Virtual Reality: A whole new world

Alice Savage looks at the intrepid pioneers bringing Virtual Reality to classrooms near you

Imagine sitting on the edge of a rocky pool at low tide. Little fish dart in a glittering shoal and an anemone pulses lazily as the sun gently warms the salty water. Imagine staring at the night sky – a velvety canvas pierced with a million brilliant stars. The moon, a milky sentinel, watches you watch the colours of the aurora borealis. Now imagine being able to bring the distant corners of the world to your classroom, or bring history to life, or explore mathematics in three dimensions. Capturing the imagination of students is testament to the skill of the educator and now, with the advancement in technology, it will soon be possible to fire imaginations further with the application of new virtual reality (VR) technology in education.

Taking centre stage at many technology shows around the world, VR is starting to garner a lot of attention. Making the headlines recently is the news that the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift headset is now available for pre-order to the general public setting early adopters back around £500. The Oculus Rift however is not the only player in this highly competitive market, with technology heavyweights such as Samsung and HTC all working on different iterations of the iconic headsets that offer a complete audio and visual experience.

So what is VR? Virtual reality, virtual environments, and augmented reality are often used interchangeably, and while there are subtle differences the main aim of these experiences is immersion. At the cutting edge of VR software development is The Foundry, providing powerful products capable of compositing streams from multi-camera rigs and organising stereoscopic workflow. Chief Scientist, Simon Robinson, says “VR content can bring a new immersive dimension into the classroom. The sense of ‘presence’ gives an immediacy to an idea or a remote event or place that becomes tangible and memorable.”

Google Expeditions uses the Google Cardboard headset which users build themselves, and then run VR software from a mobile phone inserted into the cardboard frame

Dr Lynne Hall a Reader in the Department of Computing, Engineering and Technology at the University of Sunderland says: “VR offers the potential to completely immerse yourself in an unreal, synthetic environment… Headsets are not vital and people have immersed themselves in VR spaces on the screen for many years. However, it is likely that the experience will be enhanced by total immersion [as afforded by VR headsets].” 

Dr Hall is using VR technology to provide learning spaces to children from KS2 onwards. Her work includes teaching children how to respond to bullying and a major study into using VR to explore cultural differences in a safe environment. She says: “Virtual reality offers potential for experiential learning for social issues and skills. Users can practice in the virtual world before applying skills in the real world.” 

Dr Hall also has many other examples of where VR can be an asset to teachers, for example in enhancing the learning experience of history, dinosaurs, sites of historic significance, biology and space. 

Professor Liz Falconer, Director of the Education Innovation Centre (EIC) at the University of the West of England uses Second Life to run master’s and PhD modules on ‘virtual worlds’ taught entirely in a virtual world. Professor Falconer is excited by the teaching and learning opportunities that VR can offer and has seen a rise in students wishing to pursue research projects into applied VR. Working alongside the UWE Psychology Department, the EIC used funding from the Higher Education Academy to build a virtual counselling suite that students of clinical psychology could use as a training ground. The suite was populated with artificially intelligent bots that students could interview and then diagnose. For Professor Falconer, the benefits of VR to medicine are obvious: “It’s the intention to augment-real world experiences and to give people experiences that they can’t have in the physical world. It is just impossible to do some things, or it is unethical, or it is dangerous, and while students are learning you want them to practise, but you don’t want them to practise on real people because they could do real damage.” 

Professor Falconer has plans for other VR applications. Working with the Heritage and History Studies department at UWE, and with English Heritage and National Trust Professor Falconer is beginning to look at ways in which VR could be used to augment the experience of sprawling heritage sites. Her goal is to build a virtual social space where people can experience sites like Stonehenge or Avebury by walking around it virtually as an avatar interacting digitally, and experiencing sites as they may have been experienced at the time they were built.

Virtual reality offers potential for experiential learning for social issues and skills

Bringing worlds to life in the classroom is a Google Education initiative called Google Expeditions. The technology uses the Google Cardboard headset which users build themselves from a net printed on cardboard and then run VR software from a mobile phone inserted into the cardboard frame. Jeremy Williamson, a member of the Google Educator Group (UK) brought the project to ACS Hillingdon International School in West London where he works as Technology Intergrationalist. Students aged 9–14 were treated to a world tour that took in sights such as the Great Wall of China and the jungles of Borneo. Other lessons such as Science and Social Studies benefited from the technology as students were whisked across the solar system and to historic sites such at the Aztec temples and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Commenting on the use of VR in the classroom Mr Williamson said: “Virtual reality allows teachers to ‘take’ children to relevant environments, enabling either free exploration or directing them to particular aspects.” 

The rise of VR in the classroom is not without its problems. Traditionally the technology has been very expensive both at hardware and at software level. Thankfully this is no longer the case with many companies, like Google, who offer low-cost experiences and tools for teachers. VR headsets can be bulky, and have other problems such as causing motion nausea or eyestrain, though hardware providers are working hard to combat this with effective image stabilisation and proper usage guidelines. When asked about the negative sides of VR and if the technology was open to abuse, Professor Falconer said: “There are negatives in everything that humans create. We can decide what we do with it.”

The potential for VR in education is great. While the technology could never replace traditional teaching techniques it is certainly easy to see how it can be used to bring a new perspective on many subjects in a unique way.  Jeremy Williamson sums it up perfectly by saying: “Using VR alongside school curriculum means that students can learn about ideas and places conceptually, but are also able to virtually visit these places. This really contextualises their learning and, in many cases, gives an idea of scale and shape that cannot be gleaned from 2D images alone.” 

While we are a long way from rolling out VR technology to every school this is a very exciting time to be watching its progress. The only limits to the scope of VR are the limits of our own imaginations.