Sustainability project wins Gold Award at QS-Wharton Reimagine Education Conference

A virtual reality experiential education project led by Associate Professor Christian Schott from the Wellington School of Business and Government has won the Gold Award in the highly competitive Sustainability Category at the 2020 QS-Wharton Reimagine Education Conference.

The QS-Wharton Reimagine Education awards, known as the ‘Oscars’ of Education’ because of the rigorous judging structure they use, celebrate innovative approaches that enhance student learning outcomes and employability. This year saw nearly 1500 innovators representing educational technology companies, universities and education-focused NGOs from 74 countries submit their projects for the thirteen award categories.

The project by Associate Professor Schott and his team, which won in the most competitive category, uses gaming software and virtual reality technology to foster contextualised experiential learning about sustainability challenges and solutions as well as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“The project is motivated by the need for students to develop strong critical and creative thinking skills to address the pressing challenges posed by negative environmental, social and cultural impacts as well as climatic changes.  Over several years we have developed a concept and two learning tools that provide students with meaningful experiential education about these complex challenges and possible solutions by immersing them in distant places and cultures where these challenges are currently more acute than in Aotearoa/New Zealand” says Associate Professor Schott.

Associate Professor Schott worked with a multidisciplinary team which included digital designer Alan Proctor-Thomson (Future Workshop), Associate Professor Stephen Marshall (Centre for Academic Development), Dr Andrea Milligan (Faculty of Education), Maciu Raivoka (Centre for Lifelong Learning), Jonathan Flutey (Centre for Academic Development), Ben Selwyn-Smith (Faculty of Engineering), Nando Azevedo (Image Services), other University staff, and the communities of Northern Yasawa Island (Fiji) and Machu Picchu Pueblo (Peru) to create sustainability-focused virtual field trips to communities in Fiji and Peru.

University students in Canada, Vanuatu, and Aotearoa/New Zealand, as well as school students, have experienced the two places through HTC Vive Pro VR headsets or laptops to learn about the settlements, challenges and communities—even during Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions

“Current teaching methods generally don’t allow students to experience the crucial social and cultural contexts of a place in a meaningful way” says Associate Professor Schott. “In response, this project embraces a new pedagogical concept we are developing called ‘Virtual Reality Situated Experiential Education’ to both immerse learners in the places and cultures and, importantly, to engage as many students as possible through this active learning approach because this is too important for students to disengage from.”

“Last year, I was very pleased to receive the Bronze Award in the Oceania Category, but this year’s Gold Award in the hotly contested Sustainability Category is a much greater endorsement of our project and the progress we have made over the last year. I am humbled and proud of this recognition, and incredibly grateful to all the members of our transdisciplinary team for their great mahi.”

“I would also like to thank the Latin America CAPE for funding the schools-focused application of our pedagogical concept to the famous town of Machu Picchu Pueblo in 2019.”

Jack Moran, Reimagine Education Spokesperson, said: “If higher education is to successfully prepare learners to help humanity combat the looming sustainability challenges it is facing, initiatives like this one, offered by Christian Schott’s team at Victoria University of Wellington, will be essential. In particular, our Steering Committee commend their work for its innovative use of experiential tools to bring students closer to those physically remote communities that are being acutely affected by climate change. As increasing numbers of universities seek to bring their students closer to those communities, and those environments, our Sustainability Award winner stands as an epitomic example of how they can do so in ways that are cost-effective, scalable, and, most importantly, sustainable in their methods. We eagerly anticipate the future development of this initiative, and congratulate all involved for their sterling work.”