Tech in education: why WWF Germany is embracing experience learning and VR

Experience learning with complex content: WWF Germany is leveraging virtual reality to show how hydrogen can be produced and put to good use in the future. The NGO is thus leading the way when it comes to digital learning content.

Experience learning works by immersing yourself in a topic.
Image: © WWF Deutschland

WWF Germany has been utilizing digital content for educational purposes for more than 10 years now and is a pioneer in the German-speaking world. We spoke to Bettina Münch-Epple, Director of Education there, about her experiences to date. In the interview, she highlights the strengths of experience learning and how AI-supported learning will transform e-learning.

WWF Germany is regarded as a pioneer in digital learning. Why did it decide to embrace digital learning content?

Bettina Münch-Epple: In 2015, we set up the first German-speaking MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course, on climate change and its effects. Within a short space of time, we reached more than 10,000 participants in this MOOC because we struck a chord in the run-up to the Paris climate talks.

In person, it’s often difficult to get people in one place. But in a digital space, you can bring together people from all over the world. Digitalization also makes it possible to enter into a dialogue with people from all over the world. Back then, the MOOCs from the USA had just caught on in Germany.

We tried to really see learning as an open space. A digital learning format offers the best opportunities in this respect and allows people to get involved regardless of time and location.

What has changed during this time? What have you additionally learned since then?

Bettina Münch-Epple:We can reach people globally – not just in Germany. We can build a community that discusses these issues. But changes don’t happen through e-learning alone.

So we always combine the purely digital learning format, the e-learning part, with in-person sessions. That enables us to really enter into a dialogue. It’s so important today to engage in a dialogue with people, even in digital learning formats. That means tackling questions and involving experts in the discussion on a level playing field.

It’s that dialogue that makes e-learning so valuable in the first place.

Right now, you’re providing a VR experience on the topic of hydrogen. How did this experience learning come about, and what has the response been like?

Bettina Münch-Epple:The next step from pure e-learning is to progress to experience learning. In this context especially, virtual reality or even augmented reality plays a very important role. But here too, it’s very important to consider which context to use it in. We’ve developed a virtual reality that has successfully transitioned to greener energy. In other words, a world with clean air, where there are lots of electric cars, where power-to-X technology is used.

I hope that people in education will simply keep asking themselves critical questions: What do I need this for? In other words, what do I really want to get across?

We’ve tried to incorporate all that into a positive vision that can be explored and experienced, and augmented reality really transports you to this future vision. That means people explore this space for themselves and have highly immersive experiences, which makes for an impactful, lasting, and sustainable impression.

Experiencing the environment in a virtual reality is a strange combination. How do they work together?

Bettina Münch-Epple: Augmented reality or virtual reality alone isn’t an end in itself. VR and AR can become an end in themselves simply by simulating a world where we can escape. Like in science fiction, where we can longer distinguish between reality and virtual reality.

The real world is getting warmer and warmer. There are more and more droughts. Food is becoming increasingly scarce. So I go to a lavish dinner in my virtual world instead. That’s obviously counterproductive. It’s a moment of escapism.

That’s when it obviously becomes a problem because we simply lose the direct connection to our surroundings and to ourselves as people. I think the environmental issues we’re facing risk being pushed much further back as a result. That’s why it was important to me to not create a dystopian world in the power-to-X world, but rather a future vision that motivates people now to make decisions today. We don’t yet have a world where the energy transition has been accomplished. A virtual world lets people immerse themselves and gives them motivation for their decisions today. But there is the risk of creating worlds where a kind of illusion is generated.

Now that the Covid-induced hype surrounding digital learning has subsided, we’re seeing a return to old methods. Why?

Bettina Münch-Epple: Covid enormously accelerated digital learning. And the fact that a phase of fatigue is now setting in is also completely natural because we now see each other much less frequently in person and in real life. There used to be resistance to digital learning. Some argued that it could never replace face-to-face learning because people don’t have a long attention span.

During the Covid-related restrictions, we then actually saw how even extremely complex topics can be prepared really well in a digital format and that it’s possible to prepare complex knowledge in very short video sequences supported by quiz questions and interactions.

What we’re now realizing, though, is that a pure e-learning format lacks the idea sharing, the discussion, and the dialogue. I think in 10 years we’ll be seeing a lot of this AI-supported experience learning, offering highly individualized learning paths where learners are put in front of self-learning systems.

Thanks for the chat!