VR in educationOctober 12, 2017, 9:35 am GMT
Let me begin with three bold statements:
Virtual reality will be massive in education.
Virtual reality will transform learning.
These first two statements will come true a lot sooner than you think.
I can make these statements quite confidently because I have been exploring the potential of VR in education for a number of years now and we are on the cusp of a major shift in the way that we interface with technology.
Basic forms of VR are already permeating education mobile VR headsets are inexpensive, educational content is becoming more readily available and early-adopters have been universally positive about the impact and engagement it produces in classrooms.
As higher-end VR technology becomes more affordable and more immersive experiences become more accessible to educators and their students, the growth of VR in education will be astronomical. The mobile revolution led to far broader adoption of technology in the classroom than anything we'd seen before. It opened teachers' eyes to the wondrous world of digital learning and students responded since this was learning that was both relevant and accessible to them.
The virtual reality revolution offers something quite different though a whole new way to experience, explore, interact and learn.
There are many reasons why VR can and should be harnessed in education. Right now it has the innate "wow factor" that new technologies often elicit in students but the reasons for integrating VR in the classroom go much deeper than this. Here are eight key concepts that support the case for learning through virtual reality.
Virtual world tour
VR offers students the ability to virtually travel to places that they may never be able to visit for real. This simple fact alone elevates VR above other forms of technology as it breaks down barriers both geographical and economic.
No corner of the globe is unreachable in VR and already learning opportunities are moving beyond simple 360° images into panoramic videos and fully interactive experiences. Students can now get closer to works of art than they are allowed to in real life, enter buildings and historical sites that are closed to the public and even explore other planets like Mars. Platforms like YouTube 360, Nearpod and Google Expeditions offer a wide range virtual tours that educators can access for free and that relate to a broad range of curriculum areas.
Travelling through time
VR doesn't just break down geographical walls, it breaks down temporal ones too. Students can use Unimersiv to enter the Roman Coliseum during a gladiator fight, they can use Timelooper to stand on the streets of London during the Blitz, or follow the footsteps of Howard Carter as he uncovers the tomb of Tutankhamen in King Tut VR.
As the technology advances, this will be a key area to keep an eye on. Social VR experiences will soon allow for groups of students to take virtual trips back in time and meet historical figures (who may be AI but could even be portrayed by actors.)
The evolution of understanding
For education technology to be effective, learning must always be kept at the heart of any activity. VR opens up a new realm of experiential learning where students can see and do things that reinforce and enhance the understanding of a topic.
Immersing students in virtual situations can definitely allow them to grasp tricky concepts more readily. Platforms like Lifeliqe VR Museum allow students the opportunity to examine things like animals from any angle, highlight key parts and strip layers off to see what lies beneath.
Eon Reality's AVR Creator allows students to pull an engine apart to better understand how it is composited. Titanic VR offers students the opportunity to explore the wreckage of this famous ships and the various artefacts within it. These experiences transcend anything that can be accomplished with traditional methods.
Virtual practice makes perfect
VR is fast becoming the hottest platform within the training industry as it allows companies to upskill employees in a safe environment.
The cost of training staff in VR is minimal and trainees can repeat exercises multiple times without needing additional resources or a lengthy reset process. VR training also negates any potential dangers related to the task.
The same applies with students who are involved with practical subjects like chemistry or DT. Learners can use virtual simulations like SuperChem VR to develop their understanding and practical skills in a virtual space before moving on to a physical one. Design students can use Gravity Sketch or Make VR to build virtual prototypes before beginning the actual construction process.
Breaking the laws of physics
As part of a recent trial with Google Tilt Brush with a sixth form student at JESS Secondary, she recreated her own fabric-based sculpture in VR. When asked about the experience afterwards, it was interesting to hear her comment on how she had to adapt her approach to the piece as the physical version was reliant on tension, whilst in VR the rules of physics didn't apply.
Not having to follow the same rules as the physical world can produce some truly unique experiences for students and not just in terms of art and design. For example, the Noda app (which is available on the HTC Vive) allows users to build three-dimensional mind maps by pinning nodes in mid-air and linking them together.
It takes data visualisation and thought processing to a whole new level and could only work in a virtual space with no gravity.
The empathy machine
We have a responsibility as educators to ensure that students can empathise with people of all walks of life regardless of race, gender or faith. During his 2015 TED Talk, Chris Milk from Within referred to VR as the "ultimate empathy machine".
Whilst this has become a highly debated statement, the underlying sentiment is definitely true. VR can assimilate the experiences of others more effectively than any other platform. Being able to walk a mile in someone else's shoes and experience their situation is incredibly powerful.
The work being done in this field through Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab is particularly impressive and well worth exploring.
VR is a nascent technology that is still evolving. What is clear though is that it is quickly moving beyond passive experiences where users simply consume 360 content. Already platforms like the Vive, Rift and Gear VR offer control over the experience, from movement to actually interacting with virtual objects.
As VR experiences move towards greater user autonomy, the potential for student-driven learning increases exponentially. Letting students explore an ancient city or a virtual lab, making their own choices along the way, puts them in the driver's seat. This is when VR moves from simple perception to true immersion and can actually produce an emotive response from its users.
The immersion factor
This is more of a logistical reason to harness VR in the classroom but it bears mentioning nonetheless. Unlike all other forms of technology, VR offers immersive learning experiences where students have no distractions.
The fact that they wear the VR headset (and headphones) means that they are removed from their physical surroundings and thus the potential for them to lose focus or become distracted by external influences is reduced dramatically. Learning is not just in front of them, it surrounds and engulfs them, engaging multiple senses.
Author: Steve Bambury, head of digital learning and innovation, Jumeirah English Speaking School
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