From visualising to realising the future: VR in education

In but 3 years’ time, we will have hit the 150-year mark since parliament passed the Elementary Education Act of 1870, possibly the most significant act of legislation in the last 150 years. It was a landmark achievement with the goal of conferring, as noted by the Earl de Grey and Ripon in the House of Lords at the time, “the blessings of education on every child in the kingdom”. But the nature of the world has dramatically changed since then, and the challenges facing education today are different than they were 150 years ago. Our approach must change as well.   

The current state of education 

Education spread widely as a result of the act, and is now a global industry worth $4.4 Trillion annually, but it has yet to be significantly updated in terms of dynamics, be it for children or adults. Standing in front of a board that is now typically white rather than black, a teacher still lectures from their position at the head of the room, preaching to a class of students that (hopefully) try to understand. We’ve learned a few things along the way, this is true. Most of the research shows, for example, that when class size reduction programs are well-designed and implemented in the primary grades, student achievement rises as class size drops. We know that using activities to engage the students makes for more effective learning than reading from a textbook because it allows for the creation of a memory anchor, something to tie the unique experience to the knowledge gained. But never have we had the resources, or the technological capacity, to afford each student these resources. Never, until now. And it is on the back of VR that this possibility is emerging.   

VR potential 

By superimposing a connected and artificial reality on the student’s senses, VR can address many of the stumbling blocks that are possibly impeding the educational development of today’s students.    

A recent study conducted by the Germany-based Education International, for example, showed that long journeys to school have a negative impact on students’ health and on their education achievement levels. Especially in Africa, this problem contributes to national education gaps all over the continent. But distance is no barrier to VR access. Much like the virtual classrooms that have already existed on platforms like Second Life (SL) and Kitely for years, VR has the potential to bring people from across the world together, instantly. In fact, they needn’t stop on earth – through VR, experiencing a game of chess in the zero-gravity environment of the international space station is perfectly possible regardless of who you are.     

And while both SL and Kitely somewhat addressed the issues of distance and transport to school for some pupils, the ability to engage with your environment through an avatar is severely limited. While teachers can address an avatar, they have no real way of knowing whether the student is engaged or distracted. Essentially, they’re not as immersive as good VR, and feelings of immersion have been shown to aid extensively in knowledge retention. So while looking at suits of armour in a museum might be a better way of learning history than reading a text-book on the subject, it has no comparison on the experience that VR can deliver, where students could learn by interacting directly and, most importantly, individually with their subject. Classes can be brought together and dispersed effortlessly, allowing teachers more control of the environment, especially when it distracts from the knowledge they try to impart.     

The potential for VR, however, goes further still. By providing a risk free environment in which to train for dangerous activities, VR is already saving countless lives. The military already uses VR to transport trainees into an environment of explosive ordnance disposal in order to familiarise them with the right controls and procedures for that environment. Doctors are also starting to practice surgery in VR environments, allowing them not only to train in realistic (and, critically, risk-free) settings, but also lead a surgery from ‘within’ their patient. Any dangerous profession can be trained for through VR as long as the VR experience is realistic enough to trick the student’s subconscious to believe they are truly experiencing this reality.   

What does the future hold? 

We are now in a critical time for VR in education.  According to Forbes, annual spending on various types of realities (augmented, virtual mixed – the umbrella term is xR) is expected to more than double in value each year over the next five years or so. AR technology is currently the most affordable, and since most students are already familiar with the technology they learn how to use it relatively quickly. It can also replace the need for physical supplies, making lessons cheaper for schools and more environmentally friendly. VR is becoming more affordable as well. Certain educational-specific VR sets aimed at teachers and classes of around 30 students can be purchased for just under $10,000, and while that may seem expensive now, prices are expected to drop as this technology enters the mainstream market.  

Should we be careful? Yes. Anything that has such potential can be dangerous when applied incorrectly, and we don’t want to use that immersive environment in any way that might traumatize or scare students away from a particular topic. Yet in much the same way, VR has the potential to teach us to face our fears, and come out of the other side unscathed. The applications in educational VR are immense, and luckily just around the corner. So if you’re in the education industry already, watch this space, and be ready for some serious disruption!      

Piotr Baczyński, CEO at  Immersion 

Image Credit: Billetto Editorial / Unsplash