Virtually Learning: 10 things to consider when developing an educational VR app

Steve Bambury talks developing apps for education.

It’s been great to see more and more educational VR content being launched over the last couple of years, across a range of platforms. However, whilst there are some fantastic apps out there that look great and clearly have had a lot of time and energy put into their development, I often find them lacking in two main areas. Firstly, the fact that some educational VR apps aren’t built on a solid pedagogical foundation. What I mean by this is that whilst some apps are built to be these awesome, jaw-dropping experiences, they do not function practically within an actual classroom environment or offer genuine learning opportunities. Secondly, I think that some developers do not give enough consideration to the fact that their end users are children and thus the way that they interact with digital media may be different to an adult.  

BETT 2018 - Microsoft Worldwide EducationVR developers will often reach out to me to test apps and provide feedback on their experiences, which is something I’m always happy to do. What I find is that I make a lot of common suggestions and so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share 10 key things to consider when developing an educational VR experience:

  1. The length of the experience

The school day is jam-packed and time is of the essence when it comes to planning a single lesson. The simple fact is that a lesson that integrates a VR experience will also include other activities. Perhaps the VR is used as a stimulus for a writing task, maybe it is being used as a virtual approach to a practical science experiment – whatever the case, there will be other elements to the lesson. As such, a VR experience that is too long will be far more difficult to integrate into a lesson plan. Shorter, more focused experiences will always be more practical for use in the classroom. Another consideration here is the impact of VR on children and whilst the data on this is still limited, most educators would not wish to have young learners inside VR for an extended period of time. I’ve come across some stellar educational content in my time that simply isn’t viable for deployment in the classroom as it takes far too long.

  1. The way information is conveyed

This is another common issue I come across. If the experience relies too heavily on in-app text, the accessibility level plummets. Depending on the reading level of the students, some may find the app difficult to navigate from an early point in the experience. It’s something I’ve spoken about during presentations on inclusion in the broader spectrum of EdTech. In general, a good approach is to apply a more language-neutral interface. You see this a lot in the core Apple apps – the use of common symbols to make navigation more intuitive. Taking this idea further would be the inclusion of multiple language options as a large proportion of VR content is solely available in English.

  1. The user interface

This idea builds upon the last one somewhat. An unescapable fact is that VR headsets make it harder for teachers to guide students if they are confused or lost since they cannot see their screen. As such if the overall UI is not simple, the teacher may end up in the frustrating position of having to take the headset from the student and help them navigate. Multiply this by a whole class of kids and you can see how this can quickly become an issue! Having a clean, child-friendly interface, with a shallow learning curve, is essential. Want to go further? Try incorporating some support functionality so that a student can get a reminder of what a certain button does or how to interact with an element in the experience.

  1. The age of the students who access your content

If you are developing content about a specific topic, do some research into what age groups cover that topic. For example, in British curriculum schools, the topic of Ancient Greece is often covered in KS2 (when students are around 9-11 years old.) I had to avoid integrating an excellent app themed around Ancient Greece last year as it contained full frontal nudity – not something an educator should be exposing students of that age to! Similarly, I’ve had to veto apps because the content was aimed too high (or sometimes too low) for a specific age group. I was asked to find a Haunted House experience to use as a part of a Year 7 English class (to support the writing of ghost stories) but most of the content I found was far too terrifying for kids that age. Which leads me to…

VR Education In School

  1. Child protection and esafety

Remember, as educators we are accountable to our students’ families so we always have to be careful what digital media content we are using in the classroom. VR is in its infancy and there’s no escaping the fact that some people are still wary of its effects so if content can be construed as inappropriate in any way, an educator would shy away from it. This could mean content like the Ancient Greece and Haunted House examples given above or simply content that links to social media platforms in some way. In the long term, the biggest issue will probably become the use of shared, multi-user worlds by students. Incidents of indecency and cyber-bullying have been evidenced in platforms like Minecraft and Roblox so the concerns will likely transpose.

  1. The authenticity of the content

Ensuring that the content within an educational VR experience is as authentic as possible is important is it is going to win over teachers. I’ve seen some wonderful examples of well-researched content that contains excellent levels of authentic detail but I’ve also seen examples where perhaps a little too much creative license has been taken. There have even been a handful of instances where I’ve seen key terminology spelt in correctly or mistaken facts! If you are developing an historical experience for use in a History classroom, you have to assume that the educator will be well-versed in the period being covered in the app. Ensuring that standards are high (i.e. you’ve done your homework and researched the content thoroughly) and the experience is as authentic as possible (e.g. it’s based on primary sources as in apps like Titanic VR) will make a more compelling case for its adoption in classrooms.

  1. Alignment to curricula

This is the other key area to ensure adoption rates are high. Wherever you are based, schools will have different curricula that they follow and potentially different standards or objectives that need to be met. Taking the time to verse yourself in these will mean that your experience is more carefully aligned to the needs of schools and will make it easier for them to quickly identify the potential benefits of adopting your platform.

  1. Content diversity

There are certain topics in the world of VR (and AR) education that are almost too common at this point, dinosaurs and outer space being prime culprits. Before developing a VR experience for use in the classroom, make sure that you’ve done some competitor analysis and checked out how many comparable apps already exist. If someone’s already covered a specific theme, that doesn’t make it impracticable but make sure that you’re approaching the content from a new angle or offering a unique experience. Conversely, there are several key areas of learning that are massively underserved and as such would potentially make for great themes for an open-minded developer (I’m still waiting for a great Viking VR app!)

Vikings: Beyond the Legend

  1. The level of student autonomy and activity

VR as a medium has the potential to elevate learning above traditional media consumption but for this to take place, the student needs to be actively engaged and have a greater degree of autonomy. Interaction is the key as it makes an experience less passive. This could mean giving the learner some form of locomotion, allowing them to highlight elements for more information or actually interacting with objects to facilitate changes in the experience. The level of technology being used as the vehicle for the VR experience will play a role here of course but even mobile VR can offer a fairly interactive experience if it is approached in the right way (just look at apps like Mars Walk VR or the Inspyro VR range.)

  1. The ability to demonstrate learning

This last point really is the missing secret sauce in the majority of VR experiences aimed at the education market. Very few VR experiences offer the ability for students to evidence learning without actually leaving the experience and completing an analogue task. Now there’s nothing wrong with doing things this way – it just means that the educator has to produce the means to let their students “show what they know” in another way. There are some apps which allow users to save and export their learning or demonstrate it in some form. Tilt Brush is a great example as it allows virtual artists to record and export images, GIFs and videos of a piece of work. Another impressive example is the integration of live quiz deployment directly within the Engage platform from Immersive VR Education, allowing social VR experiences like virtual field trips and lectures to be delivered to groups of students and then have them assessed right there in the app. It also means that data can be collated midway through a session to gauge the level of understanding and perhaps adjust the flow of the lesson.

So, there you go. Hopefully there were some ideas in there that developers find useful and perhaps hadn’t considered before. I’d also recommend reaching out to schools directly to forge partnerships and test-beds for your projects. Working collaboratively, we can elevate the VR education ecosystem even further as we head into 2019 and beyond.

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