Virtual reality in education: does it live up to the hype?

This article was originally published in Interface Magazine for The Mind Lab.

Virtual reality has been on the radar for over a decade, gaining prominence in the last few years as the technology evolves and becomes more readily available. There has been a lot of discussion in the education sector in recent years - what does this new technology mean for our students, and where will it be in the years coming?

Virtual reality: potentially a powerful tool for education

The New Zealand Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Association forecasts the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) sector revenues are estimated to be worth more than $320 million by next year. This indicates the industry will continue to grow and have an impact on many sectors.

When it comes to education, VR presents an opportunity for educators to offer distance learning, engage students in gamification, take groups on field trips, and offer greater insights into the likes of the human body through 3D experiences. Various research indicates VR can be used to help improve learning outcomes by engaging students and directly contributing to increased cognitive memory, also providing visual learners or those who have learning challenges greater advantage. The Ministry of Education writes on the Enabling E-Learning website, VR can be a powerful tool to support and facilitate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.

Richard Rowley, Education Director at The Mind Lab by Unitec, says, “Virtual reality is going to have big implications in lots of educational contexts, providing rich, immersive environments and the ability to explore places you’ve never been. Within a 3D environment you can explore more of the world, and it’s more tactile and realistic than experiencing it as 2D.

“When it comes to STEM, 3D models can help people understand more and understand complex concepts. It can be phenomenal to witness what was previously impossible to see, such as atoms, molecules, a human cell.”

Damon Kahi, National Technologist at The Mind Lab by Unitec, says, “Virtual reality is the stepping stone to a greater learning outcome. In the future we will be able to have students in class going on field trips to places all over the globe, past and present."

“Virtual reality is still in its infancy, and we are just dipping our toe into the possibilities. At the moment, while there are certain people pioneering VR they are focusing on game development and there aren’t that many people focused on the education sector, so we haven’t seen the technology and applications come through that really work for a classroom environment," he says.

Virtual Reality in action in Kiwi schools

In New Zealand, virtual reality is still very new to educators and schools, with some exploring what is possible with the current technology. In mid-last year, The Mind Lab by Unitec team was invited to Botany Downs Secondary College by Stephen Jowers-Wilding, Head of the TEM & Junior Technology Department, and Dip Achary, Head of Technology Learning Area, to showcase new tech that could help students enhance their studies.

Prior to bringing in The Mind Lab, Dip Achary was teaching his students how to use a 3D modeling program called SketchUp, which is most commonly used by architects, interior designers, landscape architects and engineers. Using the program, Dip’s students learnt how to create architectural designs based on the criteria he set. According to Damon, although these designs were all modeled in 3D, the final product still looked very two dimensional when viewed on a normal computer monitor. Damon and his team from The Mind Lab took the new Virtual Reality headset, The HTC Vive, into the school to give students a more immersive 3D experience.

Damon says, “The Mind Lab was able to breathe more life in to the students work by allowing them to wear the headset and visually import them into the environment they created. Not only did it allow them to see their work up close and personal, it gave them an accurate example of what it would be like to move about in that environment, they could walk around and view things from different angles.”

“A lot of the students could not believe what they were seeing. The students then started looking closely at what need to be fixed, and what worked and what didn't when it came to their designs. Most of them agreed they would not be able to do this if viewing their projects through a standard computer monitor,” he says.

The real limitations of today’s tech

According to Richard, VR exploded two years ago and there was a lot of hype around the technology, however the initial limitations and roadblocks of VR systems remain largely unchanged, and the hype doesn’t necessarily match the reality of where VR is at today.

He says, in order for VR to be widely adopted by the education community and to see the real impact, the price point for the technology must decrease significantly, and more education focused applications need to be built.

When it comes to the price point, Google cardboard is an example of an affordable option, but schools still need to ensure each student has an appropriate smartphone, Rich says. Other devices such as Oculus and the Vive can cost thousands of dollars for one student. According to Rich, even if schools could afford the devices, all options offer a solo experience which limits collaboration between groups, and there are very few education focused applications available.

Richard says, “VR is a slow burn for schools in New Zealand. We need the price point to come down dramatically and more applications to become available in order for the uptake to be increased. It needs to be about more than just storytelling, we need students to be able to create on these devices too, in order be able to create their own learning experiences and work with each other. It may take another 3, 4 or 5 years for the technology to be at a point where it can offer significant benefit to schools and be widely adopted. In this time VR will be blown away by mixed reality.”

The rise and promise of mixed reality

According to Richard, VR will have its place but mixed reality and augmented reality will be used in everyday life, including within education. Richard says mixed reality has the huge benefit of allowing users to see the real world as well as virtual images that are intuitive to the environment. Because of this and the possibilities for the technology, there is also a lot more opportunity to enhance collaboration, he says.

“Mixed reality will become the way you access all of your information. We’ll no longer have screens, we’ll have smart wearables that we can access all information. And this will be huge for education,” Richard says.

In the book, Augmented Reality in Education, Mark Billinghurst writes, “AR interfaces enhance the real world experience, unlike other computer interfaces that draw users away from the real world and onto the screen. [...] Although AR technology is not new, it's potential in education is just beginning to be explored. Unlike other computing technologies, AR interfaces offer seamless interaction between the real and virtual worlds, a tangible interface metaphor and a means for transitioning between real and virtual worlds.”

In this book, Mark cites that researchers have found that even when students were assigned to individual computers, they spontaneously clustered around machines in pairs and trios.

“In contrast, in an AR interface students can be seated around a table and see each other at the same time as a virtual heart floating in their midst. This results in conversational behavior that is more similar to natural face-to-face collaboration than to screen based collaboration,” he writes.

Looking to the future

According to Damon and Richard of The Mind Lab, virtual reality will be huge for gaming, entertainment and training scenarios, and will also potentially bring great education experiences. However, it’s likely that mixed reality will have a bigger impact, while virtual reality finds its niche.

Richard says, “In the next five years we’ll see more interest for virtual and mixed reality from the consumer, more people starting to invest and more developers coming through. This will create new areas to open up and accelerate the whole industry, and of course education will be a part of this.”

Damon adds, “When the Government realises the potential of this technology and the advantages of using VR in classrooms, in the same way it has realised the digital curriculum is important, VR and MR will be more readily adopted and offer students a greater learning experience.”