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Virtual reality in education: What is the future?

Virtual reality in education

Imagine cresting mountains and exploring new ranges in the warmth of a blanket. Or learning maths in a virtual classroom, without travelling to a campus. In recent years, virtual reality (VR) has proven to be a dominant force in the school as well as gaming. Virtual reality in education helps students learn new things by immersing them in a world, complementing their learning with alternative ways of seeing their content.

This article will investigate the diverse ways in which virtual reality can assist students if used correctly. One is virtual reality field trips, which lets students explore new places from the safety of their home countries. The last area is the classroom itself, which equips teachers with a tool to help with learning.

The overall conclusion is that virtual reality in education helps the learning process. Via immersing students in a virtual and interactable world, there is a proven link that improves memory retention. And what’s more, augmented reality (AR) can help with education as well. However, it should not dominate the classroom, serving as a supplementary tool as part of a teachers’ repertoire alongside whiteboards and video.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality is the use of technology to create a simulated environment that people can interact within. People interact in these virtual environments using VR headsets, and use controllers that can influence their space.

Virtual reality has been around for several years, with a recent resurgence since 2014 when Facebook acquired Oculus. Since then, more companies and VCs are exploring the potential of using virtual reality for areas beyond gaming, from training recruits to helping patients.

A lot of companies have been espousing hype and investing a lot in software. Google released Google Expeditions, a way for people to go travelling around the world using merely a Google Cardboard, the lowest-cost method of exploring around the world.

The benefits of virtual reality in education

While major companies like Google are exploring virtual and augmented reality, how effective is it? Does it lead to students learning more about a topic, or is it an extra addition to the classroom that can be better directed elsewhere?

Barbara DeHart, Co-Founder of Sama Learning, wanted to find out. Mrs DeHart conducted an experiment with over 1000 students across three universities to see if learning STEM in a virtual reality device improves the education process. The pilot was designed to evaluate deploying VR at scale, and their positive impact in classrooms.

Mrs DeHart and her team discovered that virtual reality in classrooms had a positive effect. Taking into account before and after testing, and control trials, the team found that students improved by a full letter grade. This shows that immersive tech leads to an improvement in learning. The team also found that students had an appetite for further experiences, showing that virtual reality has a pull beyond initial testing.

This is not to say that virtual reality should replace whiteboards. All tools should be used to help teach students, and not one device should dominate. But the experiment shows that there is a clear link between VR and improved learning.

Students can use VR for field trips or classrooms. Photo: Tom Ffiske.

Virtual reality field trips

Students could explore virtual versions of locations they cannot access otherwise. So one of the best ways of using the technology is field trips.

For those that are restricted to their local area for financial or mobility reasons, it’s a great way to see new places. Why fly all the way to Italy, when people can visit Italy in their rooms? National Geographic VR lets users climb mountains or explore ocean depths, well beyond the budget of most schools. Learning about another country or their culture feels more real if people can visit them in person. While it pales to the real world, it offers a glimpse which surpasses books and their text.

Virtual reality field trips can transcend not only distance but time as well. Students can visit Ancient Greece, interacting with the great philosophers of the time. Or visit Thailand’s ancient capital, it met its fate. Experiences such as MasterWorks: Journey Through History gives users a history lesson without the time travel.

Such experiences complement their education. Imagine learning Latin, which comprises of learning conjunctions and words of a language long dead. A virtual reality trip to Ancient Rome can enliven the learning experience, granting content to their education.

Virtual reality in the classroom

On the other side, using virtual reality in the classroom has fantastic returnable benefits. Bringing students into the source material, rather than reading it, helps with engagement and learning retention. In practice, does it help?

Chris Lewis, an IT lecturer and Head of HND Computing from Grantham College, ran experiments to find out more The first experiment is linking all his students in AltspaceVR, and gave personalised feedback to his students within the virtual world. The volume of the interactions was related to the students’ proximity to each other, so they directly heard their feedback. Meanwhile, those further away were not distracted from their work. This personalised kind of interaction is more tailored to individual students. So far, so exciting.

Then Mr Lewis used A-Frame, a WebVR experience creator, to produce tableaux which students can interact with, then imported it into AltspaceVR. He let the students interact with the animations and wander around the item. Mr Lewis found that they engaged with the content, and enjoyed using it.

There are many examples like this across multiple classrooms. All found that it is not enough to have a virtual class to teach lessons. For teachers to make the most of virtual reality in education, human interaction is a must.

Augmented reality helps with learning as well

Up to this point, virtual reality has been explored in great detail. By placing students in VR, they can learn new things to complement their education. But what about augmented reality (AR), the tech found on phones that can place an overlay on a real-life object?

If used correctly, it absolutely can. Curiscope creates shirts that have body parts on them, which children can wear. Then, the students can use their app to see through the shirts, showing the working human body under the skin. It is a neat way of showing how the human body pumps blood and works with one another, as a supplementary way of learning biology.

Augmented reality is an excellent way of teaching children, provided the content is right. As everyone has a smartphone, it is a unique out-of-pocket way of trying new things. However, it requires the concerted effort of the students to download apps and hold their attention long enough to interact with new apps. But once this barrier is lept, a new world can unveil itself for the teacher and its classroom.

Shirts and augmented reality in action. Video: Curiscope.

What are the best VR headsets for education?

So which headset to pick? The best VR headsets depend on the budget which schools have, and the quality that students may like to experience:

  • Google Cardboard. The most accessible way to experience immersive content. The cardboard viewer lets people simply slot in their smartphone, and watch content via YouTube. It is also great to use with kids. In practice, it is not VR; it is a 360 video which people cannot interact with. There are some great videos on the platform, but it pales to the true VR which the other headsets provide.
  • Oculus Go. A standalone VR headset for those who want to dip their toes into VR. The virtual environment is controlled via a 3DoF controller, which means it operates on a virtual pivot with less control than its high-end counterparts. But it still features some great experiences, such as National Geographic VR, VR Vienna, and World Traveler VR. As it does not need a computer to run, it is easy to transport around the classroom.
  • Oculus Quest. A step up from the Oculus Go, the standalone VR headset offers 6DoF controls and room-scale VR, which means players can walk around a room and interact with their surroundings. Some great experiences include Wander and Apollo 11.
  • Oculus Rift S. This is the most high-end experience, giving students the very best quality for gameplay. However, it is also the most expensive, and it is reliant on having a PC for use. What’s more, the Oculus Go and Oculus Quest both provide great experiences without the price tag. Because of this, the other headsets are recommended for the classroom.

Tips for teachers using virtual reality

If convinced, the next step is to pick a VR headset; but which one? From taking virtual reality field trips to teaching a virtual classroom, VR technology has a lot of potential for helping students. Here are some tips for the aspiring teacher:

  • Clean the VR headset after use. If there is only one headset being shared by multiple students, then it will collect sweat and grime with time. This can lead to a greasy, unpleasant peripheral by the end of the day. Wipe down the headset whenever it changes heads, ideally with a tissue and an alcohol-based washing liquid. When dry, place on the next individual.
  • Pick the right experiences. With the amount of software available, it can be challenging to choose the right one to complement teaching. Think more widely and consider what’s best for the classroom. Is it a virtual class? AltspaceVR provides the capabilities for education. Is it to complement learning a language, like French? Pick one that lets people travel to France. Get creative!
  • Check the software for warning labels. Virtual reality in education can be overwhelming, and some students may not feel comfortable with it. Some games may also have photosensitivity warnings, depending on what they contain. Check the software before letting the students have a go.

Virtual reality in education: Summary

In summary, the uses of virtual reality in education are extensive. With the flow of financing uplifting new projects, children will experience new ways of learning content. While slow, progress is steadily moving forward. Yet it depends on which areas, and how far.

Robin de Lange, Director at the Virtual Reality Learning Lab, has a realistic vision of the future: ‘VR is earning its place as a powerful learning tool. More and more research is being done that shows that the suspicions we had might be true. But that’s not to say that VR is the best decision for every type of learning material and every type of classroom situation.

‘VR will not disrupt the school or the classroom anytime soon. However, it will be used more and more in situations that really benefit from it.’

Robin’s nuanced approach summarises the role of virtual reality in the classroom; as a tool to support students alongside other devices. Instead of dominating teaching as the sole approach, it can be used to guide learning with different ways of engaging students. Even augmented reality has its place as well, for similar reasons. Like using whiteboards to illustrate points, or videos to visualise concepts, virtual reality offers another way to engage and discover new content. Virtual reality and education can work hand-in-hand.