With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators and school boards began exploring ways to approach online learning and stay connected with their students. While many of these virtual experiences and distanced classroom tools aren’t completely new to the education industry, this period of crisis compelled administrators and teachers to learn more about VR, explore its versatility, and experience for themselves how effective it can be in the classroom.
Virtual education through VR was a popular tool prior to the worldwide lockdown. Teachers have noted how presenting information in VR versus traditional methods like lectures, powerpoints, or textbooks, allow students to digest and understand the material quicker and more thoroughly. Specific places, moments in history or complex systems like the human body become more real and new information about these topics is no longer abstract.
Like any tool, however, how VR is used in the classroom to greatest effectiveness is the next question – while we can inherently understand the value of being immersed in a topic of study, the experience of VR can be an isolating one. Using this technology in education must come with its own process to be fully integrated into the curriculum.
Keep it Student-Centered
VR learning works best when information or story-based learning is presented from a first-person perspective. Since VR targets the user’s audio and visual learning centred experiences feel like you’re present and have a first-person perspective, allowing students to relate to the content more and to take in information from their own perspective. With using these capabilities in education applications, students are able to see topics that are covered in the syllabus with better context. There’s also an opportunity to explore concepts that would be either too expensive to demonstrate in class. This may mean witnessing science experiments that are too dangerous or expensive to reproduce, exploring biology and body systems in detail that would be impossible for most public schools, or witnessing daily customs from remote locations in a social studies course that brings the world to life without leaving the classroom.
Pay Attention to the Sequence
Experienced teachers know that whether they are with the same students in a classroom all day or seeing different groups for specific classes, timing and order of lessons are an important part of the curriculum and how it is received by students. For longer classes, you may notice that sometimes your student’s attention may drop off close to the middle portion of the class. There have been psychological studies on how people can recall information better when it’s presented towards the beginning and end – known as the Serial Position Effect. If you tend to notice your student’s attention starting to drift around halfway through the lesson, following the format of having more challenging concepts presented in the beginning, transitioning into VR learning, and recapping everything at the end could keep them focused and engaged with an exciting yet informative experience.
VR allows students some time to focus, blocking out the classroom and its distractions and can reinforce concepts introduced not only by being immersive but by being individually paced, viewed by a single person in a headset. However, since it can be an isolating experience, and monitoring multiple students’ headsets at once may be challenging, in-person re-caps and discussions about the content can round out the lesson.
Give Opportunities to Collaborate
The idea of discussing what was witnessed in VR brings us to another key part of using this media in the classroom – learning to hold discussions around something that may have been viewed individually and extract a group experience. Although the teacher is the main leader of discussions in the classroom, peer learning can be just as effective in nurturing a student’s understanding of a subject. This informal way of teaching and learning not only helps students practice and review what they have just learned, but it creates an active learning space where they can slowly build up their confidence with the content. While VR may sometimes get a bad reputation for being isolating, there are countless opportunities to make it collaborative. This could take the form in completing a group project inside a virtual environment or allow students to take turns in the space and come back together for a discussion. Plus, especially for classrooms still doing remote learning, virtual environments provide the perfect platform for students to still meet and work together regardless of the location.
Integrate VR with What You Already Use
VR is an incredibly powerful tool, one that can really transform the future of learning. However, for some of the reasons already discussed, and its cost and the logistical challenges of monitoring headset activity, we anticipate it being used in certain situations and covering certain topics in a limited way. A common misconception when it comes to VR applications is the need to rewrite whole curriculums and syllabuses in order to accommodate using the technology. But the beauty of VR is that it can be shaped, moulded, and work alongside the topics and assignments already created. VR should ultimately be used as an enhancement to existing content and an opportunity to explore what might seem impossible to view – but it will never be able to cover all topics – some things are better discussed and experienced in person. Tools used in the classroom should ultimately provide added value and support to the class.
Keep it Fun!
VR is new enough that most people haven’t used it extensively. The best practices are evolving for this new media, so acknowledging that the best laid plans may go awry is part of adding this to the classroom. Experiences may take different amounts of time than were allotted, or students may be so interested in the format they need to repeat the experience to take in the content. So don’t forget that the entertainment and fun value are part of the tool. Much like when computers were first introduced to the classroom, along with the software they were running, they provided an education in learning something new, and engaging with a new tool as part of the learning challenge. Most of the educational applications for VR present subjects and information in a game-like manner, making it much more enjoyable to learn about subjects that can sometimes be a little dry or boring. Like many adults, students probably need a few minutes when they begin a VR experience to just look around and take it in before diving into content, so be sure to build in time for exploration. Most hardware headsets are pretty intuitive, requiring only seconds to learn so that shouldn’t be a barrier.
Virtual Education – The Next Generation of Learning
While most educators haven’t had the opportunity to get well acquainted with VR, the benefits for students to be immersed and see what would otherwise be impossible should make the technology a game-changer in education. It’s time to start exploring solutions that go beyond lengthy textbooks and pixelated diagrams. When virtual education has been carefully thought out and done right, it can make a world of a difference in helping students understand concepts and theories immediately.