Last week was a big one for me as it was the annual GESS Conference here in Dubai. GESS is the biggest educational conference in the Middle East and I’ve been involved with it for seven years now – from presenting to judging the GESS Awards (which I’ve actually won twice too!) This year was the biggest GESS ever for me though as I was asked to coordinate and host a whole VR stage for the duration of the event. With the support of the local HTC Vive team, I was able to put together a jam-packed schedule of presentations, panel discussions, Tilt Brush demos and more for what was an exhausting but incredibly rewarding event.
Of the nine presentations I delivered during GESS, one was on a different stage – the main GESS Arena stage. For this, I wanted to do something special but I also wanted to produce something tangible for attendees to walk away with. I had been toying with the idea of revisiting my “Why VR?” graphic from 2017 and updating/expanding it to bring it up to date a little and this seemed ideal. As such I revised some of the themes, added two additional ones (taking it from the original 8 to 10) and refurbished the look to produce this new graphic detailing what I feel are the 10 Key Benefits of VR in Education:
So for this month’s column, I want to dig into the ten themes from the graphic and share a little more detail about each. I’ll also provide a few example apps and experiences that educators can employ to experience each concept first hand.
An obvious place to start of course is the simple fact that VR breaks down geographical boundaries. For a school this can be priceless as it means that students can virtually visit places that are beyond their means in the real world – whether that be on the other side of the globe or even The Moon! The app that has made the biggest impact for me in this regard is probably Google Earth VR as it has allowed our students to traverse the entire planet as a part of an Explorers topic.
The Time Machine Effect
One of my favourite uses for VR in schools to integrate it in history classrooms to allow students to travel in time and experience the past first hand. From using Timelooper to witness The Blitz and The Great Fire of London to using Discovr Egypt to explore King Tut’s tomb, using virtual reality to break down the very walls of time is an incredibly powerful application of the technology in education.
This is my go-to point when asked about AR vs VR in education. The example I tend to give is that of learning about Ancient Greece and how an AR app may allow students to bring a Greek statue into the classroom but a VR app like Athenian Acropolis contextualises the learning by allowing the student to actually view the same statue in Ancient Greece.
Whilst tablets added touchscreen functionality to the multimedia experience of digital content, they don’t come close to the kinaesthetic experience afforded by virtual reality. Being able to move within a virtual space and engage with elements engages learners like never before. Just look at Hold The World for example where you manipulate fossils as Sir David Attenborough helps you understand more about them.
From lifting a car above your head to view it’s engine to painting with fire in Tilt Brush to simply using teleportation locomotion mechanics, VR allows us to break the laws of physics and in turn opens up new learning possibilities in the classroom. It can also serve to streamline a task that would take a student much longer in the real world, thus allowing more time for repetition or additional learning experiences.
A student within a VR experience is the master of their journey, with a great deal of autonomy in how they engage with the content. This starts with the simple fact that they are able to choose where to look but expands when you offer them experiences which are not on rails and allow them to explore freely. Titanic VR, for example, lets you explore the wreckage whilst Engage includes spaces like Ancient Avebury and the surface of Mars. If a class of students are allowed to explore these virtual spaces, they don’t need to “stick with the group” and thus can direct their own flow of information and learning.
On the original graphic this was “The Empathy Machine” – named as per Chris Milk’s famed TEDx presentation where he infamously referred to VR as the “Ultimate Empathy Machine.” I am a firm believer that VR can be used to foster empathy and have seen it in action with our students first hand. I felt that “Machine” implied automation though and to quote Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab – “There is no medium that magically produces empathy.” As such, I switched to “Empathy Agent” last year.
This concept is really gathering steam in the training industry as well as L&D departments across a variety of industries. Using VR to practice and hone skills without fear of failure is incredibly powerful and can help students build confidence in new areas of learning. This could mean using VirtualSpeech to practise public speaking or Victory VR’s excellent Frog Dissection app to develop skills in the Biology classroom (potentially saving a lot of money in the process!)
This is somewhat of a logistical factor but does bear mentioning. The very nature of VR being framed inside a headset means that the learner is less prone to distractions in their physical surroundings. For some students this can be immensely beneficial as they may be prone to distraction leading to loss of focus and ultimately loss of learning. The immersive nature of VR means that learners are literally engulfed with learning and this, in turn, is a key factor in the retention of information.
This is what we start to see a lot more of this year I believe. Students using VR to connect with other students as well as attend lectures and lessons delivered by educators across the globe. Multi-user, social VR platforms like Engage, AltSpace and more will become thriving hubs for educational content as the entire concept of what a school is and can be begins to morph into something truly new. I’ll come back to this idea in a future article…
So there you are – 10 benefits of VR in Education. Hopefully, some educators around the world can use this as a stimulus to encourage VR adoption in their institutions and maybe even a few developers will be inspired to start work on some amazing new educational content! Please feel free to share the graphic and do reach out if you have any questions, suggestions or feedback.