How Virtual Reality Will Change Your Learning Experience
Virtual reality is here to stay. In the next 30 days, Facebook will presumably have its Oculus Quest shipping issue handled, thus delivering the most consumer-friendly experience to date for the VR world.
This technology has been touted for a few decades now as being “the future,” but it’s about to become more user-friendly than it’s ever been. Naturally, that means it’s also set to make a larger impact in the classroom.
In the following article, we’ll be discussing some of the ways that this will manifest, and how it will benefit you, the student. But first, it’s important to consider this question:
Is Virtual Reality Right for the Classroom?
It may come as something of a surprise, but virtual reality has already made a limited appearance in the classroom. According to CommonSense.org:
“VR has yet to be widely adopted. Only 21% of households have a headset and one can assume this percentage is far lower for classrooms. Even so, VR continues to fascinate us with its possibility, and it’s especially popular among kids, 70% of whom (ages 8 to 15) express interest in it. Since teachers are always looking for new ways to excite students, some innovative, well-supported educators have been experimenting with VR thanks to relatively low cost platforms like Google Cardboard or any of a number of sub-$100 budget headsets.”
This tells us that the desire for virtual reality in the classroom is definitely there among students. That desire is likely to make them more engaged and receptive to educational objectives. As the technology continues to improve beyond Cardboard, the experience will only grow richer.
So the prognosis at this point? Why not try virtual reality in the classroom? Before answering that question completely — and spoiler alert, we think this will be an amazing tool once it’s been developed further on the software and specs — it’s important to think of the potential caveats.
Yes, virtual reality is an amazing step forward in consumer technology. But it has its detractors. To understand why there are detractors, let’s look at some of the concerns that have been voiced by those inside and outside of the educational community.
Relying Too Much on the Technology
There have been concerns that teachers are overdoing the technology thing for quite some time now. In this article from the American Psychological Association, Furman University Professor and APA Board Member Charles Brewer, PhD, said that overuse of technology can “oversimplify course material, turn students into observers rather than participants and reduce people to speaking in bullets rather than in complete thoughts.”
While Brewer’s main point of contention was with PowerPoint presentations, it’s no less applicable to the world of VR where the “shininess” of the object might detract from the meat and potatoes of the teaching.
Fraying Personal Connections
Another big concern of virtual reality is that students will no longer connect with a teacher or each other. They’ll see everything through a world of flashy code that immerses the senses. That’s all well-and-good, but you eventually have to remove the headset.
Aside from that, there’s no greater substitute for human experience when it comes to learning from one another. We’ve yet to determine how easy that’ll be to replicate in the world of VR. In addition to this, lack of familiarity with VR instruction can get in the way of teachers being able to effectively instruct. As author and educator Grant Lichtman writes:
“…we, the educators, have no shared understanding of how to effectively learn or teach in a virtual environment; there is no ‘guidebook to VR pedagogy.'”
Staking a significant portion of classroom instruction time on virtual reality technology is risky in the sense that we all experience the occasional tech mishap. As the technology develops, there will be growing pains. Even after it is fully developed, no form of technology is without quirks and blips.
Technology mishaps could put schools further behind the 8-ball whenever they do experience major tech-related issues. And the larger the district, the more it can throw off instructional progress as short-handed IT departments work desperately to keep everyone moving at the same pace.
The Oculus Quest, at $399, is perhaps the most affordable and convenient VR technology has been to this point, offering an all-in-one headset experience that doesn’t require accompanying desktop computer. That said, $399 is awfully expensive when you’re dealing with multiple classes and a limited pool of taxpayer funds to pay for everything.
Cost is perhaps the biggest hurdle teachers have faced thus far in bringing VR to their students. Now, technology does tend to get cheaper over time, and the aforementioned Quest is proof of that. But it’s still not where it needs to be yet. As a result, some students in more distressed schools are not likely to have the same access as those in more well-to-do districts.
Potential Health Issues
Virtual reality has not been without its share of bad press when it comes to health issues. Take this article from ScienceFocus (excerpted below):
The most obvious risk involves injuries caused by blundering into real objects while immersed in VR.
But there’s growing concern about more subtle health effects. Many people report headaches, eye strain, dizziness and nausea after using the headsets. Such symptoms are triggered by the VR illusion, which makes the eyes focus on objects apparently in the distance that are actually on a screen just centimetres away.
Known as vergence-accommodation conflict, this is now under investigation for its long-term effects, especially among children. A recent study by researchers at Leeds University found that just 20 minutes exposure to VR could affect the ability of some children to discern the distance to objects. There are also concerns that regular use of VR could accelerate the global epidemic of myopia – short-sightedness – which is predicted to affect one in three of the world’s population by 2020.
That’s a lot of potential liability for school districts to deal with, and it could affect the enthusiasm with which the technology is adopted. Furthermore, teachers would have to pursue alternative methods of instruction for any students susceptible to VR-related health issues.
So, there are definitely concerns about the technology’s downside. But not everything is doom-and-gloom. Some of these issues will only affect a small group while others are a year or two from educators being able to overcome.
In other words, we’re almost there. And when we arrive, there are going to be some really cool benefits that will change classroom instruction for the better. Let’s look at several.
1. Teaching Empathy
Empathy is defined as the ability to relate to the experience of another person in a way that you can almost feel what they’re going through. Students come from a vast array of backgrounds, and it can be difficult to find empathy for one another, particularly in early childhood.
The inability to empathize with one another is what leads to tragic outcomes associated with bullying. And even if bullying does not result in tragedy — as it so often has — it can impede one’s human development well into adulthood.
Virtual reality might be able to accelerate teachers’ ability to address this growing issue. For example, let’s say you placed a child into the point-of-view of another child their age and living in a third-world environment. If they could use their senses to live in that child’s world for 5 or 10 minutes, it could open them up to a human experience they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
This ability to teach empathy is not unique to the virtual reality environment. But it can certainly leave a more profound impact on the student and reach other students who aren’t as open to traditional forms of empathy instruction.
2. Providing a Clearer Understanding of Anatomy
The human body is a very complex ecosystem. Networks of veins pumping blood to and away from the heart. Over 200 bones. Muscle development. Diseases and disorders. Virtual reality gives teachers the ability to take their students inside the human body for an experience unlike any other.
They will be able to show their students what happens under the skin in a normally-functioning body. They’ll also be able to illustrate what’s going on when something out-of-the-ordinary occurs. This understanding of the human body can, at the very least, help students appreciate their health and wellness more than they did before and teach better habits for future use.
3. Fostering Student Exploration
Virtual reality has the capability of engaging all five senses in an educational environment. Teachers have had to work hard at maximum creativity to pull this off over the years. They’ve never had everything they needed to do so in one compact resource.
Virtual reality changes that to some degree. In so doing, it stands a much better chance of helping students to explore on their own more than they would under ordinary classroom situations.
Any teacher will tell you that a major part of their job is teaching their students how to learn and instilling the desire to learn for themselves. Any tool that gets them closer to that goal is one that can pay exponential dividends down the road.
4. Learning About Industrial VR Uses
One of the best uses of virtual reality in the classroom will be showing students how VR can be employed in industrial settings to solve problems or learn processes. Take manufacturing, for example.
Working with state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment is a great experience for those who wish to go into advanced manufacturing careers. But accessing that equipment in the real world can be difficult and cost-prohibitive.
Virtual reality training environments, however, can put a student hands-on with the technology and all it really costs is the headset, software experience, and time it takes to walk him or her through daily operations.
5. VR Show-and-Tell
A great way of getting students to embrace virtual reality is for them to physically create VR content. This opens up all kinds of possibilities, particularly when it comes to “show-and-tell.” If students can use VR to bring their classmates into their world to experience some of their favorite (or not so favorite) aspects of life, it allows them all to learn from each other while intensifying their enthusiasm for the technology.
Students learn best by doing. And while their VR creations may be relatively simple at first, that’s how they learn. Start a child on simple VR creation in grade school, and they could be making rapid advancements in technology by the time they graduate high school.
6. Exploring Foreign Cities and Countries
Google Earth has already put us in a pretty good place getting to experience different cities and countries through the magic of VR. In the future, the sky is the limit!
It won’t be uncommon five or 10 years from now to be able to walk into a cafe in Paris from a classroom in Arkansas. The ability to communicate with real people “in-person” and across the globe seemed like the stuff of science-fiction just 20 short years ago. Classrooms of the next few years, however, will get to incorporate it into their curriculum, resulting in a greater knowledge of different cultures and customs.
7. Exploring Other Planets
Perhaps even better than experiencing Paris from fourth period would be going to another solar system or planet. Astrophysics has taught us much more about the universe than we knew in previous generations. While our spacecraft isn’t quite ready for travel across light years, the satellites and unmanned craft we’ve sent out through the ages has painted a pretty vivid picture of the universe.
Taking that picture and translating it into a multimedia VR experience will take us further beyond the stars than we ever thought possible. This could have astronomical (sorry) benefits to our understanding of the cosmos and inspire a new generation of research and development. Plus, who doesn’t want to see what the other earth-like planets look like up close and personal?
8. Experiencing a Career for Oneself
A more immediately useful application for VR is in the world of career education. Students today find it difficult deciding on a single career path before college, and who can blame them? When you choose a career, you’re mapping out the next 20 or 30 years of your life based on what you’re feeling at 20 or 25.
VR gives students the ability to feel better about their decision by allowing them to “test drive” careers through the comfort of virtual reality before committing a minimum of four years and thousands of dollars of education to the cause.
This could be especially fruitful for careers like medicine, where students can rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in college debt before they’ve had any guarantees of completing their coursework. Getting a feel for whether or not you can truly do the work can make all the difference in whether you pursue such a major.
9. Visiting the Past
History also stands to benefit from the use of virtual reality technology. Imagine a lifelike recreation of the Crusades or the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ or the beach landing at Normandy. These situations can be brought out in visceral detail where the students themselves can be spectators.
Of course, some incidents in history can be rather traumatic to experience, so teachers will want to proceed with caution. But few technologies have offered the ability to bring history to life than VR has. For subjects like history that get a lot of, “How am I ever going to use this in real life?” questions, this is nothing sort of revolutionary.
10. Exploring the Ocean
The depths of the sea are as hard to reach for watercraft and human beings as the outer rims of the galaxy. This is because of the overwhelming water pressure beyond a certain depth. But SONAR and other technologies have managed to create some pretty accurate mapping technology that will only improve with time.
Strapping on a headset can open a unique window into the world living under our feet. It also could inspire the next generation of underwater explorers and marine biologists, thus bringing us closer to resolutions for the growing concerns around climate change.
11. Learning Geology
What really happens when we experience a massive earthquake? How are mountains formed? Were we ever really one big continent? The concept of VR lends itself to geological studies, which, in turn, can offer tremendous benefits to the future of our environment.
This is a topic that has been done a disservice over time due to limited technology. But with VR, it’s possible to engage students who have previously struggled to understand the physics and biology behind the way their environment works, particularly how it interacts with terrain and how that terrain differs from one continent to the next.
Virtual Reality in the Classroom Is Inevitable
Virtual reality in the classroom is here to stay. We all know that. While it may be another five years before every classroom gets the joy of experiencing it, it’s time for teachers to start thinking about how to harness it now.
Students are hungry for a more sensual learning experience, and VR offers just that. If you haven’t tried it out yet, consider picking up a headset and exploring some of the possibilities for yourself.
Now, readers, it’s your turn. What are some specific uses that you’d like to see for virtual reality in the classroom? Share your picks in the comments section below.
[Featured Image by PxFuel]