Coronavirus is a pivotal test for the future of remote work and distance learning

Around the world, employers and educators are turning to digital tools to keep up with work and learning while avoiding large, in-person gatherings

ICHIKAWA, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 27: Elementary school students make their way home on February 27, 2020 in Ichikawa, Japan. A growing number of events and sporting fixtures are being cancelled or postponed around Japan while some businesses are asking their employees to work from home and some schools are closing as Covid-19 cases continue to increase and concerns mount over the possibility that the epidemic will force the postponement or even cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

As we find ourselves in the middle of the world’s biggest remote work experiment, it was only a matter of time before another population of toilers joined this massive test: students.

Around the world, employers and educators are turning to digital tools to keep up with work and learning while avoiding large, in-person gatherings that could lead to the spread of Covid-19.

On Monday, the UAE Ministry of Education said it will try out a home-learning programme that could be implemented in the event that government schools close to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

The announcement came as Twitter and Square, both led by Jack Dorsey, told all 9,000 of their employees to work from home. Google advised employees at its European headquarters in Dublin to do the same. According to China Beige Book, which updates private data on the Chinese economy, 29 per cent of those who have returned to work following quarantine efforts in the country are logging in from home.

Passengers wearing protective masks ride a subway train in Shanghai, China, on Monday, March 2, 2020. The pressure to get China back to work after the coronavirus shutdown is resurrecting an old temptation: doctoring data so it shows senior officials what they want to see. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Whether workers keep working and learners keep learning outside their typical environs in the weeks to come will change the future trajectory of employment and education.

Remote working and learning have benefits tailor-made for our current global challenges: reducing carbon emissions as people do away with commutes and increasing access to opportunities for those who do not live in an urban centre or near a good school system.

From a technology standpoint, desk jockeys no longer have to be office-bound. A solid internet connection, though not something to be taken for granted, is no longer a luxury in most parts of the world and powers the majority of what gets done in the modern economy: tasks such as coding, financial modelling and typing that can then be shared via email.

Teleconferencing company Zoom and collaborative working app Slack both had rising share prices on the back of the work-from-home rush amid the coronavirus threat. Although their main rivals Google and Microsoft, which also have collaborative work offerings, got no such bump, mainstream consensus is that remote work companies are ones to watch.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 12, 2018 Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey gestures while interacting with students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in New Delhi on November 12, 2018. A series of erratic and offensive messages appearing on the account of Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey August 30, 2019 suggest his account had been hacked. The tweets containing racial slurs and suggestions about a bomb showed up around 2000 GMT on the @jack account of the founder of the short messaging service. The company did not immediately respond to an AFP query. / AFP / Prakash SINGH

But what about classrooms? Students – rambunctious, curious, moving at their own pace – need more than video conferencing and a slick chat function. For young students, co-operative playtime and interactive learning is foundational. Replacing those things with video chats is just not the same.

This is where advances in technology are interesting, and the most promise lies in virtual reality.

VR technology can create a simulated three-dimensional world that is as vivid a learning environment as any classroom, and can include a classroom of students and a teacher.

VSpatial, an American augmented and VR company that caters to businesses, is also betting on students, and is looking for educational partners to test out its classroom technology.

Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Ruba Haza: Hamad Al Shehhi. RAK antiquities and museums department VR experience "A journey to the past through virtual reality" at UAE innovates, Ras Al Khaimah. Wednesday, February 19th, 2020. Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National

They see limitations in distance education as it is done right now: students distracted by the pull of social media or a chaotic home environment, and hampered by awkward interactions between their teacher and peers by instant messaging or video chat.

By contrast, a VR classroom can be entirely immersive. “Life-sized profile pictures or avatars help students feel like they are together. The immersive nature of VR puts you squarely in a classroom and the real world seems to fade away. Because students cannot see the world around them, they are not distracted by phones, friends or people watching. They are focused entirely on the class during the class time,” VSpatial describes in its pitch to educators.

Teachers can see head and hand movements like they would in a traditional classroom, students nodding along in understanding or raising their hand with a question. In this way, VR classrooms incorporate typical classroom behaviour and feedback into distance learning.

The technology is also coming down in price and becoming more user-friendly.

Skype, Google Classrooms and Microsoft Teams are the platforms most often used for distance learning. They require a laptop, but are mostly free to use. VR headsets are competitive with the price of a laptop: a premium model, the HTC Vive, is around Dh3,200 and the more affordable Oculus Go is Dh1,100.

These devices may well be the computers of our future. If offices and classrooms are successful in their distancing efforts in the coming weeks, that future could come much sooner than later.

Kelsey Warner is the Future Editor at The National

Kelsey Warner

Kelsey Warner

Kelsey Warner is the Future Editor at The National where she oversees coverage of what innovations and trends are reshaping society. She also co-hosts the weekly Business Extra podcast. Her reporting has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, Forbes Middle East and MSN.