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New Zealand: VR Tech for Training in Early Childhood Education

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In early childhood education, the practical experience of working with infants (0-6 months) poses a significant challenge for aspiring educators. Many individuals passionate about effectively engaging with infants have limited or no opportunities to interact with children of this age during their training.

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Recognising this gap, a pioneering trans-disciplinary study led by Professor Jayne White from Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC), in collaboration with UC’s HIT Lab NZ and Te Kaupeka Ako: Faculty of Education, is harnessing the power of digital technology to address this challenge.

Professor Jayne initiated the study after identifying an issue for student teachers who lacked ready access to real-life infants as part of their qualification. This collaboration quickly garnered interest from Associate Professor Heide Lukosch, Head of HIT Lab NZ’s Applied Immersive Game Initiative (AIGI), which seeks to enhance research and public use of immersive gaming applications to improve personal, social, educational, and health-related outcomes.

The study, supported by funding from the University’s Child Well-being Research Institute, has conducted its first trial of a VR prototype. According to Professor White, while VR has proven effective for learning practical skills across various disciplines, its potential within education remains largely untapped. The team is excited about the possibilities and opportunities for future development VR can offer in education.

Associate Professor Heide highlighted the challenge that non-familial adults often face in understanding infants’ verbal and non-verbal cues despite infants being capable of expressing themselves from birth. The VR tool being developed aims to provide the necessary support for understanding and responding to these cues effectively, thereby enhancing relational skills for adults working with infants.

Informed by the Mātauranga Māori concept of Whanaungatanga and guided by UC Senior Lecturer Dr Ngaroma Williams, the study aims to identify key elements necessary to support relational skills for adults working with infants and translate them into innovative training environments. The team is intrigued by the potential of virtual environments to provide access to situations that would otherwise be difficult or dangerous to access.

A crucial element of the VR experience is using haptic gloves, which incorporate technology to simulate the sensation of handling an infant. This realistic touch adds depth to the interactions, allowing users to feel present and accountable for their actions in virtual scenarios involving infants. These interactions include interpreting and responding to non-verbal cues regarding virtual infant wants or preferences.

As the study progresses towards commercialisation, the team hopes the design principles derived from this study can be applied to other validated training environments, making this innovative approach accessible to various fields and industries beyond early childhood education. Integrating artificial intelligence in the future could further enhance adaptability and realism in these virtual training scenarios.

In collaboration with Professor Tony Walls and Dr Niki Newman from the University of Otago Simulation Centre, the study also incorporates healthcare elements, broadening its application beyond education. This multi-faceted approach underscores the potential of digital technology, particularly VR, to revolutionise training and education across diverse fields, ultimately enhancing the quality of care and education provided to infants and beyond.

The potential for VR technology to transform training and education across diverse fields is immense. By leveraging the power of digital technology, we can create more effective, engaging, and inclusive learning experiences that benefit practitioners, students, and, ultimately, the individuals they serve.


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