Is virtual reality the next big thing for education?

The potential benefits of VR-based learning are manifold

As teaching continuously seeks to become more interactive and immersive, it is not hard to envision virtual reality as one of the key edtech trends for 2016. Not only is the VR market expected to grow to a $15.9 billion industry by 2019, the focus is expected to shift away from the traditional gaming arena and into the educational sphere. As a concept that is essentially built on enhancing human interaction and bringing people together regardless of location, the potential benefits of VR-based learning are manifold.

One particular project leading the way in virtual reality for the classroom is Google’s Expeditions Pioneer Program, which is currently visiting selected schools around the world. Launched in September last year and continuing throughout 2016, the program provides smartphones, tablets, and Google Cardboard VR viewers, as well as a team of Google experts to demonstrate how the virtual reality platform works. Built for the classroom, Expeditions takes students on a virtual journey that would, financially and logistically, be otherwise impossible, incorporating not only faraway destinations such as the Great Wall of China, but also simulating voyages to extraordinary places like the deep sea or outer space.

When tailored to the curriculum and the students’ particular area of study, virtual reality field trips enable teachers to truly bring their subject matter to life, presenting the opportunity to fully engage in the content and nurture deeper understanding through the pupil’s own first-hand experience. 

The potential for VR-based learning is, however, not simply limited to content. The geographically independent nature of this technology is such that, in theory, students could participate in virtual excursions with other pupils from anywhere in the world, bringing an entirely new dimension to peer-to-peer engagement. As well as enabling a shared experience, virtual field trips present unique opportunities for interaction beyond the virtual journey itself, providing a common discussion point for pupils across a vast range of economic, social and cultural backgrounds. Teachers can utilise this shared experience to encourage communication beyond the students’ immediate environment, by inviting them to write about and share their thoughts on the virtual trip, for instance.

When moderated correctly and with input from an entire classroom, for example, an online blog is an effective tool for fostering cross-cultural interaction. With secure webspace available from providers like 1&1, cultivating a web-based project that can be accessed from any location is relatively simple, making it easy for students across the globe to be part of a safe, collective and educational online community.

Virtual reality may also prove to be highly valuable in the transition from education into the business world. At the USA’s International Society for Technology in Education 2015 conference, keynote speaker and broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien highlighted the role that VR technology could play in helping students to pursue the right career path. By enabling them to “test drive” different vocations, virtual reality has the potential to broaden students’ horizons and, ultimately, equip them with the insight they need in order to make informed career choices. 

With projects such as those being led by Google, and a growing number of companies focusing on providing schools with the content and tools needed to implement VR-based teaching, it seems that virtual technology may indeed find its place in the classroom in the not too distant future. Virtual reality has the potential to transform many different elements of the classroom, enhancing the way in which students acquire and engage with knowledge, but also fostering cross-cultural interaction that surpasses geographical and social boundaries.

Virtual reality also enables students the world over to participate in culturally enriching and transformative experiences, regardless of financial means and mobility. As with any innovative educational technology, virtual reality does not represent an alternative to teaching; rather, it presents an opportunity for pioneering teaching methods that can be adapted and led by the teacher in order to best suit the needs of the class.