Guest opinion: Tippie embraces virtual reality in business education

Submitted by Jim Chaffee, executive director of learning innovation and technology, University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business

Virtual reality is changing the world and changing business, two points driven home when I participated in a virtual roundtable in December with Facebook’s technology boss and leading global technology thinker Sir Nick Clegg.

The roundtable brought together representatives from an exclusive group of 15 higher education institutions from around the world that have adopted virtual reality as part of their teaching and research missions. I was invited as the executive director of learning innovation and technology at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, one of the few business schools in the country that currently use VR for teaching and research.

Wearing a VR headset, I sat in my office in the college’s Pappajohn Business Building in Iowa City and exchanged ideas with participants from all corners of the world. It was clear from our wide-ranging discussion that virtual reality and its cousins, augmented reality and mixed reality, are already making a difference in higher education. We learned about medical students using it to practice surgical skills, law students to practice courtroom speaking and history students to virtually visit important historical sites.

VR is an outstanding tool to help universities facilitate collaboration and communication among students and instructors across different locations and disciplines. Its immersive environment creates more flexible and personalized learning environments, where students can choose the pace, level and mode of interaction that best works for their own learning style. And it enhances student motivation, creativity and retention by providing feedback and storytelling elements.

Technology is going to keep changing the way we do business and affecting the economy. According to a report by consulting firm PwC, VR and its cousins could add $1.5 trillion to the global economy by 2030, and create millions of jobs across various sectors, such as health care, education, retail and manufacturing. VR can also help workers improve their productivity, creativity and well-being, as well as reduce costs, risks and environmental impacts.

Students need to be prepared to succeed in this world. At Tippie, we’ve introduced our students to VR by integrating it into courses in marketing and business analytics. MBA students taking the Innovations in Technology class use VR headset technology to learn everyday business management skills and empathy, and using an app called Bodyswaps (which has simulations for management, diversity and employability training), they learn soft skills like leadership and conflict resolution.

Undergraduate business analytics students learn how to examine data stories in a virtual environment, manipulating data sets, charts and graphs in VR to get a better, more complete view of the data that helps them to better understand it.

We’ve also worked with the Davenport-based VictoryXR to build a digital twin of the Pappajohn Business Building and surrounding neighborhood on the University of Iowa campus. This metaverse campus has interiors and exteriors of our building, allowing students a full three-dimensional experience. They can come into the building, walk the halls, even sit in on a virtual class.

We’re planning to add more programs in the future at Tippie, too. Soon, our students will be able to participate in virtual client meetings, simulated negotiation sessions and financial market trading. They’ll learn to manipulate complex data sets by taking them off the page and turning them into three dimensions; and they’ll better understand customer behavior by working with virtual customers. They’ll be able to interact with students around the world to better understand their local cultures and how business decisions will affect them.

Of course, everyone at the roundtable was fully aware that VR has a downside. Technology this powerful cannot be adopted without first thinking about how people might misuse it. At Tippie, we make sure our VR education exposes students to those ethical, social and cultural implications and encourages them to critically reflect on how it will affect privacy, security, accessibility, diversity and inclusion. We foster a culture of responsible and ethical use of VR, and promote the values of empathy, compassion and respect in the virtual world.

But the potential abuse of virtual reality doesn’t change the fact the technology is no longer just a tool for entertainment or gaming. It’s a powerful technology that can transform the way educators teach and students learn and collaborate. Higher education now has the ability to create immersive and interactive experiences that enhance learning outcomes and engage students. We have a responsibility to use these tools to prepare them for the future of work.