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VR in Education


Of all the areas where virtual reality technology is now being used, VR may hold the most promise in education. 


By enabling immersive experiences, VR can engage students’ imaginations in ways previously impossible. Whether experiencing the undersea wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, walking the streets of ancient Rome, or seeing inside the cells of the human body, the educational scope of VR is truly limitless. The ability to interact in these virtual worlds can enable a more intuitive, play-based form of learning. As a bonus, there are indications that VR even has the potential to increase empathy among students. Despite this, significant challenges remain to the implementation of VR as a true learning tool and not just a fun diversion. 


Public high schools that have set up VR labs, such as Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, New York, are witnessing its potential. Richard Lamb, a University of Buffalo graduate school professor working with the kids at Enterprise, has found evidence that VR can be used alongside traditional teaching to improve student engagement, comprehension and critical thinking. In a separate study by Foundry 10, an education research organization, students in 26 schools who tried VR indicated it could help increase motivation, develop new perspectives and promote interactive learning.


Perhaps the most comprehensive example of VR in the classroom so far has been Google’s Expeditions. Using Cardboard VR viewers and Android phones, Google has brought more than 1 million students in schools around the world on what they call Virtual Field Trips. With content provided by AP, National Geographic, and major museums, the destinations range from Machu Picchu to the surface of Mars. The trips have highlighted content with commentary that can be managed by the teacher on his/her tablet. The widespread success of these virtual field trips demonstrates how VR can be a great “equalizer,” providing students in any classroom with access to places and things they would never experience by other means.


In their presentation at Google I/O 2016, the Expeditions team said the most important lesson they learned was the challenge for VR to provide measurable value as an education tool beyond the initial wonder and awe of the immersive environment. For them, the key is how VR can incite students to learn by doing. An example they created was an app where you assemble an array of human bones into a skeleton as a 3-D puzzle. The Google team believes building great VR education apps will demand a multi-disciplinary approach, with input from researchers, educators and game designers.


In addition to VR’s ability to promote interactive learning, early evidence suggests an ability to increase empathy among students. A recent article in Slate notes the impact on students of a 2015 New York Times VR video series on refugees that made kids feel as if they were standing in the Sudanese desert while bags of food fell from helicopters. The study of how VR can increase empathy is a subject at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Their research has shown that people who used VR to inhabit avatars of a different race scored lower in tests of racial bias.


It is this shift in perspective, the enhanced ability to perceive and feel other people’s experiences, which may be the true killer application of VR. And while empathy is not technically a school subject, increased empathy not only helps today’s children have a better understanding of important social issues, but also helps them become more engaged in their communities. In a world where most communication technology seems to increase ephemerality and fragment interaction, VR could achieve the opposite, and that would be a very good thing indeed.


Despite all of its potential, very few K-12 schools are using VR today. One major challenge is expense: the best and most immersive high-end systems like Oculus and HTC Vive cost thousands of dollars. Of the schools that now have VR labs, most have funded them through grants. Smartphone-based systems like Gear VR and Google Cardboard are cheaper solutions, but many classrooms also lack the necessary high-speed connectivity. Google Expeditions solved this problem by turning the teacher’s tablet device into a local network hub. Other challenges are institutional and cultural, since historically, schools have been slow to adopt new technologies.


But perhaps the greatest challenge to adoption is this: the metrics to define VR’s educational value have not yet been codified and incorporated into accepted learning standards. It will likely take the multi-disciplinary approach outlined by Google to build VR apps with built-in methods to measure student engagement, interaction and performance, and then translate these metrics into a form that give teachers confidence that learning standards are being met. This is no small task, but the developers who take it on will fulfill VR’s great promise in the classroom.