Back to the future: the power and potential of VR in education

Back to the future: the power and potential of VR in education

Contributed by Steve Bambury

Steve Bambury, independent technology consultant

The COVID pandemic forced the education industry to change like never before. Schools closed, learning became remote and then hybrid and educators were forced to adapt to ensure that learning survived. Those that had always shied away from technology integration suddenly found themselves in a position where they had to upskill to meet the needs of learners who were no longer sat in the same room. The effort and resilience demonstrated by teachers around the world was genuinely inspiring and commendable.

One silver lining for schools as a result of this need for accelerated adoption of core, cloud-based tools and platforms was an overall raising of the technology baseline. Even schools that had already adopted platforms like Office365 or G Suite would have generally had variance in the competence of staff with these tools and thus the consistency of their usage. Now, everyone has become more fluent and this has cemented the digital foundations for schools, allowing them to start to look to the future and plan for the next generation. What many schools, universities and other educational institutions (as well as corporate entities) have begun to realise is that this next generation won’t just be interacting with technology… they’ll be stood inside it.

The same week that the initial school closures were announced here in Dubai in March 2020, I was hosting an episode of my chat show “Live from Dubai.” What makes my chat show somewhat unique is that I host it inside Virtual Reality (VR). I have a custom-built chat show stage inside the VR platform I use (ENGAGE) and I am usually joined by an audience from at least 15 different countries, all teleporting into the space as fully-digital 3D avatars. Whilst this may sound like something out of science fiction narrative like Ready Player One, it’s worth pointing out that I’ve actually been hosting events inside VR since back in 2017. I even taught the world’s first global lesson inside the same VR platform in 2018, alongside the co-founder of Pixar, Loren Carpenter.

As I sat in my host’s chair, waiting for the show to begin, I watched the audience members spawn into the room and take their seats. With the pandemic starting to swallow the world and the unprecedented wave of school closures beginning, I was struck by the realisation that I was sat inside the perfect solution. Unfortunately, this was a solution almost no educational institutions were ready for. In the initial response I would go on to write about immersive technology and the pandemic, I called it a “Marty McFly moment”, a reference to the moment towards the end of the first Back to the Future movie where Marty comes to a screeching halt in his guitar solo, realising that the kids in 1955 are just not ready for that type of music yet, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…but your kids are going to love it”.

VR is in a similar position right now. Still a nascent technology, we are definitely a few generations away from an “iPhone moment” and mass adoption but the technology is developing at a tremendous rate. Whilst it could easily be another decade before we see the same levels of VR integration in classrooms that we currently see with iPads or Chromebooks, schools that are invested in the future of education are starting to dip their toes in the virtual waters and explore the potential of this new medium. 

What educators need to understand above all else is that VR (and other forms of immersive technology) is not simply a new fad or gadget but rather the next evolution of computing, the logical progression from touch screen mobile devices. In tech circles, VR is often referred to under the moniker of “spatial computing” and the term is genuinely apt since the medium is all about engaging with experiences within 3D environments. The traditional 2D screen has simultaneously been our conduit to digital media and the barrier that keeps us from it. Ultimately our world is 3D so it always feels somewhat unnatural to engage with 3D content through a 2D interface. Spatial computing solutions like VR remove that barrier and make it possible for you to engage directly with 3D content, environments and even other people in a more natural, realistic way. In turn this creates an emotive response and a heightened sense of engagement and focus in the user, unlike anything previously possible using other forms of technology.

In the classroom setting, VR can offer a wide range of truly immersive learning experiences - from virtual field trips to remote destinations, to art lessons using impossible media, to virtual science experiments. VR is also a great way to contextualise learning for students, helping them build an authentic frame for their understanding. Several university studies have shown that VR boosts both retention levels and confidence when applying learned skills. These conclusions were echoed recently by a study conducted by PwC into the efficacy of VR as a training medium within the business world. If you track this back, it makes perfect sense – learners are more confident applying skills because they retained more information because they were more engaged and focused using the medium. I’ve witnessed this first hand many times over the last five years as I’ve worked with various age groups of students using VR. For example, using the Hold The World VR experience during a study of dinosaurs with Year 4 students at JESS Dubai to allow them to visit the Natural History Museum in London and handle fossils whilst learning from a holographic David Attenborough:

Or this project I led at Safa British School in Dubai where Year 6 students shared their understanding of Healthy Eating through the VR motion-capture experience Mindshow:

Another key benefit of the medium of VR is how it can be used to foster empathy. Multiple studies have shown that the way VR allows people to assume the perspective of others can have a powerful effect of the way that they think and feel. One example comes from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab which ran a study using the VR experience “Becoming Homeless” and found that people who went through the experience were more empathetic toward the homeless and more likely to sign a petition in support of affordable housing than other study participants. VR gives us the opportunity to walk in other people’s shoes in a way no previous digital medium has been able to do. The ramifications of this for learners are huge as students can experience curriculum areas like history and social studies first-hand. Developing empathy in young people, the future leaders of tomorrow, while imparting engaging content is a dream come true for educators.

So, what’s holding schools back from integrating this powerful new tool for learning? A lot of the friction right now is still due to the lack of understanding of the medium. Educators and school
 leaders simply don’t know enough about the power, purpose and potential of VR and in some cases, have built misconceptions through limited experience using low-end solutions like the Google Cardboard. Cost is also often cited as a sticking point and the desire for a turnkey solution to mitigate the logistics of a VR deployment is definitely something schools are hoping for. Nonetheless, headset prices are coming down and, as the industry continues to grow, the cost will decrease further making VR deployment accessible to more schools. Another challenge is sourcing impactful, educational content. VR is a nascent technology and educational content is still somewhat limited, though the options are growing steadily. There are also a range of multi-user VR experiences available, like the ENGAGE platform I use for my own in-world events. These allow the entire classroom experience to be transposed into immersive, 3D virtual worlds – no matter what content it being delivered – and they definitely elevate the learning experience beyond Zoom calls.

It’s also worth highlighting that schools don’t need to go 1:1 with VR hardware to make a genuine impact on learning. There are various ways to integrate a limited number of headsets such as using them for enrichment groups or as part of station-based learning. Many of the multi-user platforms like ENGAGE, AltSpace and Virbella also offer 2D access via laptops or mobile devices, meaning schools can ensure equitable access to virtual classes no matter what devices students have access to right now.

VR adoption in schools will grow exponentially in the next five to 10 years and now is the time to act in order to ensure that schools are able to capitalise on the growth of this transformative technology. So, invest in a small batch of hardware, explore the medium with colleagues and then capture best practice and evidence of learning to help kickstart your own journey into the metaverse.

Steve Bambury has worked in education for 19 years and now works as an independent technology consultant, supporting schools and other organisations to integrate technology effectively. Winner of multiple awards for his work with edtech, he is recognised internationally as a thought leader in the field of VR in education and has shared his insights with a wide range of publications including Forbes, VR Focus and Arabian Business.