Ernest Cline’s 2011 book Ready Player One is quickly becoming a cultural poster child for the most recent wave of virtual reality excitement, with next years release of the Spielberg adaptation promising to make the story even more iconic.
In the novel people spend the vast majority of their time in VR; inside ‘OASIS’ a sprawling virtual world of adventure and 1980s references. However, despite being a work of fiction, it puts forward some exciting ideas for real areas where VR can have valuable impact.
One virtual location; Ludus, exists as a world of schools and education. Despite the protagonist describing Ludus as “the most boring planet in the entire OASIS” it lets students learn limitlessly; travelling inside the human body or visiting great Egyptian tombs. Truly an exciting vision of VR and education, but how beneficial is this relationship and when will we have a real Ludus?
One great example of VR starting to gain ground in education is Google’s Expeditions project. Launched in 2015 it currently allows teachers to take students on virtual fields trips to almost anywhere on earth (and beyond), offering 600 tours from the Wonders of the World to the Amazon.
Expeditions’ greatest strength may lie in its accessibility, operating on affordable and easy to use Google Cardboard viewers it has crossed one of VR in education’s first hurdles, getting VR into a classroom setting.
From here it can make lessons more engaging, let students immerse themselves in the places they study and encourage creativity and imagination. Letting students get excited about the world beyond a school’s walls and the possibilities that lie ahead of them.
But, as is all too often the case in technology, there is a price to be paid for accessibility. Running on mobile devices and with affordable viewers, Expeditions sells the full possibilities of modern VR a little short.
Despite prices of high-end VR systems continuing to come down they still prove a barrier to entry for many educational establishments. Recently Foundry10, a philanthropic education research organisation, have taken high-end VR, such as Oculus headsets, into schools. The study saw 1,351 students using VR for learning, from 6th to 12th grade and across American and Canadian schools.
The findings illustrate students’ reactions and provide key insights for both educators and VR developers alike. Students responded positively to VR, with the study noting their tendency to see it being most useful with more concrete subjects, such as Science and History.
- Science (44% of students)
- History (38%)
- English (12%)
- Art and Math (both 3%)
Maths was not seen to mix as well with VR and surprisingly for such a medium with so much creative potential art also was given little thought.
Students felt strongly that the medium helped them learn about places and events, but that more work was required to help them learn about and empathise with people.
The study highlighted the need for more youth VR creation tools, to let students actively participate in creating experiences, it also showed that the users trusted the technology, though often acknowledged it had a long way to go.
Developers were considered to be knowledgeable when creating content, with virtual experiences seen to be realistic representations of their real world counterparts.
Here a serious onus needs to fall upon developers to create engaging worlds with the required accuracy, that are still fun, explorable and interactive the way only VR can be. One teacher in the study put it well saying:
“You want students to wrestle with content. You want to present as much truth as possible; at the same time you want them to put that truth together.”
This ‘putting together of truth’ actually well describes one of the real strengths of VR in education. The ability for students to learn through doing, this constructivist approach suggests that learning can be reinforced by experience, that our interactions shape our understanding.
Here virtual reality can truly excel, letting students have much more experiential and interactive learning experiences.
I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand. – Ancient Chinese proverb
This ability to understand through doing can uniquely be harnessed by VR, a medium that can so realistically simulate experiences and situations. For a better understanding of experiential learning in education we can look to Kolb’s Learning Cycle, created in 1984 it describes learning as a four part cycle. Experience, reflecting on that experience, conceptualisation (learning from the experience) and active experimentation.
It’s easy to see how such a cycle can be realized in highly interactive virtual reality experience, a virtual world students can explore, interact with and experiment within, all from the safety of their classroom.
The real future of VR education lies in interdisciplinary communication; the sharing of developers’ understanding of the medium, educators’ knowledge of pedagogy and curriculum and students’ imagination and excitement.
Building our own Ludus will take a combined effort. As the technology marches forward it is important for developers to remember the end user and in education there are two; the teachers and the students.
Meaningful VR solutions for education will come from cross-disciplinary projects, that see developers actively engaging with the needs and insights of both groups of users. Offering teachers powerful tools for teaching and students engaging, effective ways to learn.