Potential: Content that grabs students
It is a well known fact that engagement leads to learning. While great strides have been made to engage students through the application of content (e.g., design/game based learning, maker curriculum) the delivery of content to students is still mostly bland and unengaging (e.g., lecture, textbook, videos). Virtual reality has the potential to deliver immersive, breathtaking content to students. With VR, students will be able to stand on mars, inside an atom’s nucleus, in immersive data visualizations, next to real nanofibers, or in the middle of the Senate during a heated debate. You might object that well made media can already do this. The difference is that since VR responds to head movement (and potentially hand/body movement) it is inherently interactive and therefore relies on the user to discover information. A student that interacts with information is much more likely to retain it, remember it, and apply it later on. And because perspective is never fixed, VR content also has a high replay value. It provides an environment where students will want to come back to discover new things and engage with information.
Challenge: The Novelty effect
It is possible that any observed improvements in performance and engagement in students that use VR would be due to the novelty effect, which is the tendency for performance to improve initially when a new technology is instituted. And in fact, this has been observed with e-learning devices like computer assisted instruction. The worse case scenario is that students get so used to VR in school, and possibly in their daily lives, that it loses its appeal entirely. While definitely a concern, this is a bit of a moot point because in the end a teacher should adopt VR not because its the shiny new toy but because it delivers a better learning experience for students. I’m inclined to believe that as it becomes more pervasive VR will show some novelty effect, but will still provide students with a better experience of content than many (if not all) current alternatives.
Potential: Perspective taking and empathy
In a recent TED talk, the filmmaker Chris Milk described VR as an empathy machine. He presented a short VR documentary called ‘Clouds over Sidra’ about a 12yr old Syrian girl living in a refugee camp. In describing the advantages of the film being in VR versus onscreen he explained, “you’re not watching it through a window, you are sitting there with her. When you look down, you are sitting on the same ground she is sitting on, and because of that you feel her humanity in a deeper way”. I experienced ‘Clouds over Sidra’ and my possibly biased opinion is that it was much more impactful than a regular film experience could be. The need for teaching empathy is something you hear a lot about in the education field. We want students that have the ability to connect with others and understand their world view. In fact, empathy is the first pillar of good design. The potential for VR to be an empathy machine is already being realized. How that fits into the classroom is yet to be determined but I suspect it will integrate well into the humanities and ELA.
Challenge: Cybersickness and danger
For the future of VR in any domain, Cybersickness is the elephant in the room. It’s a sensation similar to motion sickness that may occur during or after a VR experience. This would be especially problematic in an education space since sick students do not make adept learners. And just like motion sickness the presence of symptoms vary from person to person with gender, ethnicity, and age all potential contributors. Further, if motion sickness truly is a precise model, then we would expect 2 - 12 year olds to experience the most cybersickness, which would make applying VR in elementary school problematic. The good news is that the symptoms associated with cybersickness have diminished or even disappeared as the technology has improved (to the point where Valve’s CEO Gabe Newell has claimed that zero percent of users have experienced cybersickness with their yet to be released VR headset - the Vive). Additionally, some research suggests that more exposure to VR leads to less cybersickness as the mind and body acclimate to the sensation. Another challenge lies in the possibility that students will collide with objects around them while in a VR experience (hence why it is commonly recommended that users stay seated). With the perceived or real potential for children to get sick or hurt, it will be interesting to see if administrators, teachers, and parents view VR as too risky for a classroom environment.
Potential: A Real Space to Collaborate
Virtual collaboration is already the norm. Whether through email, Google Docs, Basecamp, or any other virtual space, people are working together in spite of the distance that separates them. But, it goes without saying that sharing a physical space is much more effective than a virtual space for creative collaboration. Virtual Reality has the potential to provide a common space, that feels and looks like a shared room (an example of a VR science lab!). Students in Chicago can share a space with students in Osaka and allow for collaboration far exceeding email or Skype. In addition, it provides more than your common workspace because the entire environment can be manipulated as a means to communicate; VR digital manipulatives will allow people to visualize ideas, feelings, and information in unprecedented ways. Forget about whiteboards and Powerpoint. Three dimensional visualization and teleportation will be the tools of the virtual reality workspace.
Challenge: Tech and accessibility
As of today, VR technology is not very accessible. The fastest and cheapest way to get the tech into your classroom is with a smartphone and Google Cardboard. If students are allowed to use their devices in class, this is a great option that teachers could implement today.
But, the library of content is still at its infancy and its not explicitly ‘educational’ (note: there is much more content for Android than iOS). If you’re looking for a higher quality experience, the Oculus Development kit (DK2) can be purchased for around $400, but its not a plug and play device, meaning it will require some knowhow to use. ZSpace is another interesting VR developer with its own twist on the technology, but runs nearly $4000 for non-developers. Most affordable consumer facing VR tech will probably start to become available at the end of this year or the start of next. I’m confident that the content and the tech will come along; the real challenge as with any tech is whether teachers will see the value in integrating VR into their teaching methods (especially if they only can purchase one device per class). This is why the success of VR in education will be closely tied to the success of the blended learning, maker, and ed-tech movements - movements that encourage teachers to see the educational value of a variety of media and tech tools (even if they are not labelled as ‘educational’) and a path to practically implement them.
TL;DR - VR has the potential to deliver immersive content, generate empathy, and revolutionize virtual collaboration. But first it must be accessible and user friendly for the public, not make its users sick, and prove its value beyond the shiny new toy.