Virtual reality (VR) relates to computer-generated environments that simulate the physical presence of people and/or objects, and includes the creation of realistic sensory experiences.
At a basic level, this technology takes the form of 3D images with which users interact and manipulate synthetic reality through a computer interface. VR devices fall into two categories: high-end systems such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Sony PlayStation VR and other low-budget systems that include the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard, along with other accessories such as headphones and haptic control devices.
Today’s applications allow users to more authentically “feel” objects through these haptic and other gesture-based devices, which provide tactile information through force feedback. VR models can be created using a variety of CAD-type software, such as Tinkercad, Unity and Sketchfab. These user-driven content creation tools can make learning more authentic, generating empathetic experiences and increasing active learner participation.
As pedagogical strategies that enhance student-centred learning approaches continue to take hold around the world, tools such as virtual reality, which offer more experimental and active assimilation opportunities, are increasingly valued.
The same technology used for years to simulate virtual experiences in medical or military training is now of interest to schools, as it can provide students with simulated experiences at the forefront. By using virtual reality, it is possible to transport students to places that are distant and impossible to visit physically. In science, certain “abstract” phenomena, such as observing the impact of a hurricane or getting a detailed view of the movement of blood through the veins, are now feasible.
With respect to geography and culture, students can easily move from one virtual city to another, seeing the sights of a historical site or hearing the sounds of a natural wonder. On the medium-term horizon, the increasing availability of content and the reduction of hardware costs make this technology a very convincing and achievable option, applied not only to leisure but also to teaching.
2016 was a very important year for the field of virtual reality, since almost 100 million virtual reality units were acquired -a clear majority of this count had to do with the proliferation of the low-cost Google Cardboard. In October 2016, the New York Times gave a boost to traditional journalism by sending 1.3 million of its readers Google Cardboard units, providing access to a virtual reality film about the global refugee crisis and a new method of telling compelling stories. Even NASA and National Geographic have already experimented with this visualization technology by creating free VR content designed for the classroom.
Its penetration is expected to increase dramatically over the next few years, as International Data Corporation forecasts that global revenues for Augmented Reality and VR will reach a total of ?13 billion by 2018, up from ?5 billion in 2016. In the field of education, Goldman Sachs predicts that VR could reach 15 million student users by 2025.
Despite the widespread interest and increasing availability of educational content, it will be some years before VR becomes vital for schools around the world. A survey of educational institutions conducted by Extreme Networks concluded that while more than half of the respondents are investigating VR, only a quarter are already using it in the classroom, and three percent are teaching students how to create VR content. The transformation from textbooks to VR will be the main driver in the evolution of VR in schools. Publishers Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for example, have partnered with Google to expand the technology giant’s VR expedition trips, and Pearson, in turn, is working with Microsoft on mixed reality applications for use in HoloLens. In addition, Discovery Education is integrating VR into its digital curriculum portfolio; many more content providers are likely to join this stream of VR development in the coming years.
Ministries of Education around the world have taken note of the potential of virtual reality in the classroom
Ministries of Education (MOEs) around the world have taken note of the potential of virtual reality in the classroom, showing their eagerness to test this technology for application to the curriculum. In Singapore, the MOE is working with a local VR solutions production and implementation company to design virtual school trips; the aim is not to replace face-to-face trips, but to enhance the curriculum by replacing textbook exploration with virtual tours. Teachers have already begun to notice that the students’ responses in the post-visit work are more complete than before the introduction of the tool. Similarly, in the United Arab Emirates, an MOE pilot project is making use of virtual reality to help students in public schools specializing in science. Interestingly, the systems in the United Arab Emirates place great emphasis on the destructive effects of climate change and the interest in visiting the International Space Station. They only need to broaden the content by referring to respect for human rights.
How students can benefit from virtual reality in the classroom?
But virtual tours are not the only way students can benefit from virtual reality in the classroom. At Lincoln Elementary in California, a fifth grade science class uses the Lifeliqe computer application to view 3D images of plants, animals and geographic features. Students can select from 1000 images and get close-up views of specimens such as beetles and dinosaurs, which they can include in a digital science project. The Washington Leadership Academy also uses virtual reality to expand its science curriculum. As the winner of a ?9 million grant, it is creating the first virtual chemistry lab in the United States, where children can design virtual experiments with hazardous chemicals, such as sulfuric acid, mercury or lead, without risk of harm and for a fraction of the cost of a brick.
In China, where VR in education is developing rapidly – due to the proliferation of low-cost platforms and government interest – industry is looking at combining adaptive learning tools with VR to create customised instruction that can read signs of learner boredom and adjust a lesson to increase learner attention.
While studies of immersive VR in the classroom are scarce, several studies show promising results. A recent GfK survey of US educators, commissioned by Samsung, shows us that 85% of teachers agree that VR will help their students understand learning concepts, facilitating greater collaboration; and 84% believe that technology would increase student motivation. Chinese researchers analysed the impact of VR on academic performance in language learning, finding a 32% increase in retention rates in the test groups.
Foundry, a team of researchers, teachers and educators exploring various topics in VR research, can help provide a better understanding of its application in education in the United States and Canada. Their 2017-2018 study focuses on the value of technology in the learning environment, the role of empathy in virtual reality, and a few other concepts. And this is just the beginning.