The education industry has historically been a little slow to embrace new technologies. Although the Educational Technology (EdTech) space is quite large, finding traction in cash-strapped public schools especially as been difficult. Sometimes, though, a technology comes along that is so clearly a watershed moment that the whole world stands up and takes notice. Virtual reality is one such technology, and it’s making inroads into every aspect of education. From the top levels of higher education to amateur video tutorials, VR is quickly becoming a vital component of how we learn.
The specific applications of VR in the education space are too numerous to list. Even more opportunities exist to leverage augmented and mixed reality technologies. The potential is enormous, and new firms are dipping their toe into the water seemingly every day. The technology has attracted the attention of education industry thought leaders, and an enormous amount of creativity and energy is already directed at bringing VR to the classroom.
Of course, the classroom isn’t the only place people learn. 360° cameras are quite accessible and affordable these days, and that modern-day oral tradition, the YouTube tutorial, has very much taken to them. Everything from beauty tips to dog training guides can be found in a 360° format on the site, and the immersion and sense of presence added by the new technology makes them more effective than ever before. There are already many thousands of VR tutorial videos on the site, and more are added every day.
As far as the professional world goes, here are some of the most interesting applications of virtual reality in the education industry. The space is moving fast, and this is only a taste of what is possible.
Previously a repository of reviews of VR educational experiences and tutorials, startup firm Unimersiv has recently launched a virtual reality education app of their own. Available for Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR head-mounted displays, the app promises a new educational experience each month.
At the time of this writing, three experiences are available. Users can virtually travel to Stonehenge, the International Space Station, or inside the human body. Along with the ability to freely look around the environments, the app provides educational content in the form of narration, pop-up text, and images. All three experiences are well-written and developed, and provide a fascinating and very effective new way to learn about the various subject matters.
Unimersiv is committed to the promotion of VR as an educational tool, and at least the first three experiences are completely free to enjoy. The company is founded on the principles of education researcher Edgar Dale, who put forth the idea that the human brain “tends to remember 10% of what it reads, 20% of what it hears, but 90% of what it does or simulates.” Learning by doing has long been known to be one of the best ways to retain knowledge, but until the advent of VR, it was simply not feasible for most subjects. Magic School Bus aside, it is simply not practical to take a classroom around the world to different environments, much less to space. Until now, when virtual reality has given us the next best thing.
In the public school system, financial resources are often scarce. Purchasing decisions are made extremely carefully, and the budget for new programs and technologies do not allow much in the way of risk-taking and experimentation.
That’s why EdTech firm Nearpod has embraced virtual reality by employing on Google Cardboard, the ultra-low cost VR headset solution that relies on ordinary smartphones to provide a still-serviceable VR experience. Nearpod is currently in use in a number of public school districts around the country, and K-12 students at the participating schools enjoy virtual field trips all around the world.
Nearpod has created lesson plans ranging from the Egyptian Pyramids to the Great Barrier Reef, and even Mars. The tours are built from high-quality panoramic images with educational narration, text, and study materials added. Nearpod was built from the ground up to serve the public school sector, leveraging the experience and expertise of its founding members paired with the resources and guidance of several large venture capital firms.
Another startup, EON Reality is taking a very different approach to the educational space than Nearpod. Where Nearpod focuses on producing and supplying tailored VR experiences to the classroom, EON Reality prefers instead to “teach a man a fish”. They provide the tools for educators to create their own applications.
Using the EON Creator, educators can select from a vast selection of 3D models and place them within a virtual environment. Text or interactive elements, including content taken from online sources like Wikipedia, are added using simple scripting and drag-and-drop tools from within the virtual environment. The platform supports a wide array of specialized VR and AR hardware developed and deployed by EON.
Targeted at higher education and carrying a higher price tag, EON is leagues beyond Nearpod in its potential to create truly amazing experiences. Most impressive is the EON Idome, which utilizes a geodesic dome and specialized 3D projectors to create 3D illusions for up to 24 people in a dedicated room. The technologies employed by EON are bleeding-edge and enterprise-level, not meant for purchase by the average consumer. Nonetheless, they are well worth watching for anyone interested in virtual reality or technology in general. One truth about bleeding-edge technology is that it eventually finds its way to the consumer market in one form or another.
One of the most exciting aspects of virtual reality is its ability to bring people together, regardless of geographical distances. All of the experiences, tutorial videos, and learning apps that are appearing every day would work just as well whether the teacher and student are in the same room, or across the world from each other.
VR brings us another step towards a truly global society. A society in which knowledge can be freely shared regardless of physical distance, and in which people can learn from and understand each other no matter their circumstances in the real world. Virtual reality technology has the potential to transform education.
People learn better by doing, yes, but they learn even more important lessons by interacting with each other. By allowing people to interact with each other from across the world in a natural and fun way, virtual reality has the potential to truly make the world a better place.