Virtual Reality in Education

Back a billion years ago, Google was throwing out trial periods of cardboard goggles at us to stuff our phones into so we could look around a 3D static environment. It was fun for the students but was it of any immense benefit? The jury was out on that. It was all a bit of overkill for a virtual field trip. Were students engaged? Yes, undoubtedly, but we weren’t integrating them in any way meaningfully and the trial periods didn’t encourage us to purchase any amount of the cardboard box VR goggles. Of course nowadays, VR platforms, apps, and technology have evolved now to be more education friendly. 

With the release of the Oculus Quest 2 and 3, devices have become somewhat affordable for institutions and the quality of apps are increasing tenfold.

I’ve seen the many still images posted from school and university social media accounts of students with VR headsets on. But, again, like any impulse purchase there never really is any explanation to go with the “cool” photos. If you Google “VR in education” you will get, mostly, educational technology companies selling the sizzle of VR.

What use is VR in education?!

When I think about it, the main advantage that good and solid VR apps will provide is the ability to immerse students in difficult to grasp concepts and real world situations in a low risk environment. Situations that would not be possible without VR such as 360 ° footage from the front lines of a far away war, performing surgical simulations, exploring the rim of an active volcano, standing in line at a refugee camp for food, or creating and manipulating complex mathematical 3D models. Can you do all these inside a normal app or browser? Yes, but until you put a VR headset on you don’t realize how a good and solid VR experience immerses you and engages your senses with the content. The days of low resolution and flimsy interaction physics are over, the apps that exist now and will exist in the near future will further the user engagement exponentially.

The next paradigm in expressive art must exist in VR. When headsets become more popular, this shift will naturally occur as potential audiences grow. Already artistic apps are creating opportunities that can’t exist in the real world. Creating art in TiltBrush with floating, 3D brush strokes just isn’t possible; only in the VR realm. Other paradigms that I can’t possibly imagine will evolve as more creatives engage with the VR world. Think what Portal did for the first person shooter genre. Cubism on the Oculus 2 made me feel like I did when I played Portal; something that wasn’t possible before which resulted in my brain solve problems in a new way for me.

One of the pitfalls we must avoid, is to create Second Life….the Second. Already, Facebook’s Meta world was just a sad and empty Second Life clone when I immersed myself into it. Please, no.

The focus of VR in education needs to be on providing spaces where the VR-er is immersed in a space where they can explore, create, make mistakes, iterate, and re-create. Will educators have to become 3D learning space creators? It’s hard to imagine that happening within the next decade but, perhaps, in the future it is something within the overall paradigm shift of general education that it might be a skill that is taught in teacher education. If that will still be a thing!!

Right now, with the emergence of augmented reality in both Oculus’ latest Quest 3 and Apple’s Vision Pro will also be a player in education. Mixing reality with augmented digital elements can provide a blend of concepts that were not possible with “merely” reality. It’s also possible to experience augmented reality with smartphones which reduces costs and accessiblity albeit with the loss of immersion and engagement that a VR headset brings.

I think VR and AR are going to become bigger players in education when they become more accessible. With reduced costs and more minimalist hardware, educational establishments are going to be able to research and develop more uses at a faster pace. Watch this (VR) space…..

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