Virtual Reality in Education

VRThink back to when you were learning about dinosaurs at school. Now imagine, instead of reading a book about them, you could walk with them and completely immerse yourself in their environment. With virtual reality making its way into schools, this kind of learning is not far off. 

As a comms agency that has worked extensively with clients in both the education and technology spaces, we have a natural interest in how virtual and augmented reality can be applied for learning.

Often augmented reality and virtual reality get confused and people think they are the same thing. They’re not. Augmented reality adds digital elements to what you can see through a device such as a phone or iPad – think Pokémon Go and Snapchat Lenses, whereas virtual reality is a complete immersive experience that cuts out the external world. Now we also have mixed reality which combines the two, creating the ability for digital objects to interact with the real world, but in this article, we’re going to focus on virtual reality.

Virtual reality is helping us improve how we share information. By creating a virtual 3D representation of, let’s say, a space station, students can grasp the way the different parts of a rocket fit together in a way that has not been possible before now.

It is said that the brain remembers 10% of what it reads, 20% of what it hears and 90% of what it does and the brain treats VR as it does real life. In light of that theory, learning via VR should be much more effective than traditional methods. However, there are still problems that need overcoming if VR is to become a staple learning tool.

One of the biggest problems with virtual reality at the moment is cost. VR requires both software, as a source of content, and hardware – the devices needed to experience it like headsets, mobile phones etc. For schools this presents a problem. Unless students can provide their own hardware the cost for a school to equip each student is still pretty unreachable. However, five years ago a Canon MREAL Mixed Reality headset cost $125,000 and now you can pick up a Google Cardboard for under £10, so this problem is reducing at an incredible rate. It is also costly and time consuming to develop VR as there is so much to it, so until the development of VR software speeds up, getting enough content to use across different subjects in schools is a tall order.

Another major problem with the technology is the negative way it can make a user feel physically. Because virtual reality doesn’t replicate the other senses – smell and touch, it can cause motion sickness. Many believe that one day we will be able to replicate these senses too but first we need to understand how they work. I’ve tried VR for gaming and it was a strange sensation. I got a headache, felt disoriented afterwards and certainly wouldn’t have wanted to experience it for more than a few minutes. However, the game I was playing was very intense and frightening so this may have exacerbated this reaction. Had I been virtually swimming with dolphins perhaps these side effects would have been less extreme.

Virtual reality provides an immersive learning experience that has never been feasible before. Students can experience what the trenches were like and can travel to the surface of Mars, but do these experiences cut them off from their peers and teachers? Each student is essentially alone in their virtual reality world and can’t communicate effectively with their teachers or other students while they’re locked in. With mobile phones and social media already cutting people off from real time experiences with each other, is virtual reality the next step in isolating people from the real world? The flip side to the locked in effect is that it reduces distractions in the classroom. A student wouldn’t be able to scroll through Facebook or pass notes to a friend while they’ve got a headset on so it could be said that it could improve concentration. It’s also fun. And students learn better when they enjoy the learning experience.

As well as using VR in schools it is increasingly being used as a tool in workplace learning and is particularly useful when teaching an employee to do something potentially dangerous or risky. For this very reason, one of VR’s first uses was in training fighter pilots via the Link Trainer in 1929. Elements of VR can also be applied for more everyday professional development programmes or initiatives or can be coupled with gamification to provide an engaging alternative to more traditional tools and approaches.

So, if you’re a company that has created a virtual reality tool for education purposes, how would you get across the right message when there are clearly still challenges associated with cost and understanding of how these tools could be used? This isn’t an easy question to answer, as clearly some audiences will be naturally inquisitive and receptive to the technology and others won’t. However, our advice would be quite simple: focus on what the technology allows people to do/experience/achieve and not on the technology itself. Sounds like a no-brainer, but we often encounter tech brands that get it wrong. They are so immersed in the technology itself, that they can find it difficult to consider things from a consumer/user perspective. Of course, that’s something that the likes of Apple have mastered pretty well, but it’s surprising how many other companies make the mistake of selling an impressive widget, leaving customers wondering what the point of that widget actually is.

There is no doubt that virtual reality is exciting, and it’s going to continue to develop whether you’re sceptical about how usefully it can actually be applied, or not. We’ll be watching this space very closely….