From hands-on to headset-on: how VR will transform education

By Dr Sylvia Pan and Dr Marco Gillies from Goldsmiths, University of London and creators of the Coursera Virtual Reality Specialisation

Virtual reality is expected to be the next big thing that will revolutionise our lives, from the way we work and learn to how we play. The gaming industry has been one of the first to adopt the new technology and, while it has not fully crossed into the mainstream, we are now seeing the first uses in many other areas, such as engineering, medicine and education.

This is just the beginning. With headset and software technology advancing, the cost of the hardware will continue to come down in the coming years, allowing more sectors to harness the power of VR. Its uses will not be limited to creating new environments, with developers able for the first time to explore recreating social interactions in a way that does not work on screen.

Stepping inside an immersive 3D environment, you can interact with people around the world as if they are right next to you. Such virtual interactions make it easy not only to identify who is speaking, but also have a real-time feedback on how others respond to what you are saying. It is mainly the possibility to show facial expressions and employ body language that will make the technology thrive.

Engineers and manufacturers increasingly utilise the technology to better collaborate on design projects, while salesforces use it to train for better customer-service interactions, and even company retreats and team-building exercises can be hosted in virtual environments.

In the education sector, creating virtual classrooms and lecture halls is the obvious use when people think about virtual reality, although this is unlikely going to be the revolutionary change we expect from the technology. Watching a lecture in VR appears to add very little to the same experience delivered through other forms of online learning.

Dr Sylvia Pan and Dr Marco Gillies

Where the power of virtual reality for education really lies is in creating opportunities to directly experience a situation that otherwise be impossible for a student in real life. These experiences might be too expensive, potentially dangerous, or completely imaginary.

Back in the 90s, Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers in virtual reality, envisaged how students could learn chemistry by “being a molecule” and experience how molecules interact with each other. Fast forward to the present time, students in some science classes can now take a tour of the solar system using VR apps and others are visiting museums without leaving the classroom.

For example, schools in Baltimore, Maryland are experimenting with integrating virtual reality with lesson plans to offer students immersive experiences more memorable than working with textbooks. Students can, for example, go on a virtual field trip down the Amazon and take photos of the wildlife along the way, which are then used in the classroom to talk about what they saw.

One of the most prominent educational applications is Google Expeditions. Google has partnered with elementary schools to provide over 100,000 virtual reality headsets and lesson plans. Teachers in these schools can now take their pupils to explore a range of environments, from collar reefs to the surface of Mars. The latest development, self-guided tours, also allows teachers to assign tours as homework and students can explore faraway places on their own.

‘We may still be at the dawn of the technology, but it is only a matter of time before VR hardware becomes easily affordable.’

The applications of VR in schools and universities are seemingly endless. Schools for pupils with special educational needs are trialling therapeutic exercises using virtual reality technology, universities are using augmented reality platforms to offer virtual campus tours to prospective students, and more medical schools offer aspiring healthcare professionals virtual hands-on opportunities.

Virtual anatomy classes allow students to explore the human body earlier in their studies than might normally be possible, due to the costs and difficulties associated with having a cadaver lab. Virtual dissection tables also present the opportunity to investigate the body in ways previously impossible, and in a much more engaging manner than sitting in a lecture hall with up to 400 other students watching a PowerPoint presentation.

The technology, of course, has its uses beyond formal education to develop specific skills, and we already see medical professionals employing VR to train doctors faster and less expensively. However, at the moment, it is not only the cost of the hardware that is slowing the adoption rate among schools and universities; we are facing a shortage of high quality content, in particular bespoke educational and training programmes.

To realise the full potential of virtual reality in transforming the way we learn, the industry needs to focus on up-skilling content producers and re-skilling those who are curious to learn about virtual reality programming. Courses are available for individuals looking for an introduction to the subject and some are even suitable for people with no technical expertise.

The future of virtual reality in education is very exciting and full of potential. We may still be at the dawn of the technology, but it is only a matter of time before the hardware becomes easily affordable and there is enough immersive and impactful content. After that, education will be only one of many areas that will undergo radical changes.