyes, one of the greatest leaders to ever hold public office.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Both books are about VR and the possibilities for its implementation in the future. Ready Player One was made into a movie; however, the movie is missing most of the more interesting aspects, which cover education and working in VR.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Essential tools for me are Slack for instant messaging to my direct team members, and Outlook for scheduling and emails.

I am using our Engage platform for more and more for business meetings as a lot of people I deal with now have VR equipment, which really saves me on travelling all around the world.

My most essential tools, however, are my ears. Listen to what your team has to say and listen to your customers. There is no point burying your head in the sand and developing something that you feel is cool and hope others use it when it’s released. Get as much feedback as possible and progress from there.

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