This post is part of our ‘Future Technologies in the Classroom’ blog series, exploring the possibilities and impacts of technology in education. Here, our CEO Dr Becky Sage explores how schools can work with VR in the classroom. This is a modified version of an article previously written for the Teaching Times.
Virtual Reality seems to be everywhere, but what does it mean for education and the classroom? How can educators make sure that it is a good investment to enhance learning? Or is it just an over-hyped, gimmick that becomes an expensive piece of plastic that runs the risk of sitting in the back of the classroom gathering dust?
Slowly, virtual reality is creeping into our lives, offering people a chance to have incredible experiences which they may never be able to access in “real life”. People are amazed by virtual reality – they see someone with a black, plastic box on their face wiggling their arms around and they want to be part of it. I have asked students why VR is exciting to them and they reply:
“Because it lets you escape into a different world”.
As CEO of an innovative edtech company, my job is to assess the tools that might be able to help us to instigate a transformative change in education and I must make a measured judgement of the tools that we use to serve schools and universities. Our offering is a software platform, not hardware, which means that we have to be savvy when deciding which hardware devices we prioritise when building our software.
We have pulled together a helpful list of questions and some thoughts from the education community about virtual reality, which might come in handy when you are thinking about new technology in the classroom.
Question 1: What role do you want VR to play?
“I believe we need to step back from expert led debate about what’s possible and how to achieve it. Instead, I think we must start with a more fundamental exploration of what role we want these technologies to play in serving humanity.” Gerd Leonhard, Technology vs Humanity
When assessing the viability of implementing technology in the classroom, you need to decide what success looks like for you, and what your ultimate goals are. People will all have different reasons for wanting to use VR in education, which may include:
- Creating immersive experiences that would otherwise be out of reach for students
- Increasing the number of students choosing to take your subject to a higher level due to higher engagement
- Helping to communicate abstract concepts
- Bringing more enjoyment in the classroom
- Helping to personalise learning
- Increased attainment due to a better understanding and increased engagement
- Virtually connecting with people from different communities around the world.
All these benefits have been observed by teachers working with VR. However, if you are looking for a solution that is available right now which covers all subject areas, is simple and cheap to use – then you may be disappointed. You need to be excited and willing to be part of the creation of VR as a tool for learning if you want to integrate it int
o your teaching today, or even tomorrow.
Question 2: What are the possibilities for enhancing learning?
“We want students to explore and find things out for themselves. This is tricky with very large and very small (distance and timescales) including seeing what is happening and how it can be adjusted. Where VR is used to enhance this, it can only be a good thing.” Jonny Friend, Head of Science at St Johns, Marlborough
We explored VR with a group of teachers and they were very excited about the possibility of their students being able to step into a world of atoms and molecules – we have the capability for them to feel like they have shrunk to the size of a molecule and to make the invisible visible. This can be incredibly powerful for allowing students to become curious explorers of all aspects of our world. To date we have only created a demonstrator in VR, as there are not enough schools with VR to make it worthwhile to invest further right now, but we do run workshops and events that use a careful implementation of Virtual Reality.
Many of the most difficult concepts to teach are those that require some degree of three-dimensional visualisation and to be able to immerse oneself in a dynamic and fully interactive 3D environment will offer an unparalleled opportunity for both teacher-demonstrated and student-centred learning. This provides a perfect example of the synergy that does and should exist between teaching and research in universities‘. Prof. N.C. Norman, Head of Chemistry, Unversity of Bristol
Question 3: How do we know that it does what it says it does?
Try it out first, talk to other teachers, be cynical and then see if the VR solution can achieve the benefits. Companies like Nano Simbox offer plenty of opportunities to trial virtual reality before you take the leap.
Traditional theories of learning tell us is that experiencing something has a higher impact on learning than the less active forms of learning. These theories are sometimes contested, although it is rare to find a pedagogy expert who doesn’t believe that a multi-modal approach is the most effective for learning – VR offers a brand-new mode, when done well!
Question 4: Is the technology/content/implementation experience up to scratch?
“[VR] Technology isn’t good or bad, implementation can be good or bad. Considered integration with high quality experiences is good, low quality gimmicky experiences are bad. Educators have to be enthused by it too.” Designer, Nat Al Tahann, who has designed education games in partnership with the Wellcome Trust.
The main point here is that the technology alone will never enhance learning. A VR headset with poor, or no content is not going to enhance anyone’s learning, what matters is what the VR is being used for. All hardware must be thought of as a medium by which an experience is created for your learner.
At Nano Simbox we have developed our own process for developing any digital products, which demands that the technology, pedagogy and content must be at the same level of design excellence. Hence, we do not yet sell a Virtual Reality product.
Question 5: Which VR hardware should I use?
“I’ve only got the PlayStation VR system at home so that’s the one I use most often – I’ve tried some of the video apps but it’s the gaming that gets me really excited (and I suspect where most of the potential educational aspect is in the short-mid term). I don’t currently have a PC capable of running either of the big hitters (yet!) Mostly in terms of educational stuff they were mostly Samsung Gear based” Kirk Purnell, Teaching, Learning and Assessment Manager, Weston College
This is a bit of a minefield if you haven’t had much, or any experience with VR, and be warned some of the devices do come with many additional requirements. The cost, the quality of experience, how easy it is to use and the type of content available will be the deciding factor.
Question 6: How would I use it in the classroom?
This big barrier: One headset can only be used by one child at a time unless you have some very advanced applications. Even if you do have multiple headsets it still runs the risk of being an isolated activity. We have worked on a few innovations and solutions to overcome the problem.
- Communication between tablets and VR environments
- Bring in external people who use the hardware in workshops
- The advice is to not use the headset for a long period of time and so limited numbers of devices is not always a problem, just use it as part of a carousel of activities – sometimes the simple solutions are the best!
- We have an innovation which uses multiple HTC vive headsets to put multiple people in the same virtual space, so you could take 8 students all into the same virtual world and all would see the same content from different spatial perspectives. Dr David Glowacki, Royal Society Fellow has been championing this at the University of Bristol for research and teaching.
Question 7: Is VR the only option for providing the solution to the problem I have?
VR is costly and still in early stages, which is why the hardware solutions that use our own mobile devices are likely the ones that will take hold, but you must remember that immersive doesn’t mean only virtual reality, students can be immersed in tasks that use all media, if VR is too expensive or if it doesn’t fit what you are trying to do then use the best tool to suit your purpose – which may not be technology at all.
Question 8: Am I futureproofing?
Some believe that VR in the classroom is inevitable. Perhaps they are right, or perhaps it is just a stepping stone to the “next big thing” in tech. According to market trends and knowledge of how technology changes, we are just on the cusp of the emergence of immersive technologies. As previously mentioned, there is already mixed reality (AR/VR such as the hololens) and hologram technology is starting to be revealed, but the question is how long will each of these stick?
Does it matter? If you can get the benefits you want to see in VR and you can afford the investment then go for it, because if it gives you what you need then it will stick!
Question 9: Does this aid inclusivity in the classroom?
My analysis has shown VR to be both an inclusive and exclusive medium:
Aiding inclusivity by:
- New mode for teaching – opens learning to a wider range of people
- Can take students from low socio economic background to parts of the world that they would not be able to travel to outside of school
- Allows students to be introduced to new cultures and understand how they work
Causing exclusion by:
- It is expensive – widening the divide between those who can and can’t afford it.
- It is a potentially isolating experience
- It is reported to be inherently sexist (unsubstantiated)
- If overused it could exclude those who work well with other media
- The headset can be uncomfortable and for some people can feel claustrophobic, motion sick and frustrated – excluding them from the lessons
VR is not the only solution, when applied well it is opening the door for whatever comes next. With inclusive development at the heart of VR experiences, combining the hardware with great content and implementation, the impact in the classroom could be fantastic.
If you are a teacher that loves tech or a school that wants a WOW factor, I guarantee a good VR experience will make your students’ jaws drop – if you can get it right, then go for it. It isn’t the technology that is making the impact – it is what YOU do with it that’s truly exciting!
This piece was originally written for Teaching Times E-Learning Update