Virtual Reality Will Fundamentally Transform Education
When Brown, Collins, and Duguid posited the idea of situated cognition in 1989 they had no way of knowing that virtual reality might be the key to enacting their theory of learning. In a nutshell, situated cognition states that knowledge constructed is knowledge secured. The cognitive apprenticeship model presented in situated cognition is strikingly similar to a summer internship: a novice learns with an expert in a particular field and through applied practice in a real world setting the learner is able to demonstrate knowledge in practice.
The immersive learning that takes place in VR experiences, the empathy that is cultivates, and the potential for deep engagement are some of the many ways in which VR technology readily supports situated cognition and can be used to create cognitive apprenticeships for more engaged learning.
Incredible strides have been made in immersive educational experiences thanks to VR. The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience provides an up close look at the acidification of the ocean and sheds light on the dangerous repercussions we’ll face if our CO2 emissions are not curbed. Researchers cite evidence that this tool is creating more empathetic users after virtual over simple video experiences. But this is just the beginning of VR as a tool for teaching and learning.
What we know from the learning sciences is that active experiences are what fuel meaningful learning yet most virtual reality experiences are still largely predicated on passive experiences. How users are able to interact within virtual reality environments has the potential to significantly change the education paradigm. The ability to manipulate items in a virtual experience is what delineates active from passive playing. It is the difference between simply wandering around inside of a nitrogen atom to actually modeling your own protons and neutrons to create nitrogen. If we are working towards creating truly immersive environments for learning, we’ll need to focus on the active participation of viewers.
There are four major ways that new VR technologies are changing the landscape for learning and one major way in which it holds great potential but is still ripe for discovery.
1: The Ability to Touch
Virtual reality already engages the sense of sight and sound but imagine the power of an experience where you can reach out and touch an object. This is the first way in which new technologies are building deeper engagement within VR experiences. Shops like Leap Motion Interaction Engine are beta testing ways to make interacting in VR feel like a “more human experience.” Using simple shapes as a starting point, they are working “to make object interactions work in a way that satisfies human expectations” and gives the user a sense of truly interacting with objects in a virtual environment.
The ability to touch and move objects in VR experiences will be a game changer for teachers. Now imagine if your body received feedback as if it were actually touching items without the use of hand sensors. That is precisely what Ultrahaptics is building for VR experiences. At this week’s VR World Congress they are demoing a technology that “uses ultrasound to apply pressure to your skin, which fools your brain into thinking it is touching an object.”
2: The Capacity to Manipulate
Moving items is a low threshold way to get users more engaged in content. Providing users with the capacity to manipulate those items to create novel configurations increases the level of learning. Companies such as Claro have created beautiful puzzles that are able to be manipulated and solved through a simple VR viewer.
Manipulating objects is one of the many ways that virtual reality is changing learning. A single button on the most simple VR platform gives users the ability to manipulate their environment and demonstrate learning. University researchers found that 7-year-olds are learning to be safer pedestrians through manipulating their environment in a VR simulation. By allowing users to maneuver, shape, and operate on events in their environment they are able to conduct mini-experiments and hypothesis test thus deepening both engagement and knowledge acquisition.
3: The Tools to Create
Classroom learning engages all of the senses. In art history a student hears the teacher’s lecture on August Rodin then sees the images of his famous sculpture “The Thinker” and can finally create their own rendering of a sculpture taking pencil to paper and later hand to clay. From art to engineering, chemistry to civics, VR environments allow learners to create their own representations in a virtual world.
The tilt brush made waves when it was launched in May 2016 as a tool to foster creativity. The possibilities for educators using this tool are endless. Users can create anything from clothing to castles with a pair of hand held controllers. Other innovators like MakeVR are bringing this creativity to their users by creating immersive CAD experiences where users create a model in VR and are then able to 3D print their creation. These tools can be used from pre-K through graduate school to truly make learning visible.
Budding architects will soon get the opportunity to create their own responsive VR environments where project plans can be explored virtually before concrete is ever poured. The Iris Project will turn 3D modeling into a virtual reality space ready to be explored immediately. While the technology was created for use in boardrooms there is no stopping the spread to classrooms where teachers and students can work together to create and share new ideas.
4: The Potential to Change
Assessment in classrooms looks at how students learn the information we share. Do they recall the names of the non-metal elements they were taught in chemistry? Can they identify which have higher atomic numbers? If given carbon and hydrogen manipulatives can they create the formula for ethane? But perhaps the most important thing we hope to assess is: after learning this information have our students changed?
Researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab have conducted studies to demonstrate how virtual environments are actively changing the hearts and minds of their players. They have found that doppelgängers in VR simulations help players change their health by altering their diet and exercise and can even change the way people act towards others.
Industry experts too are using VR to create change in their users and in the process are providing valuable lessons for educational game designers about the power of VR. AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign created a virtual reality experience to dissuade users from cell phone use during driving. Taken together with the work on building empathy for others and changing diet and exercise behaviors, this medium has the potential to create lasting change.
Towards Measuring and Evaluating Meaningful Interactions in Virtual Environments
Virtual reality takes learners on adventures into new worlds where they are able to interact with the environment around them. However, the successful implementation of VR for learning is not simply about going on a field trip. Instead it is about providing meaningful feedback throughout that field trip, unique to each learner, as they engage in their own distinct learning trajectories.
With each new tool in VR there is a new way of thinking about how to measure user interactions to ensure deeper and more impactful experiences on student learning. How will we use these tools to further engage students to be the creative problem solvers they were born to be? How can we ensure that students’ experiences in virtual reality environments nurture their intuitive scientific curiosity? How can we provide feedback to learners just in time to move them to a higher level of knowledge?
As virtual reality technology evolves, the interactions within these environments can make this the next killer app that completely shifts the education paradigm. From moving and manipulating objects to creating and changing behaviors in a virtual world, learners will demonstrate a wide range of knowledge. The question remains: will we be ready to meet them where they are and push them to where they have the potential to be?
Let’s unpack these questions together. Stay tuned…
Lindsay Portnoy is co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer at Killer Snails, a gaming company that uses extreme creatures of nature to build immersive and engaging learning experiences aligned to meaningful assessments that support educators.