Virtual Reality: Can New Advances be Useful for Education?

Credit: Knight Center for Journalism

This article was originally published on Jeremy Riel’s Medium blog

Virtual reality (VR) has been dominating headlines lately with the development of flashy new gizmos that promise to help users see the world in new ways. However, VR is not a new technology by any means: it seems like its been around for an eternity in technology time. Each iteration of VR headsets since the 1980s has used similar visual principles and goals over the last two decades. The Samsung VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive are all newly released gadgets on everyone’s gift lists. The suddenness of these devices going to market demonstrate that companies are committed to making VR cool again, so what can we expect to see this time around? More importantly, how can we teach with new VR and how do we get started with VR for education?

So, what is virtual reality and how is it different today?

When we hear about reality in tech news, there are a few different technologies that are usually being mentioned. VR, and its cousin AR, both show users a digital reality, but these flavors of reality depend on how much of the “real world” is used to alter one’s reality.

Virtual reality (VR) is different from augmented reality (AR) in that AR simply “superimposes” digital information on the real-world things that we see. It does not try to create a completely new experience, but instead adds items to the existing surfaces of the space in which a participant occupies. AR is usually done through a tablet or smartphone today, but can also now be done with goggles (like with Microsoft HoloLens). With AR, the canvas on which the technology animates objects is still the real physical world — no new spaces are being created.

On the other hand, VR creates an entirely new space — the physical is completely obscured from your line of sight. Users only see the new world that is created by wearing something that prevents you from seeing any physical things around you. When a user dons a set of VR goggles, they can be taken to a fantasy land, visit somewhere halfway across the world, or build their own world based on their interests.

VR today doesn’t have to be animated, either. I tend to think of classic, 1980s VR as an animated world with blocky objects and angular landscapes. With today’s VR, the resolution has increased significantly. You can visit exotic lands that are captured with a camera, take tours of historic places, or experience almost-real computer-generated vistas. The best feature, though, is the ability to turn your head and experience scenes in 360 degrees. Built-in gyroscopes and accelerometers capture when you turn or tilt your head. As such, the screen’s display moves with your head, as if you are standing at the scene and looking around.

Much like the ViewMaster reels of the mid-20th Century, you can see spectacular sights right from the classroom.

The ViewMaster may be old, but it uses the same principles of today’s VR: block out the rest of the world to create a new one. Credit: Deiby Chico

However, you still need some specific equipment to experience full-range VR. The idea is to provide an experience that fully captures the line of vision. In 2016, the main idea is the same — a set of goggles that blocks out all light. The newest goggles are being produced by just a few companies, such as the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, or HTC Vive. The challenge for educators with these headsets, though, is that they typically require high-performance computers in order to process the graphics that will be displayed in the goggles. The need for $500+ for a goggles set and a $1000+ computer to support each set of goggles pretty much eliminates the classroom practicality of VR, at least until the price comes down significantly.

There is a (very) low-cost VR alternative popping up in schools, though. Google had a crazy idea a couple years ago to make a device in which people can slip their smart device and wear over their eyes. It may look silly, but it’s actually pretty effective at delivering full-range VR scenes. It’s called Google Cardboard, which is a piece of folded up cardboard with a couple plastic lenses in which would-be VR enjoyers slip in their phone with a special VR app running. There are now hundreds of VR apps and 360-degree videos to enjoy for free in the app stores for both Android and Apple. The low-cost entry for this type of VR has been the most exciting, with Google even offering millions of cardboard kits to schools free of charge. After all, it’s just a piece of cardboard!

A Google Cardboard kit — nothing more than a piece of folded cardboard and a couple lenses. But don’t let it fool you, it’s a VR powerhouse!

In fact, our old friend The ViewMaster is even making a comeback with their own cheap VR starter kit that uses a smartphone!

Thinking pedagogically about virtual reality

As I like to do with most techs I write about, I find it helpful to think about the goals that we would want to accomplish as educators with VR. It’s important to think about the goals alongside what kinds of activities that VR can help people do to make sure the technology choices don’t completely drive the learning experience.

If the tech continues to get better (and cheaper), VR offers us many classroom activities that are beneficial to learning. I think the biggest benefit that we can see is that it gives students more opportunities to have authentic, genuine experiences that use a wider sensory range. It is perhaps the use of multiple senses and the addition of context that gives an experience the “genuine” or “authentic” vibe. VR can provide both context and increased sensory involvement, making it a prime candidate for fostering richer learning experiences than simply reading a book or even watching a video. VR can pretty easily couple audio with a full visual range, helping you *almost* be right there in the action. We still can’t touch what we see, but the VR makers are getting pretty good at letting us stand there and observe.

This ability to “be there” extends into both historic and current events. We can now experience lands far away or interact with historic locations in ways that capture our senses more than a textbook, image gallery, or video can. Although the art of storytelling is an important way to experience things (such as in a documentary or narrative text), interactivity is another important aspect to learning that VR can bring us. What we see is based on our movements and interactions. In some VR worlds, the designers actually give participants the ability to affect change in the world. This obviously translates well into gaming, for which experts see VR to influence the most in the next couple years. But, this also translates well into learning, in which simulation and an interactive, multisensory world can come together to give experiences in which students can practice inquiry, ask open-ended questions, and explore.

This has most recently been seen in the game Minecraft, which provides an open-ended world that is built just for exploration. Minecraft has also been making moves to enter the world of VR, with players able to interact with objects with body movement. It will be interesting to see future applications of learning if we can think of creative lessons, projects, and challenges on which we can build from the exploratory contexts of Minecraft and other similar virtual worlds.

VR also gives us many new options for communicating information. Interactions between teachers and students can extend into the virtual world, where class sessions, meetings, and digital field trips can occur in places where additional context may help the learning goals — such as visits to historic locations. Living up to its web-based potential, VR also gives us the ability to host live gatherings of people not in the same physical location, allowing everyone to meet and interact in the same virtual space. Thus, the class discussions may be enriched by allowing students to leave the confines of the classroom. And yes, teachers can still lecture, too.

In terms of what to teach, there have been many disciplinary subjects that have found themselves in the VR spotlight. For years, advanced skill disciplines have used simulations and VR to help hone their abilities, such as applications in medical, pilot, and advanced engineering education. Surgeons can practice on virtual patients, and pilots can fly jets made of bytes instead of aluminum. The ability to see phenomena, places, and events in new ways are a strong benefit to many scientific areas, such as chemistry, physics, biology, and astronomy.

For instance, in chemistry and biology, the microscopic and subatomic scales can now be represented and seen in virtual worlds with the visualization of molecular structures, cellular makeup, or protein interactions. The benefits of seeing in VR are not just limited to science, however. Social studies learners can visit historic locations, watch and participate in reenactments of key historic events, and even watch live events unfold. The potential for live observation was most recently was done on a large scale by NBC for the 2016 Olympic Games, in which VR users could watch their favorite events as if they were there. A new initiative by Google called Expeditions hosts virtual field trips to both exotic and commonplace locations around the world, or even off-world up to the International Space Station! There really are countless ways in which we can use VR to give us new perspectives on our world, and new applications are being developed every day!

One final thought on VR, though. Although the new technologies are fancy, they are expensive. It may be best to use the devices already in students’ pockets. And if they don’t have a phone, phones are getting much cheaper (and a bunch of phones would be certainly cheaper than just one set of VR goggles and a computer). This faux-VR via cardboard may not be the highest resolution or the best experience. However, it’s certainly the biggest bang for your buck. Give Google Cardboard a try — pick up a cheap kit from Google or Amazon, download a couple apps, and imagine the ways in which your students can really get some exciting experiences related to what you’re teaching. Also, try it out because it’s just plain fun 🙂

Just adding a little context and letting students have real experiences is a key to learning. VR just changes the game a little bit by shifting our definitions on what counts as “real.”

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on VR in the classroom? Have you already been using it and would like to share your experience or your favorite apps? — tweet me at @jeremyriel and let me know what’s on your mind. I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps and resources, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.