Education in the Virtual Age

How Virtual Classrooms Will Reduce Educational Inequality

Image courtesy of Z Space.

The biggest problem in education today isn’t funding, teacher accountability, or school choice. It’s inequality of access. No matter the country, the poorest students rarely have access to the same educational facilities of the wealthy and middle class.

But science fiction might just have the answer. In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, students attend virtual schools with classmates across the country. It doesn’t matter whether a student is living in the slums or a gated community. With a virtual reality headset, all the students have access to the same teachers and the same resources.

This may sound like an idealistic utopia, but the technology to make it happen is rapidly maturing. Entrepreneurs and educators are already working together to bring virtual reality into the classroom. As virtual and augmented reality headsets proliferate in the decade to come, we might not need a classroom in the first place.

VR in the Classroom

Educational experiences were some of the earliest apps available for the original Oculus Rift Developers Kit. One of the easiest ways to show people the power and potential impact of virtual reality was to give them a tour of our solar system in Titans of Space. As users whizzed past Saturn, they were also treated to an informational overview of its rings and many moons.

The most fun I’ve had learning since Reading Rainbow.

Since then, the number of educational VR experiences has multiplied rapidly. We’ve seen tours of the human body, flybys of Incan ruins, and dives to the bottom of the sea. Virtual reality is best at showing students places they would never get the chance to experience otherwise. That’s why leading VR education companies like Unimersiv, Immersive VR Education, and Alchemy VR have generally focused on these types of experiences.

These experiences are increasingly being adopted by educators. Google launched their Expeditions program two years ago as a way to bring VR field trips into the classroom. Initially they brought mobile VR headsets to schools so that students could use them, but now the application is free for any teacher to use. Teachers have been using Expeditions to show students a world outside the classroom without ever needing to leave their desks.

VR is the Classroom

But these experiences do little to solve the problem of inequality of access to education. Only wealthy schools have the funding to purchase enough VR headsets for every student to use. Instead, we need to put the classroom into virtual reality itself.

Because it’s hard to do this on a whiteboard. Image courtesy of Oduaee.

Immersive VR Education has developed a fully functional VR classroom called Engage that allows up to thirty students to connect remotely and learn in a modular virtual reality environment. Teachers can change the scene, bring in powerpoints or videos, and even write on a virtual whiteboard.

At Agora VR, we’ve been focused on creating tools that will allow educators to share 3D models in a virtual classroom with students around the world. One of the most powerful aspects of virtual reality is that 3D objects look real. Imagine being able to share models of the human body or the solar system when talking about them in class. When the material students are learning feels real, it’s much easier to engage.

This is one of the key insights from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. They’ve done extensive research on ways virtual reality can be used to improve the learning experience. One study showed that student engagement can be increased by simulating near-constant eye contact between the teacher and student. Other studies have looked at having every student sit at the front of the class or ways to have students embody actions rather than just watching them performed. The many lessons from psychology about how to optimize learning environments can be simulated in a virtual reality classroom.

Making it a Reality

Despite the technological advancements in recent years, we’re still a long ways off from the universal virtual classroom of Ready Player One. But there are a number of ways we can make this incredible tool to reduce inequality a reality in the near future.

First, we need to provide teachers with the resources to bring virtual reality into the classroom. VR Meetups can partner with local schools for VR demo days. Schools can use technology grants to set up a virtual reality studio on campus. Not only is virtual reality a great way to help students learn new material, these types of programs also get students excited about virtual reality development, a rapidly growing field.

Because who doesn’t want to do this for a living?

As students and schools get on board with virtual reality, we can begin offering virtual reality online courses. These would essentially be Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that could be taught in virtual lecture halls, increasing their efficacy. Universities and existing online courses could open up their programs by including virtual reality offerings.

If the growth of virtual and augmented reality follows the same trajectory as the smartphone, it could be near ubiquitous in as little as a decade. State and national governments can begin subsidizing the cost of virtual reality public schools. Every student gets a virtual reality headset with access to a virtual reality classroom. Classes are taught by the best teachers no matter where they are in the world. They’re optimized for student engagement, taking full advantage of virtual simulations for everything from physics to history. And finally we’ll be able to eliminate inequality of access to education once and for all.

Matthias McCoy-Thompson is a co-founder and COO of AgoraVR. We create tools for companies, organizations, and individuals to present and share their ideas in virtual reality.