Education’s New Frontier

Using VR, unlocking human potential for a better outcome.

GUEST COLUMN | by Turner Nashe

CREDIT GTL Turner Nashe .pngPerhaps the newest frontier in education is the ardent effort that is now underway to transform the lives of over 3 million residents. These residents live across all fifty of our states. Most have families that depend on them, and nearly all will be moving at some point without gainful employment or significant job skills. These individuals come from all walks of life. They are African American, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic and Native American. The majority were born in the United States, but the remainder hail from almost every nation on earth. In fact, this very large, diverse population has only one thing in common. They have been convicted of a crime and are currently incarcerated.

The United States has approximately one twentieth of the world’s population, yet it has a quarter of the world’s prisoners. In fact, if you include probation and parole, we have over seven million people in the United States under the supervision of the criminal justice system. In the last 35 years, we experienced a 500 percent increase in incarceration. During that same period, we spent three times more money on prisons than on schools.

When an inmate earns an associate degree, the recidivism rate drops to an amazing 13.7 percent. When they earn a bachelor degree, the recidivism rate drops even further, to a scant 5.6 percent. When you consider that it costs states an average of $31,000 per year to feed, clothe and house each resident, education becomes a pretty sweet deal.

Of the more than 3 million people currently in jail or prison, two thirds will return within three years, and three quarters will return within five years. When an inmate earns an associate degree, the recidivism rate drops to an amazing 13.7 percent. When they earn a bachelor degree, the recidivism rate drops even further, to a scant 5.6 percent. When you consider that it costs states an average of $31,000 per year to feed, clothe and house each resident, education becomes a pretty sweet deal.

My company, GTL, has been a leader in providing secure technology for inmates and correctional institutions, and 1.9 million inmates nationwide use GTL services. I was personally involved in bringing tablets into many of America’s institutions, with very encouraging results. Tablets provide a way for inmates to learn in the privacy of their own cells, and it proved to be a great delivery system for academic learning – with one major drawback. In order to learn and become proficient in a trade or skill, inmates must be able to train on industry equipment. Being incarcerated makes this problematic. The answer to this challenge is Virtual Reality (VR). With VR, inmates can learn automotive repair, cosmetology, food prep, heating and air, plumbing and many more real-word, in-demand skills. In much the same way that virtual reality is now being used to train thoracic surgeons and airline pilots, virtual reality will be a secure and inexpensive way for states to assist in inmate education and to provide training for inmates, making it possible for them to receive associate and bachelor degrees, and apprenticeships and certificates in relevant, marketable skill areas.

Our work uses a blend of current and new VR technology. The corrections industry dictates that we “securitize” anything that would normally be used for public consumption, so we will use a moderately-priced commercial headset, and strip down functionality and code firmware to enhance security for the prison environment.

CREDIT GTL Turner Nashe infographic.pngWe are working from a catalog of existing courses written for online tablet and computer users – almost like being in college for biology or chemistry. We will have standard Learning Management System (LMS) coursework and add the visual experience to deliver a virtual lab. The lab allows us to bring real-world experiences behind the walls, such as being in a virtual commercial kitchen or automotive repair shop.

While there’s only so much you can do, placing a student inside a new environment should reduce stress levels and offer some type of familiarity when faced with the actual event.

As early as September of this year, we will begin to make VR a reality through a department of corrections here in the US. We will begin with five to ten-minute VR sessions in the automotive repair, cosmetology and food prep services areas.

We also have department of corrections customers that are very interested in being pilot facilities for the new virtual reality courses. We are innovators in the corrections space and have been since our inception. We’ve had positive experiences and would like our existing relationships to allow us to bring even more technology that benefits everyone. Using existing, moderately priced headsets, we have made the technology very affordable. And obviously, there is a large financial incentive for the taxpayer to reduce recidivism. At the end of the day, we all want inmates to leave these facilities for good and lead productive lives.

As a long-term outcome, VR could provide a catalogue of experiences to allow inmates to reflect on where they may have made an error in judgement, allowing offenders to practice coping mechanisms and decision trees in a safe space. So there could be long-term behavior modification implications as well as workforce development opportunities. An inmate’s recidivism or success upon reentry into society is directly tied to his or her ability to make correct decisions when faced with real-world choices. When an offender has to make a decision upon release, the weight of violating probation or parole shouldn’t be the incentive. It is my goal to make sure that all parties involved are in a safe space when an inmate has to build out short, medium, and long term schemata in order to be successful in the outside world, instead of depending on negative stress responses. If these successful life decisions can be made in the safe environment of a virtual experience while still incarcerated, then the inmates are much more likely to make successful decisions upon their release. It is important to move the experiences up-stream to be unraveled. In this case, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Let’s create a process which allows everyone to prosper.

Finally, what we learn from offering VR to inmate learners in the near future could have a profound impact on our high school, community college and adult learners in mainstream society. We’re all human learners and many of us have somewhere or something that we’d like to learn, do or see. But we face barriers to access such as money, transportation, or availability of proper training facilities. This technology can benefit us all. Who knows? In the not-too-distant-future, we may be able to teleport. Until then, I think using virtual technology will be the key to unlocking success for a lot of American families.

Turner Nashe, Ph.D., is an entrepreneur, inventor, innovator and recognized leader in building technology that facilitates delivery of educational content to security sensitive industries. He is based in Nashville, TN where he received his doctorate in Educational Administration and Supervision from Tennessee State University. Turner has built several businesses around proprietary digital delivery systems. These systems provide relevant content to schools, correctional facilities and health care providers. He has worked with firms in the private and public sector as well as governmental entities. His work has attracted firms from start-up technology firms to the Fortune 500 companies.

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