Does Virtual Reality work for education?

Back to more familiar territory: technology. The other week our research centre put on a morning event about virtual reality. Much of it was new for me but the questions it posed about what to do with new technology were familiar ones.

So what is VR? One definition I liked came from Lavalle [1] for whom VR was about tricking our senses to feel we were present in a computer simulated world. I liked the idea of ‘tricking the senses’ as this suggest that there is something more intense going on than if you were playing around within a ‘two dimensional world’ in, say, Second Life or the Sims.  But it also suggests that there is, with the best will in the world, a deceit going on. Key to understanding this deceit is that VR provides a world with depth (technically the three dimensional feel works by a process of ‘stereopsis’ – presenting a separate picture to each eye) and one without boundaries (objects remain stationary while you interact and move around however you like). A good question is ‘who is the ‘you’ in all this?’. Are you yourself or are you a mental model of yourself, perhaps an Avator or other form of on screen presence.

To get the idea of VR find someone with an appropriate Smart phone and head set. Alternatively there are thousands of examples  on YouTube – presented in flat 2D video clips but they give the idea of what is possible. For example:

Clouds of Sydria: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUosdCQsMkM

VR Goggles Gender Swap Experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCprfChibTE 

Our First Look at Kraken Unleashed VR Coaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYv8qH1wZj4 

Birdly: The Dream of Flying: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYPJLRVrC18

Chess:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sRt5t8eA4w&frags=wn

BeAnotherLab experiments with gender identity

Of these examples two – the Clouds of Sydria and gender swap – were about stepping into the shoes of ‘the other’. These intrigued me, though how far you can be tricked into really taking on another identity, even temporarily, is an open question. One, the theme park idea, crossed over into the world of augmented reality as the computer experience was meant to work synchronously with the physical roller coaster ride.  It was probably close to the very last thing I would want to do but I could see the enthusiasm it promoted. The birdly example was about experiencing something in a 3D world that was impossible in our physical world. I liked it and wonder how far it could give us the sensation of flying. The chess example was about showing off the technology but I think any chess player would find it distracting and pointless. What is missing in my examples are more conventional online game environments and for that matter sex industry applications which in their separate ways figure significantly in the early adoption of technology, but I wanted to focus on the more mainstream. In fact VR is increasingly mainstream as you can see in the ways it is sold  by Smart Phone providers, for example the Samsung Ostrich Commercial [2].  It is also interesting to see  big budget films, most recently Speilberg’s Ready Player One [3], engaging with the concept of VR.

So is VR relevant for education?

It struck me how discussion of VR in education feels similar to discussion of any technology in the past. That is to say the technology is generally developed in the wider world and then educators react by finding things to do with it. This is not meant as a criticism. It would be sad if educationalists were not thinking about how the world is changing, and how those changes can be put to use, but it does suggest that the cross over into education is not straightforward. As regards VR we are at the stage of ‘early adoption’ and you can see early examples of VR applications in an education context [4] as well as a number of Ted talks promoting VR as a (possible) solution to engagement of young people [5]. Much of the rhetoric around VR, as with other technologies in the past, refers to young people’s supposed preference for technology and the sheer range of contexts that would not be accessed without VR (e.g. via VR you can visit an ancient civilisation, go up into space, travel around  the human body). There is also the idea that VR experiences are more intense and thus more memorable than other online ones or even ones in the physical world. Put like this we may expect to see VR taken up more and more.  But in practice technology, and there is no reason for VR to be any different, runs up against considerable barriers including ones of access, curriculum and training. All this leads to a growing realisation that the visions for technology held by enthusiasts are not universally held.

So what future does VR have in education?  First it is going to take a while to overcome access issues. Even if many learners bring their own smart phones this is not creating a classroom where everyone has kit which is fast, reliable and compatible with the software. You cannot as a teacher turn up assuming everything is in place, you are still talking of niche contexts for the foreseeable future. But supposing you really could access VR as and when you wanted to, would it be worth it? I can see possibilities. For example short episodes of VR that would give a unique insight into an environment. But the key thing to remember here is that education is not about the experience but telling a story about the experience. So what you are after is not a class that had memorable experiences of, say, walking with dinosaurs [6] but students who can ask questions such as: does  this VR application offer faithful representations of prehistoric worlds? Do these animals bear likenesses to ones we see today? How do animals adapt to change ecologies?

I would also like to see more questioning of claims about the intensity of the experience. For example via VR you can step into someone else shoes but, let us face it. it is not for real.   You may be more aware of what it is like to be a refugee and that might be important and valuable to your developing sense of who you are, but it is all temporary. Finally, VR adoption is not helped by health concerns. Of course such concerns have always popped up with new technology. I remember teaching spreadsheets years ago and there was always someone who said that the screens made them feel dizzy.  It was easy, if wrong, to dismiss this. But  VR headsets do seem to create problems on a wider scale and these might not be so easy to ignore.

[1] Lavalle, S. (2016) Virtual Reality [online] http://vr.cs.uiuc.edu

[2] The Samsung Ostrich Commercial https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEEVu4w5LTE

[3] Ready Player One trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVDE6-e96yY

[4] You can see some thinking about VR in higher education at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2016/3/the-promise-of-virtual-reality-in-higher-education

[5] This Ted talk, led by Michael Bodekaer looks at VR in  Science education https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_bodekaer_this_virtual_lab_will_revolutionize_science_class

[6] VR dinosaurs at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DLPWe5KHLY

 

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