Ask anyone in the field of VR if the technology can benefit education, and you’ll hear positive things.
“VR has great potential for educational settings, if not more so than any other field,” says Neville Spiteri, CEO and co-founder of virtual reality community and media player WEVR.
“It will disrupt the education system as we know it today,” adds Bob Berry, CEO and co-founder of VR software company Envelop. “Can you imagine teaching children about world history by letting them virtually experience it?”
“The ability to truly experience something as if it was real, be it a historic setting or the inner organs of our bodies, makes VR an unparalleled resource for education,” agrees Arthur Goikhman, CEO of SurrealVR, which is developing an immersive virtual world with like-real avatars.
While it’s early days, this potential is starting to be recognised, and pockets of children around the world are getting to experience the technology as part of their daily lessons.
But where could this lead? Are we heading for a Ready Player One-style future, where whole education systems are handled virtually, or will it forever remain a classroom tool, becoming the modern-day equivalent of an educational video?
VR’s learning potential
The reason virtual reality is so enthusiastically being pushed for education is simple: it’s a really effective way of learning.
“Immersive content creates an impact, particularly on children, that makes ideas sticky,” explains Tony Mugavero, founder of VR cinema network Littlstar. “I’ll never forget that moment in math class where I didn’t understand an equation until I saw a representation of it in the real world.”
VR will, in time, allow students not only to go on virtual field trips to places otherwise too expensive or distant to visit, but to other moments in time – an utterly impossible feat with other educational tools.
“They will be able to put on a VR headset and transport back into time and be a part of an immersive, first-hand account of the event,” says Berry. “They’ll retain the information from these events so much better because it will be as if they lived it themselves. This type of learning is so far superior to anything you can learn out of reading a textbook.”
But it’s not just school-aged students who can benefit from this virtual reality education.
“I have attended a cooking class in VR, and it was much more engaging than just reading a recipe,” says Andrew McPhee, co-founder and CEO of Seene, a system that enables users to capture 3D content. “I have also been guided to fix a broken object in a fully interactive 3D manner and it was great. Learning to drive or fly or operate on patients are great examples of how you can practice something critical with high realism and very low risk.”
VR is also bringing the world beyond Earth closer to home in an unparalleled way. Next year, a VR camera will be launched to the International Space Station to capture virtual reality content for people round the world the view.
Students will retain the information from these events so much better because it will be as if they lived it themselves
The company behind the project, SpaceVR, hopes to capture the overview effect experienced by astronauts, which can have a transformative impact on their perception of our planet.
“One of the primary goals of SpaceVR is to make space accessible to everyone, inspire the next generation of explorers and get people excited about STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art and math] fields,” explains SpaceVR CEO Ryan Holmes.
“There are countless creative young minds that are passionate about science and space exploration. Until now, we only read in textbooks about these topics but with virtual reality on the horizon set to redefine future in every walk of life, introducing SpaceVR into a classroom setting will help the students understand first-hand what space feels like.
“This will not only foster better insights into the subject, but also ignite these minds to create a better tomorrow.”
Convincing educators about VR
VR might have tremendous potential in classrooms, but there is still the challenge of making educators appreciate its value. While some will undoubtedly embrace the technology, others with less awareness of its potential will no doubt resist its use.
“I think the students get it but the educators don’t,” said Ken Blakeslee, chairman of WebMobility Ventures, at The Technology Expo event in London in October. “I don’t think we need to convince the students. I have kids at university and I think they’re spending half the time wondering why they’re being taught the way they are.”
There are some programmes underway to encourage this, including one run by Google, which is already seeing positive benefits in the US.
“Hopefully now that Google is spearheading the education initiative by making their Expeditions program free to all schools, that will lead to faster adoption rates in classrooms,” says Spiteri. “The more classrooms using VR, the more creators and educators will want to create interesting and exciting educational experiences for those students.”
A similar programme is also being run by SpaceVR, which is equipping four school libraries in underprivileged areas a year with free VR hardware and software.
“Space is the final frontier, and everybody should have a chance to be a part of exploring it and, in turn, being influenced by it,” says Holmes. “We believe that VR Kids Program will help us materialize this dream by giving everyone the chance to experience the beauty of space.”
While such projects are clearly beneficial, if VR is to become a key component of education on a larger scale, it may need to be incorporated into a national curriculum or spearheaded on a national scale.
And for this, there is the need for quality content to be easily accessible, meaning educators don’t have to waste time trawling through VR experiences to find something suitable.
“Educators need to be able to subscribe to a hit parade or a centre of excellence where people can really see the value of certain content,” explained Blakeslee.
Improving access to VR
Beyond the classroom, VR has the potential to bring education to regions with limited educational access.
“Virtual reality is the next disruptive technology that will reinvent our way of living,” says Holmes. “It is an immersive, 3D experience that makes you feel like you’re physically present in an environment that you are not part of, which opens up numerous opportunities for students who do not have adequate access to education facilities. They can be a part of a lecture yet not be there.”
Technology has already had a remarkable impact on education in developing nations. Students living in remote parts of Africa have used mobile phones to take university courses, for example, and with the addition of a cheap VR headset such as Google Cardboard, this type of learning could be expanded remarkably.
There is already a precedent for this type of learning in the form of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. These free-to-access courses are run by educators at major institutions around the world, including Harvard and MIT, allowing anyone, anywhere to study almost any subject.
VR could become the natural extension of MOOCs, taking the text-based courses to a virtual sphere, where students could meet and learn in an online space, accessing some of the best education in the world without the costs associated with an Ivy League education.
“There could be one university around the world where the best professors teach everybody,” envisioned Steve Dannm CEO of Amplified Robot, at The Technology Expo. “If you haven’t got a university and live in a developing country, then this would be fantastic.”
This in itself has the potential to raise the quality of education worldwide, helping not only those in developing countries, but students in developed countries too.
“I think that will help us get rid of bad teachers. I would love to learn from the guys who teach at Yale or wherever without going there,” said Corey King, chief executive artist at ZenFri, at The Technology Expo. “I think there’s always an advantage to physicality but I think there’s also a disadvantage to having terrible teachers.”
Virtual reality: the school of the future?
So could this global VR university become a reality? And could whole school systems become virtual in a similar way? From a technological and infrastructure perspective, it is entirely plausible.
In areas where demand for education is simply too high to be met by conventional means, VR is almost certainly going to play a role
A VR education would be dramatically cheaper per student, and in a world where education budgets are regularly slashed while populations continue to grow, that’s a very appealing prospect.
“I think for every area of learning there is a way to improve it through a rich and engaging environment that is custom-made for a user or their learning goal,” says McPhee. “VR has the potential to deliver this at both infinite scale and commodity cost.”
In areas where demand for education is simply too high to be met by conventional means, VR is almost certainly going to play a role. We may see this starting with certain lessons being provided virtually, progressing up to larger virtual institutions as time goes on.
And this could be a very good thing, providing quality education with low overheads. However, it may be that the details are too difficult to match.
Attendance would be hard to enforce, and it would be difficult, albeit not impossible, to match the individual attention schools can provide. As great as VR education can be, it is entirely possible that a VR-based school or university would be a poor replica of the real thing.
Even if this is not the case, there will be those that think otherwise, and physical educational establishments will always remain. They may, however, become something that only the rich can afford.