| 7 minute read

Unlocking transversal skills with virtual reality at UCD’s Innovation Academy

Elena Galán-Muros
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Join us for a fascinating conversation with Eleanor Kelly, Head of Strategy and Partnerships at UCD’s Innovation Academy, as she shares her insights into the future of education and their ground-breaking Virtual Reality for Future Skills module.

Learn more about how UCD’s Innovation Academy is reshaping education for the fourth industrial revolution, the importance of transversal skills and experiential learning in higher education and the need for inclusive and accessible education to bridge societal gaps.

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In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

Madeline Arkins:

Today I have the pleasure of speaking to Eleanor Kelly. Eleanor is the Head of Strategy and Partnerships at Innovation at University College Dublin’s (UCD) Innovation Academy.

To start us off, I would love to hear more about the work of UCD’s Innovation Academy and perhaps your role there as well.

Eleanor Kelly:

UCD Innovation Academy is part of University College Dublin, the largest university in Ireland. We have about 37.000 students, and we are a unit within UCD. We were set up in 2010 by Professor Susie Jarvis and we are a team of entrepreneurs, advocates and educators who are trying to serve as a model of future education for the fourth industrial revolution.

What we see and believe is that education needs to radically reform. We are still working within a model of education based on the 19th century. It’s a model of passive knowledge acquisition, and we want to change that”.

Since 2010, we have been designing and delivering programs in creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, sustainability, etc. to a whole range of learners: We cater to about 1.200 UCD undergraduates every year, also to lifelong learners, those returning to the workplace, those in enterprise, in the public sector… A huge spectrum of learners. And we deliberately keep that group very diverse, because one of the founding principles of UCD Innovation Academy is that we need radical collaboration. We need to work together more. We need to work together across disciplines if we are to solve today’s wicked problems.

We have been doing that since 2010 and, bringing us up to today, what prompted our Virtual Reality for Future Skills, our Learning in the Metaverse project was a really ground-breaking piece of policy from the Irish government called The Human Capital Initiative, which seeks to embed innovation across Irish higher education.

That allowed us to design this project and brought new people into the Innovation Academy. And that has really opened this new chapter for us that we are going to discuss in some more detail today.

Madeline Arkins:

Talking more about how you became in touch with Cappfinity, where did the idea for this particular module, VR for Future Skills, come from?

Eleanor Kelly:

Cappfinity is our enterprise partner in this project. A core part of The Human Capital Initiative, the policy I mentioned, is bringing enterprise and higher education together to see where we can lean into our mutual strengths to co-create and co-design solutions in learning.

Cappfinity is a great enterprise that works to match organizations with talent. They have a lot of excellent expertise in skills and talent recruitment and they recently combined that with technology of various types (VR in this case).

So, our founding director, Professor Susie Jarvis, came to Cappfinity because she was prompted during the pandemic to think about this urgent impetus to change how we learn. People were at home, they couldn’t come into universities, and that was the nudge to look at new mediums for learning, and technology and VR as one possible answer to that.

Importantly, combined with Cappfinity’s expertise and their experience in virtual reality, was also our 12-plus years in experiential learning, learning from doing and our work in transversal skills for over a decade.

When you look at this sort of partnership, and some lessons that can be drawn from it, I would say it’s leaning into each partner’s mutual strengths, and not letting, in this case, technology or a partner define a particular project, but more so augment it.

We came together with Cappfinity and now we have co-designed an accredited undergraduate module called Virtual Reality for Future Skills.

The module seeks to provide students with a new way to learn, practice and develop transversal skills in a completely immersive and new way. We think it’s the first module of its kind in the world. If you look at virtual reality to date, it’s primarily being used as a training tool for pilots, technicians, etc. It has proven to be a quite cost-effective method for training, but this is about experiential learning.

Madeline Arkins:

Some of the undergraduate modules that you provide are electives. How do you steer students towards these modules?

Eleanor Kelly:

Our electives are entirely optional. We started off with one elective in 2014 with 36 students. Today, we offer approximately 10 electives, and we have 1.200 students on average every year. What we find is driving students towards these electives is that they recognise the need for these skills and the need for a safe space where they can learn and practice these skills, whether it’s creativity, innovation, entrepreneurial mindset, sustainability, or digital transformation. We are adding these layers as well.

There is certainly a student demand and it’s growing. There is equally an employer demand as well. We are careful to always say we are not about equipping students so they are ready for work. It is about equipping students so that they’re ready for life. In fact, we are not the only ones in UCD who recognise the need for this, but I think where the challenge is the structures that we operate within at the moment.

It is very difficult to carve out a space for this type of learning. We are GPA neutral, students don’t do exams, so they have already that psychological safety that they can take risks and they are okay with failure in our class.

You learn from failure, and yet our education system really punishes it”.

We have tried to undo some of that in the space we have created around our undergraduate electives and we hope in some, that it will be a model for others as well to draw on.

Madeline Arkins:

Do you have any other partnerships coming up in the pipeline for the Innovation Academy?

Eleanor Kelly:

We are actually designing and launching a Sustainability Village in September at UCD and we are working on some partnerships at the moment around that, but we would love to cultivate more there. As much as we can, we want to make this a model that others can replicate and also that we can learn from others as well. We would love that to happen.

We are equally cultivating partnerships as well within our educators’ program. What we would like to do is scale that program across other universities globally.

If anyone listening is interested in anything of what we have discussed, I’m happy to speak to you. Partnerships are a wonderful method to scale the work that you do and to augment it. So, lots in the pipeline and always open to more as well.

Interested in more insights like this?

You can listen now to Ignacio Sanchez Díaz (Rector and Professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) explore the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and the pivotal role universities play in fostering a more humane and compassionate society in our episode How universities can contribute to a more humane society. You can also learn more about how we can best utilise micro-credentials to better shape the landscape of higher education in our article Transforming education: The bright horizon of micro-credentials.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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