2016 is set to be a big year for technology, with the anticipated arrival of the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets priming living rooms everywhere for an entertainment revolution.
However, with affordable options for such new technology already in development, virtual reality is on the cusp of changing much more than just the video game and movie industries. Educators across the U.S. are already testing new lesson plans and teaching styles utilizing VR, paving the way for new possibilities in the technologically advanced future of the classroom.
VR in Classrooms Already
You might be surprised to learn that virtual reality isn’t actually new to classrooms. Institutions of higher education have been utilizing a program called Second Life to facilitate education for approximately 10 years now. Second Life was created as an open-world, sandbox-esque simulator in which users are able to create avatars that they can control and use to interact with objects and other players contained within the game’s universe. Dr. Bertalan Meskó has been using Second Life in education since at least 2007 and claims that SL helps to further collaboration between people that exist continents apart, allows us view videos, presentations, web links, and images all at the same time in one place. Of course, this was closer to a time before the “Internet of Things” era, meaning that not everybody had smartphones, tablets, notebooks, or other ways to view videos, web links, and images from anywhere they went, making SL a unique information hub. So what can Virtual Reality hope to accomplish that Second Life already hasn’t?
What VR Can Do
The obvious major difference between earlier attempts at a virtual-sort-of-reality such as Second Life and current VR tech such as Oculus is that modern advancements make virtual reality actually immersive. The headset and hand controls cater to the illusion that the user is actually viewing surroundings that can be traveled through and that they can manipulate along the way. For teachers this means that the study of physical places and even of tactile skills, in the future, could be as easy as putting on a headset. James Corbet of MissionV, a VR and learning-by-immersion company, has a great quote in a Hypergrid Business article on immersion learning. “The pedagogies of constructivism and game-based learning show that children learn best by doing or by being,” he says. “So they shouldn’t just read about history — they should ‘be’ historians. They shouldn’t just study archaeology — they should ‘be’ archaeologists.” VR is going to give the opportunity to children to go on field trips around the world and to try out their dream jobs on a daily basis — all without ever leaving the classroom.
Getting VR into the Hands of Every Student
Google is already making those moves in the VR-for-students arena. Last September Google introduced “Expeditions”, a virtual field trip program that allows teachers to utilize an Android cellphones, the Expedition app and Google Cardboard for an afternoon romp around Buckingham Palace or a morning visit to the Great Barrier Reef. The significance of the Expeditions program is that it is one of the first tech initiatives that aims to put new technology in the hands of students and teachers. “There was very little precedent for using this technology in schools,” Ben Schrom, a product manager for Google Apps for Education, says in a New York Times piece. “We really feel we are breaking that cycle of giving schools yesterday’s technology.” Hopefully more industry players will continue the trend set by Google and will invest more of tomorrow’s technology into today’s future.
Lee Sheldon, a Game Design teacher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is an advocate for a teaching style known as “gamification”. He essentially takes the concepts that make video games so popular and compelling (experimentation, problem-solving, and narrative structure) and then applies them to his lesson plans and teaching style. After initially converting his entire lesson plan to work in a gamified fashion, Sheldon found that he had near-perfect student attendance, students getting better grades, and that overall more students were engaged, comprehending, and having fun with the material. The statistics concerning gamification look good, so it’s exciting to wonder how VR is going mesh with the practice. One might imagine a history-based puzzle-game that requires knowledge of a given period to solve the challenge, or a physics-based game where you have to perform the right calculations to aim, fire, and hit a target with a trebuchet. Because of its ability to hold the attention of students and to quite possibly revolutionise education as we know it, the promise of VR tech combined with a gamified classroom excites even the least tech-savvy of educators.
Helping with STEM Education
According to an article published by Forbes, “studies have shown that close to half the students who study STEM subjects in college end up dropping that major, and one of the common complaints about STEM education is it relies too heavily on theory and doesn’t provide a lot of hands-on experiences to students.” As it stands, VR controllers are in their earlier stages, but once we begin to see better haptic feedback and the ability to manipulate small objects, the VR revolution could possibly help to bridge the skill gap in not only the STEM fields but in disciplines across the world. Globally, that’s about 85 million middle-skilled working positions that we won’t be able to fill due to shortage by 2020. While wearable VR is still new, the technology is potentially powerful enough to change the faces of industries and education worldwide.
The Oculus itself isn’t slated to hit retail shelves until later in the year, but Google’s initiative with education and cardboard is a good sign that this revolutionary tech isn’t going to have to wait years for price-drops before it’s utilized in curriculum.
Have you used VR-based Education or gamification in the principles in the classroom before? How have they worked for you?