VR and Education: Reaping The Benefits

I remember the first time I tried VR via an Oculus Rift DK1 in a Kensington Market bar in Toronto. I wasn’t nearly as impressed as I hoped I’d be, but I remember, like many others, intuitively understanding that this clunky headset would become an incredibly compelling piece of technology over the next little while. It’s been nearly two years since that day, and what our intuition led us to believe was correct.

On that day we weren’t just excited by the technology but, like many others, by it’s potential impact on many industries- most notably, education and training. So excited that not many months later we started Discovr Labs to create educational VR experiences. Since then we’ve built over a dozen prototypes, given thousands of demos, established research partnerships and built a global educational advisory network.

This week I was fortunate enough to present to an audience of VR/AR startup founders, investors and educational publishers at Canada House in London, UK to discuss the impact VR will have (and is having) on education and healthcare.

Chatting VR/AR with Brent Hoberman (Co-Founder and Exec-Chairman of Founders Factory, previously Lastiminute.com)

The event was organized by Founders Factory — where we’ve recently joined as a part of the EdTech cohort of their accelerator programme.

Few people who have tried VR would disagree about the impact (it’s already having) on education. The world’s biggest companies by market cap are investing heavily in it’s development and its benefits are being seen across all different sectors. Despite the hype, I’ve never been more sure that VR is here to stay.

Here’s some of the questions I was asked last week.

How will VR change or improve education?

We’re finally at year one of consumer VR and we’re already seeing improvements in the technology and development move at a much faster rate than the historical development trajectories of other tech platforms. There are millions of mobile VR headsets in the market, and high-end PC based VR is catching up as well.

Although we know that VR today will see even more improvements, the benefits of education and training VR are immediately obvious.

Body Systems on Discovr Learning Vive Pre-Release

At a high level, the promise of VR is that it will do for experiences, what the internet did for information. In other words, the internet democratized information by removing most barriers to accessing and distributing it.

“You wanna know something? Google it.”

In the same way, VR will democratize experience.

“You want to go somewhere or feel something? Put on this headset“

This has profound implications on education, because human beings learn naturally through experiences.

“I do and I understand” We retain most subject matter through experiences.

However, we see very little experienced-based learning in all levels of education today. Traditional learning consists of little more than oration through lectures and textbooks (and their digital equivalents). Experience-based learning is often very difficult to facilitate in the classroom. Whether it be a field trip in elementary school, or simulation exercises in med school, it can be tedious, costly and time consuming.

With VR, any educational experience becomes possible at the click of a button. Educational VR content that exists today is already succeeding in providing opportunities for learners to engage more meaningfully with theoretical content and improving access to practical learning content as well.

Where VR is really winning in education is in subject matter retention. The first of several surveys that we’ve done was based on a VR field trip through the circulatory system with high-school age children. We saw an increase of nearly 80% in subject matter retention from a group that used VR, compared against a control group that was provided the same subject matter via text and image. (I’ll expand on the details of this experiment, and some research initiatives we’re working on in another blog post).


“The passing rate for the groups that engaged with the subject matter in VR were 90 percent, meanwhile the pass rate for the non-VR group was only 40 percent. Researchers attribute the disparity to VR’s unique ability to help students connect with the subject matter.”
UploadVR on “VR in Academic Performance” Bluefocus Report

Research is important for getting VR into schools, but you don’t need numbers to see that people at all levels have a better time learning in VR. We visited schools School 21 in London UK last week to demo Discovr Labs software and had a hard time getting both students and teachers out of the headset.

Discovr Labs at School 21 in London, UK

Why Now?

Education is known to be a slow-moving, often stagnant industry and I get a lot of crazy looks when I say VR should be in schools. It’s true that much of the educational VR that schools can benefit from will be accessed from direct-to-consumer channels (not including industrial training and health education).

Nonetheless, the VR industry is moving fast — education shouldn’t wait to catch up. Those who have been working in VR know: “Two human years is 10 years of technological progress in VR”. With solutions as affordable as a cardboard box available today, educators and decision makers should start to think about how the benefits of VR can be applied to their curriculum.

Educational publishers in particular shouldn’t afford to wait to get in the game. Things will move at a faster pace than PC and web did. It’s important to understand the market and how VR will fit into the educational publisher’s value chain early on. Investing into VR R&D is affordable for these larger players and buys them a stake in a nascent industry, as well as the opportunity to understand it better than their competitors.

What impact can VR have on healthcare?

This is one of the areas we’ve been fortunate enough to dabble in with the support of great innovative medical education thinkers like Dr. Clyde Matava at SickKids Research and Dr. Fahad Alam at Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto.

VR has many applications in the healthcare space from pain-relief to phobia treatment. In the context of education, it will become increasingly important in teaching clinical decision making and confidence. VR simulations can replicate the stress and intensity of scenarios, and allow you to learn by making mistakes without any real-world consequence.

If we look at training and education for medical professionals, existing solutions include simulation labs with expensive props. These labs can cost millions of dollars to set up and hundreds of thousands in recurring costs.

Nursing Simulation Labs at York University where we Demoed MedSIms VR

Sim labs work fine, but not all schools can afford them, and schools with the privilege of having them can’t always get their students access to them. So there are barriers in the form of cost and access. With VR however, clinical environments can be simulated at the click of a button at a fraction of the cost.

Some examples from the sims we’ve built for research include

  • Emergency response and Triage Decision making
  • Nursing fundamentals, safety and communication procedures
  • Anesthesiology: patient monitoring and dosage delivery
Presenting Medsims Mobile at TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield SF
Don’t mind the uncanny valley patient… we’re working on it

What part does London play in VR?

London is a great place for anything. For us, a great educational network is key to developing products that work. Founders Factory Edtech cohort is backed by Holtzbrinck Digital, one of the largest education conglomerates in Europe, and having them in our network is incredibly valuable to us. Beyond that, there’s a great budding VR ecosystem .

In VR, partnerships will play a big role in the success of young startups like ours. London is the hub of most major corporates in all industries and I think that will have a positive impact on the VR ecosystem here, especially for B2B companies.

What else can we do to ensure that VR has a meaningful impact on education?

The first wave of VR will be about content. Quality content is king, and this is true about educational VR content as well. There are many examples of educational content that exist today, but generally the two kinds of educational VR applications that will exist are in the form of engaging content (ex. fantasy virtual field trips) and practical training simulation (ex. learning how to operate machinery, safety procedures, clinical simulation, etc in VR). Content is important, but we know that VR will move from a content consumption platform to a content creation platform

VR will move from a content consumption platform to a content creation platform
Creating with TiltBrush on the HTC Vive

In my opinion, Youtube is one of the greatest educational companies in the world. Whether you want a crash course on organic chemistry, or you want to learn how to change the oil in your car, there’s a video for it. The beautiful thing about most of the educational content on YouTube is that it’s user-generated. Real subject matter experts from around the world leveraging a powerful tool.

How do we REALLY empower educators to move the needle? Enable them to CREATE in VR.

What if you could step inside that oil changing tutorial? The future of educational VR involves subject matter experts harnessing immersive content creation to teach. There’s a handful of great VR startups taking unique approaches to content creation in VR in both educational and non-educational contexts. At Discovr we’re taking an approach that allows instructors to record their voice and gestures in VR, then upload their lessons so students can play them back in VR (more on this in the new year).

Final thoughts

In the end, few would disagree with that ‘gut feeling’ that VR will radically transform education. A Goldman Sachs report estimated that the market might be work $700 million in less than a decade. We think this might be shooting low. There’s a lot of great education startups and institutions doing great work with VR and AR, but very few compared to what we’ll see in the next little while. In the end, the EduVR revolution might take place outside of the classroom, but there is no doubt that the way we learn is about to drastically change.