The Exciting Applications of Virtual Reality in Education

We are well-aware of the ways in which virtual reality is taking the gaming world by storm. We are, perhaps, even more aware of the impact that early forays into augmented reality, in the form of Pokemon Go, have had on children and young people. So, it may seem a logical conclusion that what engages kids in their free time may also be the key to unlocking enthusiasm in the classroom.

Of course, the real barrier is cost. State schools in the UK are under increased pressure from budget cuts and expanding class sizes. Nonetheless, much can be achieved with low-budget hardware such as the Google Cardboard or the, slightly more sophisticated, Samsung Gear VR. 

Augmented and mixed reality, too, has huge potential, particularly in higher and further education, in disciplines such as Architecture and Medicine. But again, the costs are high: a Microsoft Hololens (the mixed reality device that is demonstrating significant industrial applications) currently costs over £2,000.

Virtual Field Trips

Putting the bad news to one side, however, the potential is enormous across the entire educational system. New experiences and content that either replace, or at least augment, the curriculum have the power to change educational systems that have remained more or less the same for centuries, despite the vast changes in the outside world during that time. For instance, Google Cardboards are already being used in classrooms for ‘virtual field trips’, allowing children to take journeys to anywhere in the world, and - interestingly - through time. 

Imagine being at school and learning about the Romans by taking a virtual trip to the Colosseum, or the ancient Egyptians with a tour around the Pyramids. This is content which is already widely available and adds a supplementary diversion from the over-familiar crawl of listening to a teacher’s voice or reading from a book.

Supplementary, of course, is the key word. We cannot, and should not, expect virtual, augmented, or mixed reality (VAMR) to replace the teacher-class format. But creating a balance between the lecture-style classroom and the immersive quality of the virtual will serve new generations well.

A More Tech-Focused Curriculum

As we advance into an ever more tech-centric society, it is important that the curriculum itself adjusts to accommodate the nature of the society in which our children will live. Programming and coding skills are already taught to children from as young as six or seven, which is a crucial move in the curriculum, as it is anticipated that these will be skills central to the workplace of the future. What touch typing was when we were at school, coding will be for the next generation.

The creation of content in VAMR is no exception. As the world becomes increasingly virtual, and it will, a lot of jobs are likely to spring up for those who are both creative and tech-savvy to create VAMR content and software. With the much-documented rise in automation and artificial intelligence technologies, the workplace of the future is set to be a very different place to that of now. Learning how to create the myriad content required to power VAMR is likely to be, therefore, one of the new jobs that arises. That doesn’t just apply to Entertainment, but also the many industrial and, yes, educational applications of VAMR technology.

Constructivist Learning

VAMR provides an opportunity for what is known as ‘constructivist’ learning, in which students construct their own knowledge from meaningful experiences that they have. These can include experiences through virtual world-building simulations (similar, but not limited, to Minecraft). Research has shown that, through the use of these kind of simulations, low-performing students significantly improved academically compared to when learning through traditional methods. Even more so, in fact, than their high-achieving peers. 

Other studies have demonstrated that, in an introductory astronomy class where students built 3D solar systems, students displayed greater understanding of astronomical concepts. STEM subjects are particularly well-suited to virtual learning, so much so that Lockheed Martin, the global aerospace-military corporation, created the ‘Generations Beyond’ virtual reality experience, to encourage more children to consider STEM careers. With a significant shortage of new talent coming into STEM, it is extremely important to nurture these abilities in the next generation, particularly with such a technological future rising just ahead.

Effectively, these kind of virtual experiences allow students a more hands-on approach to learning, without spending on physical resources, and letting them work with ideas and concepts that are not easy to accomplish in a standard educational environment in other ways. A more practical approach is certainly more suitable for some students, as it is well-known that people learn best in different ways. Whether or not ‘hands-on’ is the best way for one individual student to learn, the opportunity to engage in different forms of learning is important for cognitive and physical development.

Constructivist education centres around problem-solving - placing the learner at the centre of the experience and letting them trial and error their way to success. Authentic activities and knowledge-creation environments are plentiful with VAMR, making immersive learning environments customisable, self-paced, and actively engaging for students. This is precisely what the education system is crying out for - a new way to future-proof children for the world ahead of them.

We touched above on the positive results of research into how constructivist learning through VR can help low-achieving students. But the immersive nature of VR is also an instrumental tool for the teaching of people with learning difficulties, disabilities, social anxiety, and even PTSD. The virtual environment allows student to control their own learning in an explorative way, through which they can become more confident and empowered about their abilities. 

VAMR and the Sciences

One of the subjects that could benefit most from the introduction of VAMR in the classroom is science. Biology, in particular, can come alive when students can closely examine a virtual organ. Take, for example, the heart. You and I may remember the gruesome experience of dissection in biology class. With virtual or augmented reality, no blood and gore will be left for school lab technicians to clear up, and no students will run, turning green, from the classroom. Instead, each section can be pulled from the simulation for deeper examination. 

Beyond anatomy, there are many other biological principles, including plant biology and geology, that can be made more engaging and immersive through VAMR. Bear in mind that the uses of VAMR in teaching science extend far beyond the secondary school setting. These technologies can be used right through university and medical school, and even into practical training for existing medical professions, such as doctors and surgeons (as, indeed, they already are).

Whilst access to more sophisticated VAMR hardware remains prohibitive for most schools, there is a lot that can be achieved on less high-end devices. These, however, will be more on the lines of virtual tours and so forth. Nonetheless, as hardware prices begin to fall, it is likely that high quality virtual and augmented reality experiences will be accessible to more educational establishments. For now, a Google Cardboard can make a great supplementary addition to the classroom, with 360° photography and video hosted on YouTube or via a mobile app allowing teachers to inject a new, engaging element into their lessons.