VR in the classroom: should more schools be open to it?

In 1913, Thomas Edison predicated that the motion picture would revolutionise the education system by the 1930’s. Edison hoped predicted that “In ten years, textbooks as the principal medium of teaching, will be as obsolete as the horse and carriage is now.”

Many industries have benefitted from embracing technology. The Textbook-led education  industry has seemed to actively avoid embracing new technology.

Thomas Edison believed that motion pictures would make pen and paper obsolete. What would he think of education today?

You only have to look at the recent impact ChatGPT has had on the education industry. Universities and high-schools have banned it outright. They’ve failed to realise that technology is not at fault it’s the education system itself that has failed.

It’s fascinating to see how this plays out. The most recent resistance coming from parents who send their children to schools that shun technology. The Waldorf School in Silicon Valley has the belief that technology is killing creativity. It is seen as replacing the experiential approach to learning. There are a few problems with this.

Technology Is Here To Stay

Short of us ending up in a post-apocalyptic world, technology is integrated into everything we do. From farming to finance, children who aren’t exposed to technology are left behind. Consequently, this lack of exposure to technology will hinder their ability to identify creative and innovative solutions using technology. 

Then there is the issue that although these schools have correctly identified that experiential learning is a better way to teach, why does this have to be sans technology. Historically experiential learning has suffered from a lack of scalability.  There are schools all over the world, but anybody who believes classroom learning is experiential didn’t go to the same schools that the other 99% of us did.

Should Technology Play A Bigger Role In The Classroom?

So in this raging debate about technology and the role it has to play in education, there is one technology that can deliver experiential learning at scale, that is Virtual Reality (VR).

But why is that?

We live in a 3D world, but once we move past Grade R our learning until we retire lives in a 2D world of textbooks, videos, manuals and e-learning modules. There is good reason for this, trying to scale experiential learning has proven to be all but impossible and incredibly expensive. Think about learning how to safely work at heights, where you need an experienced instructor and a safe environment, its expensive and hard to scale. Or where you learn how to navigate the challenges of conflict management and resolution, practicing using pretend roll playing experiences that lack the real stakes of a live scenario.

VR is the first technology in human history that allows us to learn in an experiential 3D environment, at scale. The only limiting factor is access to a VR headset and controllers and this is becoming less and less of a barrier.

We are 3D creatures who stare at 2D screens all day to work and learn. Immersive tech can create learning experiences that feel more real and visceral.

If anything, educational institutions, businesses and learning and development teams should be embracing this technology and encouraging the development on content for these devices.

The improvement of technology is inevitable. VR is already changing the face of education. Educators would do well to take notice. Here are some ways VR we see VR in the classroom today.

VR In The Science Lab

Chemistry is one of those subjects that many students struggle to conceptualise the theory of. A chalkboard drawing of ionic bonds or various strange molecules often fail to inspire concrete understanding. Some students that are gifted enough at rote-learning and mathematics manage to re-create these drawings effectively to score good grades.

It isn’t clear if any actual practical understanding has taken place however. The most exciting part of chemistry class is the bi-annual privilege called an actual experiment. The teacher fires up and old Bunsen burner under a volumetric flask to create a chemical reaction. Hydrogen peroxide and dish soap balloons into something called “elephant toothpaste”. Resulting in a fun, but ultimately lacklustre experience for bored 15 year olds.

VR is ideal for learning the physical structure of molecules and other aspects of chemistry.

Nothing is boring about chemistry in VR. Finally, students can see atoms, electrons, ionic bonds, molecules, protons, electrons, and the like, visualised in a realistic way. Instead of teachers having to ration old chemicals and dodgy pipettes and beakers, students can now do as many experiments as their hearts desire, as many times as they want.

VR For Distance Learning

VR applications for learning in various subjects are not bound by the 4 walls of the classroom. We interviewed University of Coventry professor and VR torchbearer, Dr. Bianca Wright recently.

She recalls finding it amusing when investors in suits asked her how the classroom would be depicted for her VR in education project.

“The whole point of using innovative tech for education” she remarked, “is that you don’t need to be in the classroom at all. You can teach your lessons in a forest or on the surface of Mars”.

Kids are comfortable interacting with new technologies. VR is the perfect tool for remote learning as it allows for collaboration and improves concentration and engagement.

It might seem a bit farfetched to teach a classroom full of students using a VR application now. However, at the rate at which the technology is getting more efficient and cost-effective, this future could be nearer than you may assume. VR apps can be used to teach language learning, soft skills, chemistry, and virtual field trips to inaccessible places. In truth, we are yet to acknowledge its full potential by a long shot.

A Technology For The Future

Another example of classroom VR comes in the form of a documentary called 1943 Berlin Blitz which has been put into VR, and allows users to experience a RAF bombing run on the German city in real-time. A free app called 360Cities allows students to visit major international cities through 360° photos and videos. Other applications allow teachers to develop weird and wonderful VR experiences in the classroom.

A 360° photo of Rome’s Piazza Venezia by night in 360Cities.

Over the last 5 years, VR headsets have only decreased in price, and increased in processing power. They are more accessible than they were, and this trend nis likely to continue. By this token, the number of companies and engineers developing experiences for VR has grown. 

VR, much like Augmented Reality (AR), has been guilty of being a technology looking for a purpose. However, after the early stages of floundering, VR has emerged as a game changing tool to transform the way we learn.

The future world where we see the integration of technology such as VR with AI will forever change the way we learn. It will become less about doubling down on some outdated industrial age model of education and embrace truly personalised learning experiences where the student sits at the centre of the learning journey, the way it should be.

Immersive technology has the power to engage and delight your users.