Virtual Reality: The Next Big Thing in Educational Technology

Schools and colleges are increasingly investing in educational technologies to improve institutional efficiency, enhance learning and better prepare learners for the demands of the 21st Century, with substantial growth in technology-supported learning over the past two decades and a myriad of new technologies released every year.

Ed-tech has become common place across Europe and North America where, ‘laptops and interactive whiteboards are now extensively in place’ and, ‘Broadband is now almost ubiquitous in schools’ (Wastiau, 2013). At schools in North America and Canada access to computers is widespread, with the student:computer ratio in Canada at 3.45:1 (OECD, 2015).

In the wake of this ed-tech revolution, a number of innovative approaches to using technology have grown popular among educators, including;

  • Virtual Classrooms, where instructors deliver content online using resources such as PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos and learners submit assignments by uploading assignments via online portals.
  • Flipped Learning, where academic content is delivered to students online, and learners study the content in advance, before coming in to class, enabling teachers to maximise class time by engaging learners in discussion, group work and analysis.
  • Blended Learning, an approach which merges the distance learning online environment with the traditional face-to-face classroom, with the aim of integrating technology to support students realise educational objectives.

The Next Big Thing

With teachers becoming increasingly tech-savvy, and technology advancing at break-neck speed, it’s intriguing to wonder what the next big thing in educational technology will be. Ed-Tech insiders believe the answer, which would have seemed like science fiction a decade ago, is the widespread application of virtual reality (VR) technology in schools and colleges.

Virtual reality hardware and software has become increasingly accessible in recent year, driven primarily by the computer gaming industry. Virtual reality headsets have steadily declined in cost and head-mounted displays (HMDs) are now available from $20 for Google Cardboard, Google’s soon to be released Daydream VR is expected to cost $79, Samsung Gear VR is available for $99, and for those with deeper pockets, the Oculus Rift, can be bought for $599. As the VR market grows and demand increases, the prices for these devices are set to fall further, which will make them a reasonable option for more educational institutions.

In the States a number of tech companies (including zSpace, Alchemy VR and Immersive VR Education) have long realised the potential of these resources and have already developed educational curriculum, content packages and teacher training programmes to support schools with the adoption of VR assisted learning in the classroom. More tech developers are expected to join the sector in the coming years and analysts predict the VR education industry will be worth $100 billion by 2020.

Early Innovators

As with all new learning technologies, the challenge for schools and colleges will be adopting and implementing these resources to ensure there are benefits which enhance student learning. Two educational organisations leading the adoption of VR assisted learning are the San Francisco Unified School District and Polk County Public Schools in Florida. The students in these school districts have been using Nearpod VR with Google Cardboards to enhance their learning by taking virtual field trips through the ancient pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef, Easter Island and Mars.

The Possibilities

While VR can be an incredible resource for teaching history by bringing lost civilizations back to life and enabling students to explore these cities and witness the way of life ‘first hand’, there are plenty more applications for VR besides field trips. Virtual reality can be used in many areas of the curriculum, including Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, English, Geography and Languages, with interactive simulations that enable learners to engage with advanced theories and concepts.

Virtual Reality technology could also provide the opportunity for students to participate in exchange programmes with schools from other parts of the world. Imagine taking your class on an exchange trip to a school in Asia or South America for the day. - what a great way to increasing multicultural understanding among young students!

Alongside pre-developed currciula and activities offered by ed-tech companies, these resources also provide creative tools for educators to develop their own VR lessons tailored to their learners’ needs. Teachers resources also include tracking systems to record and analyse each of the students’ progress through the virtual environment to ensure learners stay on task and benefit from these resources.

The Benefits

When implemented and applied correctly, there are multitude of benefits for students learning with virtual reality technology.

  • Learning is active rather than passive: One of the corner stones of modern education theory is that learning is more effective when it is active rather than passive. VR technologies provide excellent opportunities to actively interact and engage with academic content.
  • Immersive experience avoids distraction: Students can be easily distracted by all manner of interruptions, but in the virtual environment these distractions are removed and students are surrounded entirely by engaging educational activities.
  • Engaging for 21st Century Learners: This generation of students have grown up surrounded by technology and many respond to computer generated learning better than traditional methods. Virtual reality learning enables students to engage with subject matter in a way they are comfortable with.
  • The VR experience helps learners understand complex concepts: In the same way that students understanding of advanced scientific concepts is greatly enhances through the participation of experiments in the lab, students virtual reality experiences will support their ability to better understand complex theories, in a wide range of different subjects.
  • VR Learning is well suited for different learning styles: Differentiated learning in the traditional classroom, to ensure that students with different learning styles are all engaged, can be extremely difficult to implement. Virtual reality assisted learning will increase teachers’ abilities to engage kinesthetic learners and visual learners in new innovative ways that support their learning more effectively.

The Future

It may still seem a long way off but the chances are that virtual reality technologies will, like smartboards and tablets before them, become a common feature in modern schools within the next couple of years, are you ready?

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