USING VIRTUAL REALITY TO ENRICH LEARNING

Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, haptic feedback; the line between these and many other technological realities is becoming blurred and they are beginning to be grouped under one umbrella term: artificial reality. But what is artificial reality and how can it be used effectively in the classroom?

The Current technology landscape

With the launch of Google Cardboard Headset in 2014 at the Google I/O and the Oculus Rift taking Kickstarter by storm, the world suddenly started paying attention to this technology that had been around for decades yet had failed to be commercially viable.

As Google was breaking new ground and pioneering the Google Glass, an augmented reality solution, the Oculus Rift research and development team progressed to something quite special, releasing the Oculus Rift Headset. This was followed by the HTC Vive ,which uses the Steam platform, and by the Microsoft HoloLens. Who could forget the GearVR, Google Daydream headset and other cheaper headsets that allow you to use your mobile device to immerse yourself?!

In no time at all we have jumped from lots of failed pioneering attempts to penetrate the market, to a serious and arguably revolutionary step in technology provision that schools are now taking seriously as a classroom resource. Devices range from simple lumps of plastic with no electronics, to the more intricate and powerful home set-ups like PlayStation VR. You can even pick up a cheaper headset in supermarkets and mobile phone shops for around £70.

Yet the technology is still evolving. There is an abundance of 360-degree videos and thousands of apps, but in my opinion all these devices have a little way to go before they are genuinely useful in the classroom. The cost is prohibitive and the set-up a little clunky. There is not a device out there which does not have a significant constraint attached for school acquisition and inclusion in the curriculum.

The price is still quite high for just one device and ideally a class needs more than one to be effective. While you can watch on a large screen what someone else is experiencing on Google Earth VR or the Tilt Brush by Google art platform, it soon loses its novelty if you have a large cohort.

The cheaper headsets still require quite powerful phones to make them work, so either the students have to use their own mobiles or the school is obliged to buy a set – and since there is no way to manage a set from a central point, each phone needs to be set up individually.

Progress has been swift however, moving away from phones to peripheral devices like handheld controllers and sensors, giving a whole new feel to the artificial reality experience. Using the more expensive and advanced hardware requires you to have transmitters and receivers on the walls and many wires rung between the kit, but the immersive experience is sensational.


How to introduce VR to lessons?

We are moving away from simply ‘learning’ a subject or topic to ‘feeling’ the content. This is not simply an engagement tool or a gimmick, it allows a student to explore, to experience or to be involved in something, as if they are actually present in that environment or place.

At Sevenoaks School we are fortunately able to spend a lot of time researching these technologies, experimenting with their uses and sharing our findings with other teachers and other schools to further progress use of technology in classrooms. We are frequently asked which are the best devices, what we do with the software in classes, and how this improves learning.

My answer is always the same – artificial reality is a tool for the classroom teacher of any subject, it gives the professional educator another avenue to explore with learners. It can be an effective new way to engage those that struggle, or it can just provide another opportunity to engage with a variety of learning styles.

Sometimes it is easier to see and hear something than have it explained to you, and occasionally students just need to be taken out of a classroom environment and dropped into an immersive world; where they can watch dinosaurs walk around them, experience a performance at a West End theatre or in a concert hall, or live stream with other students around the world in VR social spaces. The list of apps being generated is dramatically and quickly growing, and with every new piece of software, another avenue for learners opens up.

The technology itself offers huge scope for product design, electronics, coding and design. Understanding how it works, using their creativity to make their own software for the devices or recording their own 360 degree videos with a cheap 360 camera.


What’s next for VR in education?

Google, as ever, has stepped up to the plate with a terrific solution for schools called Google Expeditions which allows teachers and students to take ‘immersive virtual journeys,’ such as exploring coral reefs or the surface of Mars in an afternoon. Google will also be offering VR training to teachers to show how this technology can be used in a variety of ways to enhance literacy.

The teaching of personal and social skills with regard to immersive technology will be equally important as our social media space gradually changes too, further breaking down the barriers of location and communication.

Schools should pay attention to the birth of this technology, watch its continuing evolution and plan effectively for incorporation in the curriculum – it is not far off. With school planning budgets almost a year ahead, the next few months will be essential; I believe that within the year there will be a suitable classroom solution.

We feel certain that this technology has a distinct and unique part to play for learners of the future. Sometimes a little bit of awe and wonder is what we need to make lessons memorable.

Graeme Lawrie is Director of Innovation and Outreach at Sevenoaks School.