Virtual Reality:

An Innovative Vision for Education

10/07/2019  |  Dr. Eric D. Marvin
STEM
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Many of us recall the old Victorian era stereoscopes and View Masters of prior decades. Still images right before our eyes literally provided us with an up-close examination of an old cowboy sitting on his horse or zoo animals feeding in captivity. The images caught our attention and gave us reason to explore every detail of the pictures before us.

The future of online learning has the potential to be richer within a virtual environment.  Someday we will look back at our current technologies and recognize how limited they are in capability.

In more recent years, people began inserting cell phones into wearable cardboard headsets to gain a closer look at pictures and video on their cell phones. The promise was that we could fully immerse ourselves into a new, virtual reality. Yes, the cell-phone supported experience was much improved from the technologies of prior decades, but it was still lacking a truly immersive experience.

But now, fully immersive virtual reality is available, and the potential it provides for education is nothing short of impressive. The Oculus Quest is but one of many virtual reality headsets, but it is the first to offer a unique feature. It has the computational power to offer a truly immersive experience while also not being tethered to a desktop or laptop computer. And, the experience is amazing!

According to a new report by Metaari, an analyst firm that examines trends of advanced learning technologies, educational gaming will likely be a $24 billion industry by 2024 (METAARI, 2019). Virtual reality is one of the key factors driving such increased demand. As educators, it is imperative to consider how this immersive technology can transform learning.

Virtual Field Trips

Virtual reality has the capability to take students anywhere in the world. Wander is a virtual reality app that uses data from Google StreetView to transport users nearly anywhere in the world. Students can visit the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the London Bridge or their parent’s childhood home. The power of this experience is that it provides a fully immersive (i.e., think 360 degree) image. Turn around and see what is across the street. Navigate forward and see what is near. Experiencing such environments in this way is much more captivating than merely browsing StreetView on a desktop computer.

Even more, Wander allows users to turn back the clock and see the same location over various years. How has the geography changed? What cars did your parents previously own? See history before your eyes as you wind back time in your virtual tour.

Skills-Based Individualized Learning

Within the virtual environment, wearers can see their own virtual hands. Controllers enable users to pick up objects, throw them, and use tools for nearly any authentic purpose. Pushing buttons, climbing ladders and grasping items are all possible within the virtual environment. This technological capability has the potential for skills-based training to be individualized, timed and scored without the need for a human teacher.

Virtual labs and dissections could occur until mastery is attained. Then, if desired, students could be tasked with demonstrating learning in the real world. Nearly any skills-based learning task could be individualized in a virtual environment to offer instructional benefits to both students and teachers.

Replication of Challenging Environments

Furthermore, the potential to replicate otherwise hard-to-simulate environments could occur within a virtual environment. A teacher standing before a classroom of unruly students, an assistant principal directing traffic in front of her school, and a principal addressing the crisis of a school-shooter could be replicated and used for training purposes. Learning and knowing how to react in such situations can help educators better prepare for real-life scenarios. Although such apps may not currently exist, they are conceivable for the future of virtual learning.

Virtual Learning Platforms

The future of online learning has the potential to be richer within a virtual environment.  Someday we will look back at our current technologies and recognize how limited they are in capability. Watching online videos, uploading assignments, and posting to discussion boards will seem as dated as correspondence courses of years past. 

The future of online learning holds great potential. Imagine watching and discussing — from the comfort of your own living room — a documentary in a virtual movie theater with your other classmates. The richness of this experience would be much more powerful than what could be offered by posting text or voice memos to a discussion board. The kinesthetic experience could be much more interactive and engaging.

Or, imagine touring Little Rock’s Central High School in a course on educational history. A virtual tour of Anne Frank’s house is already available in virtual reality. Time will only tell what other experiences await virtual learners.

Communication

Virtual reality allows wearers to block out the real world. In our multi-tasking-obsessed world this has great potential to enhance social interaction and communication in a virtual environment. Synchronous technologies already allow us to bridge the geographical gap between campuses or offices, or between home and work, but email and every other attention grabber can vie for our attention. Communication as a digital avatar in a virtual world may seem a bit unrealistic at the moment, but it may become commonplace in the not-to-distant future.

Making the Abstract Understandable

Understanding abstract ideas can be complicated. Primarily, this is due to an inability to visualize, touch or experience that which is intangible. But, imagine being able to virtually navigate your way through the human heart, a biological cell, or the deepest seas of the ocean. Virtual reality has the potential to bring such experiences to life, and it can do so beyond imagery on a static screen. Truly experiencing an immersive environment can help to make the abstract understandable.

Consider being able to walk the virtual streets of the 1850s. What would you do? How would you survive? Would you travel west to heed the call of manifest destiny, panning for gold? Who would you encounter and how would you survive? Time travel may not be a reality, but its replication could offer an immersive experience unlike any other in a virtual environment.

Also, consider learning a foreign language in a virtual environment. Being forced to virtually live, work and interact in a Spanish speaking culture would provide the type of immersion that would only otherwise be possible via the expense of travel or relocation.

Truly immersive virtual reality is available and holds great promise for transforming learning. With new devices and apps in development, now is the time to begin considering how it can enhance and bring your students and educators into a new world.

Works Cited

METAARI. (2019). The 2019-2024 Global Game-based Learning Market Executive Overview. Retrieved from https://seriousplayconf.com/downloads/2019-2024-global-game-based-learning-market/

Dr. Eric Marvin serves as Assistant Dean and Professor of Graduate Studies in Education at Union University. He holds a Doctor of Education degree in Instructional Design and Technology and has been investigating mixed reality technologies for the past decade.

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