If you are as old as I am then you will remember the thrill of watching your teacher wheel the TV trolley into the classroom. “Finally”, you thought, “some fun in class!” These days, using multimedia tools is a foregone conclusion for the well-resourced teacher; technology is enabling greater interactivity and engagement between students as well as with the information they are required to learn.

Naturally, the Internet is far and away the richest and most radical change from the days I was a student, and education will, frankly, never be the same again.

Teachers have a plethora of options when it comes to using technology in their lessons. One such technology — older than most — is Virtual Reality (VR).

In the early ‘90s, VR was all the rage, and yet — somewhat like electric cars at the time — no one quite knew what to do with it. Today, as a consequence of some deep thinking by people at Tesla (electric cars) and Oculus Rift these technologies are again finding traction.

Goldman Sachs recently estimated that virtual and augmented reality entertainment revenue will reach $3.2 billion by 2025, while the education sector will attract 15 million users.

Although educational VR content is not yet at an advanced stage, limited mainly to younger learners, and mainly exploratory (think digital field trips to Versailles) in nature, there are encouraging signs that STEM subjects, particularly chemistry and biology, will attract developer attention. The hope is that STEM subjects will become fun and relevant through learning experiences that are memorable and easily retained.

How can teachers use VR in the classroom

While VR has yet to be incorporated into advanced educational LMSs, there are a number of encouraging developments that are interesting to explore.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard was the result of a 36-hour hackathon by Google’s education team, where staff were tasked with finding ways to boost student engagement. Cardboard is simply an inexpensive pair of VR goggles made from a cardboard cutout, magnets, and an Android phone.

The goggles can be literally made using pizza boxes, or packaging — find cut-out patterns and instructions here. Alternatively, pre-made goggles can be purchased online from accredited manufacturers for as little as $5.

The cardboard goggles when combined with an Android phone, preloaded with any of Google’s Cardboard apps, are a simple way to bring classroom lessons to life. Cardboard has started by “VRing” many of its most popular apps — such as Street View, YouTube, Photos and Google Earth. Consequently you and your students can explore any place on earth in 3D, travelling to well-known landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China.

Google’s Expeditions program is a Cardboard extension specifically oriented towards educators. It includes hundreds of exploratory apps including the Great Barrier Reef, the surface of Pluto, the International Space Station and Machu Picchu.

Other Google Cardboard apps include movies, games and experiences that cover biology, physics, social interactions, architecture, language, the solar system and more. Find all the available Google Cardboard education apps here.

Second Life

Launched in 2003, by San Francisco-based Linden Labs, Second Life is a comparative dinosaur in Internet Years. The PC-based platform has generated millions of accounts, its own currency (Linden dollars), and dedicated communities in arts and education.

As a free PC-based software, Second Life is unique in that it allows educators to create simulated learning environments from scratch. Often employing Second Life super-users to design and create the environments, they can be “high-concept”, such as exploring giant molecules, or as simple as developing cross-cultural meeting spaces where students gather to learn from and interact with each other.

The distinguishing feature of Second Life is that it is a massive virtual world. Once students have created their avatar they can engage in curated group experiences such as visiting other countries without leaving the classroom, or their homes in the case of distance learning.

Despite its user base plateauing out in 2008, the company is now planning a second wind for Second Life with a laser focus on the educational terrain.

The Second Life world is more suited to older student and universities, and is used by a number of organisations to create simulated learning environments. The Texas A&M University has created a fully immersive e-campus in Second Life and uses it to create online learning environments and conferences where students can gather — from all over the world — to both learn and interact with each other. Many familiar campus landmarks have been faithfully replicated in Second Life, such as the Academic Plaza, the Memorial Student Center, and the Bonfire Memorial.

One of A&M’s virtual learning successes is the creation of a fully-equipped chemistry lab as a part of a 2-year study to examine the differences between teaching in a real chemistry lab, and an oversized Second Life lab. Students using the Second Life lab found conducting experiments easier, and the environment less distracting. Uptake and retention of the details of the experiments were about equal between real-life and Second Life users in the experiment.

Closing thoughts

Virtual Reality, as we have discovered in this brief introduction, is lifting itself out of its early ‘90s slumber, and becoming a more readily accepted way of accessing and enjoying educational content.

There are naturally many wide gaps to bridge, among them the expense of hardware and connectivity, as well as questions around the validity of the content. However, as e-educators it is worthwhile to keep an eye on its ever-growing potential.

Find a neat summation of current thoughts on VR in education in this NMC/CoSN Horizon Report on emerging technologies and their impact and use in teaching and learning, starting on page 44.


Photo source.

Author: Susannah Holz

Susannah has years of writing experience. She would have liked to be forever a student, but life had other things in mind. So NEO is the perfect place for her to address topics about e-learning and ed-tech for schools.