Virtual Reality Technology in Education: Reality or Fantasy?

Jun 14, 2017 10:16:40 AM Jacklyn Pi Education Technology

Technology has shifted and changed approaches to education, however, a few things have remained constant. Take for example a chemistry class. Students today will still conduct experiments measuring ion solutions in beakers and separating elements using a centrifuge. The only difference is now students are wearing VR goggles instead of safety goggles. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are new technologies that aim to provide students with authentic experiences without ever having to physically leave the classroom.

In the past few years, many gaming companies have expanded into the realm of education. Developers have begun to create new ways for students to engage in subjects like history, art, science, math, literature, etc. Companies like Nearpod and Google provide experiences to transport students to faraway places: the depths of the Great Barrier Reef, the crater ridden surface of Mars, the glorious step pyramid of Chichén Itzá, and the expansive floating laboratory of the International Space Station. Students are given the opportunity to gain a sense of time and space while they learn about historical events or read a work of literature. zSpace, another educational VR/AR company, has enabled students to dissect a frog, explore the anatomy of the human body, and build and test electrical circuits all on an interactive screen with special glasses.

Major proponents of using VR in education argue that coupling it with traditional teaching methods helps pique students’ curiosity and motivation. In a study conducted by Foundry 10, an education research organization, students who tried VR in school reported having increased motivation and gained new perspectives. Active learning stimulates mental activity and helps students retain more information. Students learn best from hands-on experiences and develop a greater interest when they feel as if they are involved in the process of learning.

New technologies like VR may prove to be more cost efficient and accessible in the long run especially for schools that lack sufficient funding for traditional chemistry labs or off campus school field trips. However, there still exists the initial hurdle of a fixed cost of VR equipment. For individual sets, VR hardware can range from $15 dollars (Google Cardboard) to $799 (HTC Vive). Simpler VR equipment merely utilizes a smartphone and a cardboard set of glasses while more advanced gear requires a high-performance PC, goggles, headphones, and remote controllers. As for classroom kits, prices range from $3999 dollars for 10 students to $9999 dollars for 30 students (THE Journal, 2017). These prices have drastically decreased from two years ago and in the future VR equipment is bound to become more cost-effective and accessible. The global edtech market is projected to reach $252 billion by 2020 of which VR will take up a large portion (EdTechXGlobal, 2016).

VR technologies remain a rare commodity in many U.S. classrooms. As mentioned before, cost is a major obstacle as well as unfamiliarity with the technology. According to a recent survey conducted in 2016 by the education nonprofit organization, Project Tomorrow, only 5 percent of classrooms across the country use VR/AR. This number increases slightly when mentioning high school science classes and computer science and technology classes (9% and 11% respectively). Only time will tell if VR/AR technology can be fully integrated into classrooms and accepted as another educational tool. Will VR/AR be the next Johannes Gutenberg printing press or the equivalent of an addicting texting device?

Links to VR Education Companies:

Check out these companies’ websites to find more details on the specific educational programs they provide.