Facing (Virtual) Reality: Expanding Education to the Digital World

Walking down the hallway of the elementary school in Brighton where my 4Boston volunteer group spends each Tuesday afternoon, my group mates and I could feel the end-of-class energy reverberating off the walls of each classroom we passed. The sounds of laughter, playful taunting, and squeaky sneakers all harmonized to form the familiar background music of our afternoons at St. Columbkille. It was our first day back of the school year, and we braced ourselves for the controlled mayhem we had come to expect from our few hours there each week.

“Reality” Sets In

As we turned the corner towards our classroom, the soundtrack of giggling and banter crescendoed into full-fledged screams of joy. Anticipating a room of second grade sprinting and sparring, we were instead shocked to find thirty-five seven-year-olds sitting squarely at their desks. A sea of black and red boxes stared back at us and waved as heads bobbed up and down with the weight of virtual reality headsets on their small faces. The sea was loud. “I’m DROWNING!” one of them yelled. “You’re fine,” responded their teacher, Ms. Coneraad, who was controlling the destination of the virtual “trip” from an Insignia Tablet. She had sent them snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef—an experience I recently traveled halfway around the world and paid a pretty penny for. Ms. Coneraad introduced us to the new after-school club known as “Digital Imaging”, where students could (virtually) see the world for an hour before beginning their nightly homework. It was easily the most popular activity of the afternoon, and how could it not be? Just moments after exploring the depths of Australia’s coral reefs, the students were in the rainforest of the Congo, watching a Gorilla find food for its young child.

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Exploring the Virtual Reality Frontier

Virtual reality tools, such as those utilized in Ms. Coneraad’s class, are forming an exciting new method of education—one that fully integrates digital technology into every day curriculum. The trend of meshing teaching and technology, although not new, has gained particular speed in recent years. Since 2012, startups centered on virtual reality have raised more than $1.46 billion in venture capital. Google has created virtual reality education software known as Google Expeditions, the program being used in Ms. Coneraad’s class. The software allows students to visually explore foreign countries, diverse landscapes, historical landmarks, and even other planets to better assist their understanding of class concepts. The Expeditions application itself is free to teachers through the iTunes store, though the school must provide funding for the physical virtual reality goggles. Nearpod, the company that partnered with Google to create the software and accompanying cardboard virtual reality goggles, additionally provides instructors with lesson plans and assessments to supplement the students’ virtual reality experience. The company has further committed to their vision by providing over $100,000 in grants to public schools that cannot otherwise afford the goggles and lesson plans. Ms. Coneraad herself applied for and received this grant, and expressed her gratitude by deeming both the product and company “amazing”—a word I had not previously heard her use once in my three years at St. Columbkille.

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Changing Cognition: The Positives and Negatives of Virtual Reality

As virtual reality is slowly being introduced to schools nationwide, many are debating the benefits of including this technology in daily studies. A study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign identified four major benefits to utilizing virtual reality in teaching, which are summarized as follows:

  • Motivational Value—VR tools can spark a newfound interest for students to engage in the learning environment.
  • Transfer of the learning environment—the “field-trip” experience of virtual reality simulates a hands-on experience without students ever having to leave the classroom.
  • Different (novel) perspective—students are allowed to, quite literally, look at the material in a different way that may allow them to better grasp the concept.
  • A “natural” interface—virtual reality creates a platform from which students can divulge information with less cognitive effort than typical learning tools (yes, even digital tools such as computers) necessitate.

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These benefits are quite logical and seem to be driving the excitement surrounding virtual reality—an industry that is expected to grow to $15.9 billion by 2019. Despite this, some caution educators about the method by which they introduce VR tools to their classrooms. Although it highlighted the potential benefits of VR education, that same University of Illinois study raised concerns about the effect of the technology on student cognition. They cited a previous study (along with several others), which found that 3D perspectives in learning, while beneficial for short-term retention, created no change for students in the long run. Many worry that the technology will thus negatively affect the learning experience, and continue to drive youth attention and retention rates downward. The decibel level in Ms. Coneraad’s classroom, though cause for educator excitement, seemed to support this claim—students were asking for a change of VR scenery nearly every five minutes, if not sooner.

Overall, the trend of incorporating both virtual and augmented reality in education seems to be rapidly gaining traction at both the private and public school level. If I learned anything from my afternoon in Digital Imaging, it is that the audible excitement in a classroom with virtual reality is nothing compared the groans and complaints when the reality of homework comes rearing its ugly head an hour later.

9 comments

  1. Incredibly good post. Very informative and new. I have read a lot about VR but nothing related to its educational applications. I do not have a lot to comment on the topic, since I don’t posses the knowledge. But I would say that the possibilities that the VR has in a short future in terms of expanding the pedagogical frontier are quite extensive, however I fear that the market is going to be developed by the private sector and very little public founds are going to be destined to introducing this thechnology into schools.
    How many companies are we going to see following the example of Nearpod? I fear that they will be few, I fear that this kind of learning will become a luxury.

  2. emilypetroni14 · ·

    Cool post. Virtual and augmented reality are both here to stay and will only become better and more accessible to the masses in time. I never considered classrooms using it for teaching, but what a great way to bring experiences to the classroom instead of the other way around. The devices are sure to pique children’s curiosity and creativity.

  3. Very interesting post. Virtual field trips could really expand on the experiences all students can get access to. It will be up to the educators to make sure the content is rich and informative though – this could easily become a distraction versus a learning tool.

  4. olearycal · ·

    I think using VR for underprivileged schools is a great idea. I do however wonder how they would be able to afford the technology. The cardboard viewer wouldn’t be much but they would need a smartphone of some sort to accompany it. In terms of the decreasing attention rates, I don’t believe you can look to VR as a single cause. Imagine standing in any one place and just turning around. The experience is definitely cool but you want to move around more. I think the children’s need to switch locations every five minutes would be any person’s reaction. I think this tool could really ignite some passions for children if they saw the Great Barrier Reef and became interested in sea life or saw the Great Wall of China and became interested in their culture.

  5. mashamydear · ·

    The developments in virtual reality have been exciting, but I can’t help but wonder about the ceiling VR faces when it comes to education– especially elementary school. I can see the Nearpods being utilized in an extracurricular activity after school like your story or perhaps in natural and social sciences when studying the world and biology, but fundamentally I think children learn best from books and instructors. I think Google should focus on graduate students, perhaps simulating surgeries for medical students or something along the lines of that. Echoing the thoughts of the comments above me, I think this would also make more sense in terms of private institutions having the money to invest in this high-tech. Overall, great blog post– super interesting to read about your personal experience in a growing industry.

  6. VR in the school systems is a very interesting topic for sure. I know there will be many advocates for this new technology because tradition schools in the last 50 years have been traditional. Changing the classroom environment and setting will allow students to learn in different, innovative ways. You mentioned a potential negative impact of this technology is shorter attention rates, but I believe that this is impacted from many different aspects of life today. This includes the speed and amount of information we receive on a daily basis.

    Overall, very informative article and I will be curious to continue to monitor the impact this technology has on schools.

  7. Yes, I’m excited about how VR can change educational opportunities. Of course, I’ve been hearing about the promise of VR for 20 years, so I still take it all with a grain of salt. I think it will be more challenging than most imagine.

  8. ikechukwu_28 · ·

    I never thought about VR being implemented within a educational setting. Doing so would definitely change the game. However, I’m with prof Kane; The benefits of VR has been talked about for quite some time, and getting it to be the norm will prove to be difficult in my own opinion.

  9. I never even considered VR being implemented in a school. But, if it was schools would be able to brring their students to places that people had never even considered. I personally wish my school had this, because it would allow me to see places of the world that I could have never imagined otherwise. In conclusion, if schools can afford VR i think they should buy them, and give their students a chance to explore parts of the world they can not even comprehend.

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