VR in the classroom – is it essential?

Dave Kenworthy, director of digital services at CoSector – University of London, argues that classrooms should be adopting solutions that could improve the learning experience for all

Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) have received a lot of attention. This hype has made its way to the education sector, and these emerging technologies have now become commonplace in the classroom of the future.

While it sounds revolutionary, how realistic is it that this vision will come to life in the near future and exactly as imagined? Is it worth the cost and resources it will take to implement it? A recent JISC report included a survey of more than 100 lecturers, researchers and learning technologists, which indicated that 82% of the respondents are ‘interested’ in VR or AR. But what really stood out for me when reading the wider report, is that there were no examples of how VR was actually being used or how these respondents were planning to use it in the future, which makes me question why we are pouring so much funding into a technology that’s very much wanted, but not altogether yet needed.

The challenges of VR

University IT departments are a long way from supporting the bespoke creation of VR experiences. They’re generally facing significant challenges in doing the more basic stuff. That being said, if you look at digital learning environments (DLE) 15 years ago, they were very much in the same position. It took a few lecturers with a real interest in the technology to develop it to a level where the university invested more heavily in growing their platforms.

As a rule of thumb, it’s best not to adopt technology whilst it’s still in its relative infancy, simply because it’s often expensive and there are still issues that need to be ironed out. iPhones are a key example of this – 12 years ago, when the first model was released, no one would have suggested that every student in a classroom should have one; they cost hundreds of pounds and no one knew how exactly they could be used to improve learning…

Further to this, the report suggested that rather than being widespread throughout organisations, immersive tech seems to be embedded in pockets, with 54% of respondents suggesting that if they have the tech, it’s mostly used in one or two departments, further indicating that there needs to be a better understanding of how VR and AR can positively impact education. In the HE and FE sector specifically, there are many issues that are preventing students from achieving their best results and having the most valuable experience during their time at college or university. The money that’s being poured into immersive headsets would, at this time, be better channelled into other areas of technology which will have far greater impact.

“University IT departments are a long way from supporting the bespoke creation of VR experiences”


Shifting investment strategies

Mobile technology is continuing to offer the opportunity for students to work remotely, and with a bit more investment, could flourish into something much more accessible. Digital assessment is in the early stages of development, but already we’re seeing great strides in online examinations, which has the potential to widen participation amongst underrepresented student groups. In terms of the bigger picture, the potential for technology to completely innovate the way we learn as a society is infinite.

Immersive technologies may or may not have a role in this. We may reach the stage where everyone has AR glasses, in the same way everyone has a smartphone, but it’s just not that inclusive for every student yet.

I can’t help feeling that if we fall too hard and too fast for immersive technologies in the education sector, we may see it become a solution without a problem.

You might also like: VR to boost distance learning at LSBF


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