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Immersive Education: VR Comes of Age

For virtual reality to succeed in education, there's more required than just cool experiences.


Despite all the headlines and conference coverage of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for education over the last year, the technology is still gaining speed — residing at that sweet spot in the hype cycle where, when you place headsets on people and gently guide them to turn around to gain a full view, they tend to gasp and say, "Oh, wow." So imagine how your students would respond if, in that next geography lesson, instead of handing them a flat map of Peru, you pass out pre-loaded smartphones to each table along with a $15 Google Cardboard and ask them to pull up a walking tour that places them in Machu Picchu.

"Seeing is believing," said Colin Messenger, a senior market analyst with a focus on education at FutureSource Consulting. Even if the viewing lasts just two minutes with each student, he added, "that's long enough" for the experience to stick.

However, anybody who has watched the education segment for any length of time also knows that the initial "cool" factor isn't enough to sustain the market. Last year's NMC/CoSN Horizon Report on K-12 education gave VR two to three years to hit the tipping point. As a recent FutureSource report noted, a big question is whether this new technology can be integrated deeply enough into the curriculum and help achieve specific learning outcomes in order to drive mainstream adoption.

What are VR and AR?

When Discovery Education's Hall Davidson speaks about VR and AR at education conferences, he defines VR as computer-generated reality that puts the viewer in a place that can be real or unreal — "real, meaning you're in the Louvre, or unreal, meaning you're on an imaginary space station outside Saturn." AR is when a layer is placed "on top of reality as an augmentation of reality." He points to the use of AR in NFL games on TV. "There's not really a yellow line that goes across the field showing the first down marker, but it enhances your viewing. It makes it more understandable and adds information that helps you learn that game."

Virtual Results with Staying Power

What will that take? User pull is one component, suggested FutureSource. Teachers need to be clamoring; otherwise, it'll continue to be a product in search of a market. Practically speaking, if VR and AR require "onsite demonstrations" to make sales, the channel that typically sells into education will struggle to maintain margins for these kinds of products. What they want to identify is reoccurring revenue. It will be like the early days of classroom computing, when schools could barely justify purchasing laptops for teachers. Only when large purchase orders were on the table for outfitting whole classrooms or grades did the K–12 market suddenly command real attention among device makers, forcing pricing down. Right now, just a few vendors such as BestBuy and NearPod have developed kits that include everything a teacher might need to use VR in the classroom. These are expensive; a 10-student kit from BestBuy is $3,999; a 30-student kit is $9,999.

Another aspect needed to ensure success of VR is an ample supply of education-tailored content. This is an area where a number of companies are jumping into the opportunity. Google, for example, has worked with hundreds of partners to produce more than 500 separate Expeditions, group VR experiences that have a "guide" who leads and "explorers" who follow. Users plunge into these immersive environments using the low-cost Cardboard viewer powered by a smartphone that can run the Cardboard app. Google helpmate YouTube has nearly 300 VR videos posted on its site, though they're just as likely to be non-education oriented (such as, "Sunsets for Sale — the first Virtual Reality Infomercial!").

Mainstream media operators have also embraced the potential. Publishers such as the New York Times and USA Today are experimenting with VR to immerse readers — who could just as easily be students — into stories being covered.

Textbook publishers will be "very prominent" for bringing education content forward, said Chris McIntyre-Brown, associate director of professional equipment for FutureSource. "There are a lot of subtle nuances to how it rolls out in schools." Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have joined up with Google in its Expedition work, and Pearson is also working with Microsoft to create applications for "mixed reality" content that will run on the Redmond company's HoloLens.

Streaming education media company Discovery Education has expanded its integration of VR into its Techbook digital curriculum line. A techbook opens just like a "normal book," albeit on a screen and with one other difference, explained Discovery Ed's Hall Davidson. When the student clicks on a picture on a page, a video might start up to explain the topic in that format or the student may be able to do a 360-degree pan of the scene using the mouse to look around. If the student is wearing a Cardboard outfitted with a phone and an app or a high-end headset running from a computer from Oculus or HTC (which makes the Vive brand), the view will be from his or her perspective. A turn of the physical head will translate into a turn of the head inside the environment.

Davidson, a senior director of global learning initiatives who speaks frequently on the topics of VR and AR, said the results for teaching can be "astonishing." He pointed to Lockheed Martin's "Generation Beyond" initiative, powered by Discovery Ed, which takes classrooms on online field trips to learn about deep space exploration. One tour shared Lockheed Martin's VR space, which has saved the company millions of dollars in the building of spacecraft models before the actual vehicles are constructed. "They used to do it with plywood. Now they do it with a computer," he said. Designers create the models in software, put on a headset, pick up virtual tools and work on the vehicle that way. "You don't want to build [something] and realize you can't put on the last board because there's no place to turn the torque wrench."

In the same way, he suggested, students could also be put into scenarios where they're allowed to perform physical activities in virtual formats to begin building "muscle memory" that carries over into real life. That's why the use of VR in sports and military training has become so popular.

Augmenting Learning

As VR camera prices drop, the urge to create VR content as well is sure to rise, and that could be a draw that pulls teachers into the VR force field and keeps them there. "In virtual reality there's still a lot of looking around," acknowledged Davidson. The free choice, Google's Cardboard Camera app (available for Android and iOS), is literally that — a way to record a near-360-degree panoramic image and view it with Cardboard.

However, more adept cameras that can capture whole experiences on the move have come way down in cost — just a few hundred dollars in some cases — allowing users to create VR headset-worthy movies.

From there, with an app like ThingLink users can add notes, audio, additional video or other multimedia on top of the VR experience, enabling teachers to customize the content for a specific lesson or students to extend the material as proof of their own learning. The result: a form of mixed reality experience in which the virtual reality is augmented.

"Stuff like that," observed Davidson, "isn't just a viewing experience. It can be a meaningful instructional experience too, which is what we're going for."

Next week, Part 2: Immersive Education: AR Comes of Age

How To Get Started

Google Cardboard is the obvious place to test out VR in the classroom. You can buy these corrugated cardboard headsets online for around $15 or construct your own from pizza boxes and other supplies with free templates. Their purpose: to serve as stable housing for the phone and provide two eyeholes outfitted with small lenses.

If you don't have access to smartphones for student use, Davidson suggested hitting up colleagues and families for their legacy smart devices. Those "may not have a plan, but they will still connect to Wi-Fi," he explained. Just download the app and expeditions you want from Google Play or Apple App Store, get on the wireless network, slide the phone into the headset and explore.

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