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.
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.
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.
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.