Reality check

Sophie Beyer asks when will education adopt headsets and which will be their preferred reality; VR, AR or mixed?

Wearable devices have had a chequered history over the past few years, but the rise of Google Cardboard demonstrates education can see the benefits of headsets and virtual reality if the tech companies get the offer right. 

One million schoolchildren will have a VR experience on a Google Cardboard headset this academic year. The Expeditions programme has been a success so far: they hit their halfway mark in January and are well on their way to reaching their target.

VR is now offering education a range of exciting possibilities. However, for those who are sceptical about the benefits of VR the educational benefits are still unclear.

Different headsets offer a different experience. VR usually offers full immersion, great for engagement, but teachers could prefer a shared experience with ‘augmented’ or ‘mixed’ reality. 

Before VR is adopted wholesale, tech companies still need to address pressing issues such as cost and safety. A report from NAHT said that 85% of heads were considering restricting spending on equipment. In an era of reduced funding, most schools can’t justify huge outlay on devices that simply offer an engaging intro to a topic.

Where does VR fit in ethically and pedagogically?

According to Sarah Lima, senior associate in the TMT team at law firm Dentons, there are a variety of legal issues and ethical challenges ahead. Laws may struggle to keep up and existing laws designed for a non-virtual world will have to be applied in ways that were never foreseen.

Sarah says; “As gadgets interact with users in closer proximity, privacy is a major concern. Eye tracking, reaction times, ease of movement and facial recognition are all ways in which the VR/AR products interact with consumers, however, the data that is stored and processed may amount to sensitive personal data. A number of VR/AR applications focus on shared experiences, with repercussions for the sharing of user details including location with appropriate permissions. The changes in data protection and privacy laws as a result of the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union mean that the legal and financial consequences of data collection and sharing and privacy practices may be significant. Appropriate safeguards need to be in place and educational institutions will need to ensure that they choose their software, hardware and content providers with a view to their data protection practices. These may include the collecting of explicit consent, age gating and ‘privacy impact assessments’.” 

Graham Low, Deputy Head at the Centre for Excellence in Learning & Teaching at Birmingham City University has, like many, tried the headset demos. He said: “At the moment there is much ‘buzz’ around AR and VR. My personal view is that VR, in mainstream educational settings, is something of a solution looking for a problem. I’m struggling at the moment to see how VR fits in with what we know about the importance of social constructivist theories of learning. It seems to me to be an isolating experience. Conversely, I can see much potential for AR, in terms of layering additional information and content on the real world, at all levels of education. However, as both these technologies advance and mature, who knows what may happen?”

Take the plunge

Should schools adopt VR now? The headsets vary, so educators will need to think about their aims. Some are suitable for all ages, others for 13 years plus. Will teachers want an arresting intro to a new topic, or an in-depth experience such as dissection or experimentation without needing a lab?

Cost – one of the seeming drawbacks of VR – might be a benefit in an era of reduced funding. Sophie Bailey, from The Edtech Podcast puts forward an interesting benefit of VR in allowing access to expensive learning scenarios without the high outlay. She says: “VR is still an early stage technology and its translation into a pure-play educational product has yet to be seen. Whilst it is interesting as an engagement piece, some of the real potential may lie in its ability to increase access to expensive real-life environments such as science labs or medical simulation environments. To this effect, companies like NanoSimbox, and Labster are worth a peak. On the flip side, simple AR products like Curiscope or Blippar offer an ease-of-access for learning without the hardware necessary for VR.”

Google has developed a low-cost, immersive and shared experience that hundreds of thousands of children are trying for free. Cardboards are very cheap but they need a smartphone to operate, and many schools have invested in tablets, not phones.

Launched in December last year, Microsoft’s HoloLens offers education much of the functionality of a laptop and more as a wearable device. Microsoft say it is a fully self-contained head mounted holographic computer. It allows the user to interact in real time, and as the user is very much present in the room, so Microsoft prefers the term ‘mixed reality’. There is an education pilot, but it is not yet available for educators to buy, currently there is an untethered version being offered to developers for around £2,500.  

There are companies willing to enter the market with content and hardware packages that might appeal to schools, challenging the dominance of the huge tech companies such as FaceBook’s Oculus Rift, and Samsung’s Gear.

Veative Labs launched Veative VR Learn, the first all-in-one educational virtual reality (VR) headset at Bett 2017. The devices include 3D models, 360-degree videos, tasks, exercises, simulations and other interactive activities, all complemented by smart analytics and classroom management apps for teachers. Veative say the VR Learn is the first headset to include both a wireless controller and a built-in mobile device – eliminating the need for a separate mobile phone.  Ankur Aggarwal, CEO of Veative, says, “It’s a very exciting time for VR right now, [with] digitally savvy students along with teachers wanting to experience how technology can enhance learning. VR will expand very quickly in industry use and we’ll see the integration of some high-end hardware. This will bring low-end education with it very fast, and vocational training could be a channel that’ll utilise VR faster than academic education.”

Perception is reality

Children have quietly adopted VR for years now; many young people make sophisticated online worlds on games like Minecraft. 

Teachers can choose between an immersive VR experience or an augmented reality which enables easier interaction with students. And, of course, we have institutions adopting huge wraparound screens that put the students in a realistic scenario for role-play and training. 

Educators will test and try what suits their educational aims.

The tipping point might come when headsets are ubiquitous outside education, and when the content and functionality is more persuasive for teachers. Tech companies are working hard to appeal to schools, colleges and universities to ensure we reach that point sooner rather than later. 

HoloLens images used with permission from Microsoft


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