Virtual Reality is not just another #EdTech toy

A core problem with trying to understand ideas and concepts is the requirement on the learner to translate words, pictures, and even video from a teacher, a book page, or website and imagine the true nature of what is being discussed. Even watching video is surrounded by distractions and requires the mind to interpret 2D movements on the screen as if they were in three dimensions.  Can one fully understand why people make certain decisions during events, if one never experiences the situation themselves? What if all learning of information, ideas, and concepts could be done in situ to directly contextualise the learning?  What if each learner was never troubled by the core challenge of having to translate theory to reality?

Wireless versions are already available.

This week we set up a virtual reality room in my school. We were only borrowing the equipment from Isometric Solutions in Auckland but I wanted to demonstrate to teachers the potential and opportunities that VR offers schools. At the beginning of the week my Principal quite rightly assumed I was just off to play with another tech toy but by the end of the week we had all realised that VR was quite different to other technologies we have introduced.

Unlike most technologies Virtual reality is an immersive experience. To be able to turn any classroom into a walk-around art gallery or the surface of Pluto are experiences no students, even the hardcore gamers, were prepared for. While one person wore the headset and entered another world, the class were able to see what the viewer was looking at and hearing on the room’s TV. What emphasised how different VR is was that after half an hour watching that TV, a student would still be blown away by the completely different experience of putting the headset on, suddenly being in that virtual place with wraparound vision and sound. Over 600 students trialled the VR and everyone exclaimed “Whoah!” or “OMG!” as the room instantly transformed.

I will assume you have used Google Earth and we all know VR is virtual and not real but this did not stop students getting on their hands and knees as they eased themselves closer to the cliff edge of the Grand Canyon. It only took 30 seconds before they’d almost forgotten they weren’t in Arizona and were being viewed by an audience of their peers. The shyest of 14-year-old girls was quite happy to move around waving lightsabers, flying around the world, or catching red blood cells in an artery, taken over by the experience with no thought of her peers’ reactions.

In a year or two it could be that classrooms have numerous headsets with the learners experiencing different environments depending on their own personal learning needs. As one student pushes their nose up against the paintwork of the Mona Lisa, the student next to them could be receiving an interactive lesson on the make up of the human eyeball. One big benefit of VR is it’s ability to instantly load and transform the learning environment. In comparison, one of my Principal’s reservations about new technology had been based on our not-so-successful experience with 3D printing which takes a long time and only a tiny number of students can benefit from in any one day. In contrast, multiple students were able to load their Google Sketch-up models, pick them up or walk around in them within one hour. Sculpting a 3m tall block of marble is not something schools can offer to every student but an artist workroom with virtual marble is available.

It maybe virtual but that does not stop it being immersive that even students who dislike the experience offered by conventional schooling can be absorbed by a true alternative . Virtual Reality offers schools opportunities that would be unachievable by other means. For the price of one high-level computer, any classroom can be transformed into any experience needed. An Australian school has already moved on to purchasing a headset for all class students to share the same virtual or augmented experience together. The experience is virtual but finally the learning seems real!

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