How many times have you heard that VR would get a boost during the pandemic? Quite a few times, I would assume. But the reasoning makes sense on paper; if stuck at home with no way to attend school, immersive solutions have the perfect opportunity to reach out a hand and be tested by curious children. Crises breeds innovation, and parents tried out a variety of new ways to teach their children as they balance home and work duties.
I have no doubt that VR and AR will continue to revolutionise education. AR apps can be used with a variety of smartphones that children own, and the impact that VR has is extraordinary. Barriers of access are lowering, and more people can use education apps. However, during COVID-19, select companies saying that VR and AR will help everyone has lost touch with reality. Education is struggling, and remote learning solutions cannot match the power of classrooms during this time. While beneficial, it won’t help everyone during the crisis.
The benefits of VR and AR for education
To be clear, I fully recognise the benefits of immersive technologies and education. Multiple studies have proven a direct link between educational impact and learning. The University of Maryland performed an in-depth analysis on whether people learn better in immersive environments compared to tablets or a computer. The results demonstrated an 8.8 per cent improvement in recall accuracy in VR. Hundreds of companies sprung to life over the last few years to service schools, such as ClassVR, REWIND, or Curiscope. Still more companies are cropping up, such as Glasgow-based Sublime launching their edify brand. For the schools that can afford the quality services, pupils can expect a more diverse way of learning content that blends traditional teaching with video and VR/AR.
Teachers are accepting the benefits as well. Gloria Roelants, a teacher, sees VR as a great tool for Geography. ‘Not only for the ones where you could actually go to, because they’re close by, but also the ones that are on the other side of the world. In that way pupils get so much more visual in their curriculum.’
The difference is applicability. AR is far more accessible than VR, as more pupils own a smartphone than an expensive VR headset. Dr Sylvia Pan, Lecturer in VR at Goldsmiths, Univerity of London, notes that it is particularly risky to share VR headsets during COVID-19. Jon Jaehnig, Freelance Contributor at ARPost, shares the same views that AR has more of a future in classrooms. Half of UK ten-year-olds own a smartphone, for example.
In any case, the benefits for pupils have been proven. But the distinction to draw is whether it is the revolution that people shout about, especially during the pandemic.
Pupils returning to school
Home solutions are not comparable to attending a physical classroom. Without the environment, children’s minds would decline over time as their method of learning deteriorates. The longer schools remain closed, the worse the effect becomes. So it is worrying that the start of school is far away for many countries, with Kenya restarting education in January, the Philippines closing schools until a vaccine is found, and select US states offering only remote learning for the foreseeable future. No amount of home learning can replace a teacher and a dedicated learning space.
The arguments pushed by VR and AR companies is that pupils have access to decent WiFi and smartphones. This is not true. In many schools a portion of pupils have little access to stable internet or items, further increasing the divide between better-off pupils and the rest. About 465 million children offered online classes cannot use them due to a lack of decent internet connection. How can the same proportion access the benefits of immersive tech? The same goes for the UK as well, where internet connections are flaky at best for many communities.
I am not proposing that schools must reopen as soon as possible. Schools must open when it is safer, and even then, must be done safely. Techniques used across the world include allowing more vulnerable teachers to stay at home, reducing class sizes, and a staggered timetable so that classes do not mix in corridors for long. What I am suggesting is that VR and AR companies pushing for immersive solutions do not recognise that most schools cannot afford the capabilities. A much bigger benefit for all children, across all income groups, is to bring back classrooms as soon as it is safe.
Other issues to consider
Nor am I dismissing the profitability of VR and AR companies. Rightfully, the companies are taking a young technology and developing it for commercial use, and supplying quality education for those that can afford it. The benefits are massive, and must be supported to help ensure everyone can access it.
But schools have other issues. Early in 2019 the Education Policy Institute pushed councils to redistribute towards struggling schools, as over half of academies and secondary schools lack finances. With fundamental problems like these, a cool VR app feels minor compared to the wider issues that teachers face.
A good investment in education does not just benefit those who already have the tools and support to grow even better. The best investments help everyone, across all income brackets and communities – and immersive technologies will reach that point as well. Over time VR and AR will reduce in costs, and more people can access its benefits. But for now, it is too prohibitively expensive to be useful for all, as focus should shift different during the pandemic.