Adopting Virtual Reality for Education

5th grade students from Arlington Science Focus School participate in a Alchemy Learning led demo of their newest VR game

“As an educator with 20+ years’ experience integrating technology into curriculum, it is exciting for me to see a technology that so quickly captures the attention of the students, motivates them to make the effort to learn the procedures, and then opens them up to the relevant content.“

Larry Fallon, Instructional Technology Coordinator, Arlington County Public Schools

You can almost hear the buzz- even above the normal tech chatter about the newest smartphones, tablets, watches, and other wearable devices: virtual reality (along with augmented reality) is coming to consumers in the very near future. Announcements are coming out almost daily. Within the next year, Oculus (Facebook), Sony, Google, Samsung, and HTC are all developing headsets that can envelope a user in interactive 3D virtual worlds.

That virtual reality is going to be a game-changing technology in the years ahead seems to be almost a foregone conclusion, but can it get beyond the gamer led consumer world, and make an impact on education? One one hand, virtual reality is already being tested and discussed all over the world through applications as diverse as training advanced medical students, in K-12 classrooms, and exhibits in cultural institutions and museums– virtual reality’s attraction is the immersive environment that it creates, and it seems intuitive that students are a perfect test case. But ultimately, will VR become a proven medium to help students learn faster, be more motivated, and expand the boundaries of what is possible? Let’s take a moment to survey the state of the field right now and see what the future of virtual reality in education could look like.

Why is VR so important now?

Today’s interest in virtual reality stems from rapid technological advances in the headsets that make an immersive experience possible. While a number of headsets were developed in the 1990s by Sega (link), Nintendo, and others (see this article), they never took off due to poor quality of graphics and unwieldy headsets. Similarly, a number of quality virtual reality technologies had previously been developed (ex. CAVE Cubic Automatic Immersive Environment), but proved too expensive for mass adoption. For virtual reality to become widespread, it must be both affordable and provide an unique, stimulating experience. Here is a brief preview of the VR headsets about to hit the market in the coming months and years that are attempting to accomplish this:

OCULUS

Oculus was the initial driver in this phase of VR development, using a kickstarter campaign in 2012 to fund their first model. In 2014 Facebook acquired the startup, touting it as a new communication platform. Currently available only as Developer’s Kits, a much-anticipated consumer release is planned for spring 2016. Oculus has also partnered with Samsung to create a headset that uses the Samsung Galaxy smartphone as a screen, SamsungVR Gear.

FOVE

Touted as the first “eye tracking virtual reality headset,” this headset promises to take VR to the next level by following the user’s eye movements instead of relying on handheld controls to move the screen. Thus, it is promising an even more realistic virtual reality experience. According to their kickstarter funding campaign, which recently fulfilled its goal of $250,000, developer kits will start shipping in the spring of 2016.

HTC VIVE

With an announced consumer release in fall 2015, this may be the first headset on the open market (Note: Developer kits have recently shipped). HTC seems to be really focused on the cementing a lead in the gaming market and has partnered with Valve and integrated into Steam, Valve’s online gaming platform. (check out SteamVR).

GOOGLE CARDBOARD

A low cost headset (made out of cardboard!) that, like the Samsung VR, uses a smartphone as the screen. This cheap VR alternative is designed for mass accessibility, especially in K-12 classes. It is being featured for Google Expeditions, teacher led field trips from the classroom.

OSVR (OPEN SOURCE VIRTUAL REALITY)

Razer, along with a wide array of partners, is creating an open-source ecosystem with the goal of creating a universal standard for virtual reality content. An open-source software platform and open- sourced headset components promises to integrate all parts of the VR experience with the goal of providing the best possible game experience. Their developer kit shipped recently became available, with a product expected in fall 2015.

SONY PROJECT MORPHEUS

Geared for gaming and built exclusively for Sony’s Playstation 4 system, this headset has received spectacular early reviews. Sony is developing brand new games exclusively for the device (such as this early example). It will be featured at the upcoming Sony E3 Press Conference and is expected to ship in early 2016.

Virtual Reality’s potential for education

The most obvious immediate applications for virtual reality are found in the gaming community. Millions of people already spend countless hours immersed in virtual worlds, and making these virtual worlds more “real” or “realistic” will only be that much more attractive. Despite the complaints that games are huge distractions for youth (an argument for another day), there is tremendous educational potential in games, as argued by Jane McGonigal, Gabe Zichermann, Tom Chattfield, and others. From personal experience, I nurtured an interest in history and learned a lot about the medieval world by playing Age of Empires II. Similarly, millions of students have played Oregon Trail and learned about the hazards the American frontier. So in essence, when we talk about the potential effect of virtual reality on education, we are talking about two important ideas, 1) the ability for students to learn within immersive and transportive digital environments, and 2) the gamification of the learning process.

VR training has already been significantly adopted in high risk/high cost fields, especially in the military (see this video featuring CUBIC, a virtual reality-based military training tool), and in the medical field, where many procedures cannot be practiced regularly, companies are beginning to turn to VR to create training programs for doctors.

Learning is about to become more interactive, more fun, and more social, according to many observers. Specifically, this article explores five ways that VR will improve education:

  1. Greater collaboration and social integration
  2. Making new experiences possible
  3. Increased student motivation
  4. New rewards with a focus on positive stimulation
  5. Inspiring creative learning

After all, it only makes sense that the systems that have been used to simulate very high-risk, high-pressure situations and exercises for training will become effective in educating students. At a recent Alchemy Learning led school demonstration, one teacher made clear the potential of immersive VR environments:

As a school teacher of 15 years, I seek to create moments of complete engagement for my students- times in which they are fully absorbed in given activities and thought. Alchemy VR provided just that, and did so within a matter of minutes. Students went from being scattered and distracted to being fully present and awake, as if they suddenly remembered their seemingly dormant sense of curiosity.

Lindsay MacCuaig — Green Street Academy

Despite endorsements such as the one above, challenges will remain. This podcast makes a great point that “education is hard. Education in VR will be even harder.” While all acknowledge the tremendous opportunity that VR offers, simply because the technology is available does not mean that it will improve educational outcomes. Still, early studies have shown that VR is indeed a potentially transformative educational platform. Meanwhile, educators will have to learn how to best incorporate VR into their curriculum, while administrators must create the flexibility for their teachers to learn and experiment. That, perhaps, will be the greatest challenge.

Making an impact on education

Perhaps most important is investment in games and experiences with educational value. Games must be well designed and ideally, include collaborative or social components. Here, there is much to learn from recent research into gamification of learning, fueled by the increasing availability of computers and devices in classrooms.


Click here to see a cool infographic from Knewton on the gamification of learning


In conclusion, let’s take a look at a few examples of games specifically designed for VR that are currently under development:

  1. A VR project of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI), students snorkel down in the Conasauga River in Tennessee, learning about the incredible biodiversity of the region, as well as about water pollution and environmental conservation.
  2. Immersive Education is working on creating a number of VR educational experiences, including the Apollo 11, Titans of Space (solar system), Mars is a Real Place, The Trench- WWI Experience, and The Plague- Medieval Medicine.
  3. Alchemy Learning has recently been featured for Alchemy VR, a complete solution to accelerate learning through the integration of virtual reality technology into K-12 classrooms developed in collaboration with the International Neuroscience Network Foundation. With Alchemy VR, students use cutting edge virtual reality headmounts to gain a real, interactive perspective through their virtual experiences. In one example, students make an expedition down the Amazon River, discovering wildlife, taking photographs and learning about native species.
  4. Expeditions is Google for Education’s new VR initiative. It has the potential to create affordable teacher guided virtual reality field trips to every classroom. Taking advantage of Google Cardboard, teachers can take students to places that they otherwise could only read about in their textbooks. Google has been just about all over the world as part of their mapping quest, and has worked with cultural institutions to map historical and natural landmarks all over the world- incorporating these images into VR is likely the next step.
A screenshot from Alchemy Learning’s educational VR game under current development, set in the Amazon River.

Undoubtedly, there are many more games and experiences being developed, but this list just provides a small taste. Technology is changing, and education will have to adapt to maintain student interest and prepare students for the digital world. Part of the process will be addressing serious challenges that have continued to plague the adoption of technology in education. First, while commercial games promise to become such a huge part of the VR market, how can large and consistent funding streams dedicated to developing quality educational games be maintained? Second, creating universal access to the headsets, computers, and more importantly, training teachers needed to facilitate educational integration of virtual reality will be highly difficult for early corporate and foundational players in the space. Just as schools today vary widely in the extent they make devices available to their students, similar, if not broader, stratification is likely to be seen with VR, at least in the short term.

However, if the minds at Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Samsung are to be believed (not to mention many others working in the tech industry), virtual reality will come to us quickly and expansively, impacting nearly every area of our lives. If VR changes the ways in which we socialize and entertain ourselves, it will surely impact the ways we educate ourselves and the next generation of learners.

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Alchemy VR is Alchemy Learning’s end-to-end virtual reality solution for teachers and schools. Alchemy VR provides teachers and schools virtual reality hardware configured to be easily integrated into classrooms, a growing portal of educational virtual reality experiences, and adaptive web-based curriculum and learning management tools. To sign your school or classroom up for the 2015/2016 school year wait list, contact us here or at 410–429–0084.


Originally published at alchemylearning.com on June 19, 2015.