There has been an ongoing debate as to whether virtual reality has the potential of improving the learning experience to an extent where is might be considered its essential constituent. However, it’s been also becoming increasingly apparent that VR is slowly, but steadily winning the minds of both educators and students and panning out as a promising platform that can restore interest in school education and actually improve its quality. Over the past few years, VR and AR technologies made a quantum leap in terms of industry support, cost, ease of use and, most importantly, availability of content. The advent of really cheap VR appliances like Google Cardboard (essentially, a cardboard mask with a pair of lenses and a side slot for sliding in a smartphone) made VR accessible to the mass consumer and allowed the technology to break out of the conventional high-dollar, hardcore gaming domain and spill over onto a new fertile turf. One of the areas where affordable VR has the potential to become a huge success is, of course, education.
According to a recent study by Samsung, 2% of teachers are already using VR in their classes, 60% are keen on making it a part of their in-class experience, and as many as 83% say that virtual reality may improve the efficiency of learning by providing:
- Better understanding of scientific concepts – 77%
- Better student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaboration – 71%
- Increased motivation in the classroom – 84%
These results indicate that there is an acute need in breathing new life into the educational process and that VR has every chance to be the pivot of this renewal by offering not just the technology, but also content, content creation tools, deep integration with LMS’s and, of course, general accessibility.
Virtual reality as an educational incentive
Schools are not the wealthiest institutions out there, and their budget cannot typically afford teachers the luxury of being able to frequently take students to field trips, much less trips overseas to prominent historic or natural locations. At the same time, the very way children learn these today screams for more visuality and interaction that conventional schooling struggles to provide. VR initiatives like Google Expeditions (with over 100 locations available today) and Nearpod help bridge this gap between the classroom and the object of study by making the educational process exciting for both students and teachers. Being able to instantly take a dive at the Great Barrier Reef or hop on the Great Wall of China being halfway across the globe away is a very promising concept. In addition to zero-cost travel, VR makes it manifold easier for children to understand the STEM domain: complex physical, chemical, geometrical and other scientific concepts that really benefit from advanced 3D visualization and interactivity. Given the current rate of advancements in this area, it won’t be long before kids switch to fully virtual, yet realistic and safe chemical and physical experiments that can be instantly reconfigured and run in various settings with a few clicks or screen taps.
The extra benefits of using VR in a classroom are the students’ increased concentration and focus, since once the VR mask is on, all other distractions go away, giving way to full immersion into the virtual experience. This multi-sensory, high-impact learning leaves a much deeper imprint in young minds than textbook articles and video lessons. Today’s school children are very well-versed in modern technologies and play computer games a lot, so any gamification of the learning process is eagerly accepted and is, in fact, actively supported by their younger and tech-savvy “millennial” teachers. For example, some are already using Minecraft for teaching students the basics of civil engineering, architecture, history and other subjects, and some are considering other games to aid them in their day-to-day work. In spite of the habitual criticism of games and gaming as being major distractors for the youth, some experts argue that they could be extremely useful for developing particular skills, if used the right way.
One should also not forget that shared virtual activities can help strengthen bonds between students, help them make friends and generally foster social integration in student groups. What is viewed as a significant differentiator in real life may become irrelevant in virtual reality, revealing other important and plausible traits of character.
In a nutshell, VR can potentially have the following positive effects:
- Tighter, more efficient collaboration and social integration
- Access to totally new immersive experiences
- Boost in student motivation
- Process gamification, new incentives and achievements
- Better creativity and imagination
Challenge of making it to the classroom
The widespread propagation of VR technologies in education is hampered primarily by the cost factor. Although VR appliances and software have demonstrated a solid drop in prices, they are still expensive when it comes to purchasing them in bulk for several classes. This is yet to change, but current shipments to schools are limited to dozens of units, most of which are donated or subsidized by large companies like Google, HTC, Facebook and such.
Another challenge is the deficit of high-quality VR applications and content. This problem, however, is being fixed very quickly, with more and more companies joining the VR race and releasing more and more apps and custom e-learning solutions with VR support. The amount of content promises to grow exponentially and actually boost price cuts on VR hardware in 2017 and beyond. The quality of this content should also go up and shift from pure visualization to active collaboration in the digital space, meaningful interaction with the virtual environment and continuity within a particular course.
The third and, perhaps, the most important issue that educators will have to address is the place of VR in the educational process. The innovative nature and visual appeal of virtual reality makes a lot of early adopters in include VR into their curricula just for the sake of change. It is important, though, that this technology is applied correctly and doesn’t become an end in itself. The true purpose of VR is to complement the conventional methods of educating kids, not replace them completely.
VR is here and it’s here to stay. This year, we’ll be witnessing the rapid adoption of virtual reality in education combined with decreasing prices and growing availability of high-quality VR courses and VR-enabled e-learning platforms for K-12 students. Technological progress in this area will be gradually aligned with the rate of adoption of these new practices, as more and more young teachers take their place in front of their classes.