Imagine a student so viscerally immersed in learning that it’s dizzying. Literally. That’s the power of using virtual reality in the classroom, and it’s capturing the attention of K–12 educators.
In the past few years, more schools have begun using immersive technology to bring classroom curricula to life. From one classroom, any student can be transported to the Pyramids of Giza or to holding a virtual human heart. There’s great potential for these simulated experiences to transform the delivery of educational content, improve learning outcomes, and democratize learning itself.
Sound complicated and costly? It depends, in part, on if schools can use existing devices. There are also different degrees of VR.
What is VR?
Immersive learning isn’t exactly new. The classic red View-Master made popular in the 1970’s offered the thrill of, “simply pull the lever to cycle through a reel of stunning 3D images.” How far we’ve come since those static shots of the Grand Canyon and Disneyland.
Today’s VR works on the premise of creating difference degrees of a virtual world – real or imagined. It allows users to not only see that world, but also interact with it, or basically, live it. That kind of immersion provides better motivation for students to fully comprehend information.
In classroom furniture, he says that manifests in pieces that are more mobile, more flexible, and with more adaptive uses for active learners who can’t sit still. “The classroom design itself allows for traditional and more-modern teaching styles, but the furniture can be moved around to work for all.”
How VR in Education Benefits Learning
VR can be applied to any subject. Though still just a complementary tool to enhance learning, that thinking is shifting as the volume of content increases, and teachers and students feel the excitement around it, according to one Edutopia article.
VR advocates see big benefits in moving learning beyond fact retention to being immersed in experiential scenarios. Maya Georgieva is the co-founder of Digital Bodies, a group that researches and consults on VR for education. She said VR requires less cognitive load for a student to process information.
“For children, it often takes time to create a mental model of what they are learning. Virtual reality provides them with a stepping stone – and possibly a leap – to connect the dots.” Furthermore, “We are hearing from teachers unanimously that these experiences generate more questions and more engagement in students.”
Three Types of VR
The language of VR can get complex and it’s still evolving. Travis Hoium, co-founder of REM5 Virtual Reality Laboratory in Minneapolis, said he and his team educate a lot of curious teachers and administrators who’ve never done VR. As well as open to the public, REM5 hosts happy hours to show the technology to teachers. The lab also consults with schools.
“There’s no great way to describe VR until you put on a headset and try it. Our lab lets educators give it a try. We hear a lot of, ‘Awwwww. Now I see how I could use this.’”
Despite that, Hoium said the industry is still in its infancy in schools. The learning curve, space and cost are all factors for schools. But it’s changing. REM5 is seeing more school field trips and recently collaborated with a few local school teachers to create a virtual geometry program.
“Teaching about volume, edges, faces, and other three dimensional concepts are tough when teaching tools are built for a 2D world.” He provided this quick primer on three types of VR:
A headset creates an illusory environment that completely surrounds the viewer and commands the senses. Hoium further breaks this down into “360-degree video,” where the user can look around, but not physically move around. There’s also “full VR,” which allows the user to walk around and use hand-held motion controllers.
MIXED REALITY/DIGITAL EXPERIENCE
This is the merging of the real world and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. For example, a student can hold an actual hockey stick to interactive with a virtual hockey arena seen on the headset.
AUGMENTED REALITY (also known as AUGMENTED VIRTUALITY)
This eliminates the headset. Instead, students hover a tablet or smartphone over a 2D imagine in print to get a 3D view. An example would be passing a mobile device over a diagram of a human brain in a textbook to rotate a virtual 3D model.
VR is Evolving Fast. Stay Current.
As with all technology, VR and it applications are evolving. To get the best sense of what the technology can and can’t do, Hoium strongly suggests educators give it a personal try before investing, and if they do purchase, also make a commitment to maintenance.
“It really is a great medium for putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” He has high hopes for continuing to make VR accessible for entertainment and education.