Virtual Reality (VR) - Beyond Entertainment

by Jack Sommer

When people think about Virtual Reality (VR), it's a pretty safe bet to say that most envision entertainment. But what about education? In a recent TechCrunch article, they point out that teaching with VR is an opportunity waiting to be further developed - and they're right. 

Currently, there are professional job training programs and virtual world education experiences. The Air Force uses the technology within their training program, making flight simulations a more realistic experience to train their pilots. In education, an example of a project already made and in-use is a VR experience where students snorkel down a river Tennessee and learn about biodiversity in the region, water pollution, and environmental conservation. "Whenever we take students snorkeling in the Conasauga (River), they are changed by the experience,” said Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI), who developed the VR experience. “They see all of this life – right here in our backyards - and realize that we live in a special place worth protecting.” 

A game that the company Alchemy Learning is developing that takes place in the Amazon River.

A game that the company Alchemy Learning is developing that takes place in the Amazon River.

Google in unsurprisingly leading the way in taking the VR educational experience to the next level. With their Google Cardboard goggles — which brings VR technology to people in an inexpensive way — they started a new program called Google Expeditions. Select students in classrooms across the world can put on the Google Cardboard goggles and (virtually) transport to places like The Great Wall of China or the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai. It allows there to be a new type of "Field Trip" that is highly accessible. Yes, it may not exactly be the same as actually going there, but it's a pretty great alternate - especially for kids who may never get the chance to go to travel internationally. Over a million students across 11 countries have already taken an Expedition. So it's already making a global difference.

When you think about all the possible scenarios with VR and 360 degree environments, this could definitely get students more excited about learning. Bringing in this type of a simulation and lesson could really transform how kids think. Even back in 1998, when the technology was a far less complex, there was a study by the Institute for Defense Analyses around VR and education that found students motivating to be "extremely high." 

While entertainment games may be an adoption point for development of VR technology, we predict there will be some pretty interesting real world applications. For example, let's say you're going to be moving to a foreign country like Japan and you want to learn and experience as much of the culture beforehand so that you adjust faster. You could learn with VR about social customs through roleplay, practice language conversations, and even familiarize yourself with intimidating tasks like how to (and what to) order in a traditional Japanese restaurant. 

Not every single lesson in school and life should be simulated via VR. However, the technology could become a part of the educational mix  - like reading textbooks and listening to lectures. What will be interesting to see is how this method ends up impacting actual learning results. Do students test better with that higher engagement? The proof will be in the results, although it won't necessarily show right away. It may take a while for teachers and schools to figure out how to find the most efficient VR experiences for teaching. But if all goes well as we predict, there could be an entirely new and exciting education system ahead.