Even as we push science and technology in our schools, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show no change in science scores for twelfth graders from 2009 – 2015. Math scores rose between 1990 – 2003, but they remained relatively steady from 2003 – 2013 and then declined in 2015. While scores can give us an indicator of performance and trends, our education system needs an infusion of fresh ideas and a willingness to try something new. If we’re going to stop stagnant or backwards trends, we need to consider radical changes.
What if we could excite students’ imaginations without increasing teacher student ratios?
Or afford field trips to the best museums in Paris, archaeological sites in Egypt, rain forests in Brazil, or even a trip to the moon?
What if we could introduce students to diverse cultures no matter where they live?
Allow them to experiment with chemicals, advanced mechanics, even dangerous job-training scenarios with no risk to themselves or others?
What if they could learn foreign languages from native speakers, attend discussions with Nobel prize winners, or study mathematical concepts in a 3D environment?
Actually, all of this is possible now. Literally it is just becoming possible with the introduction of accessible, affordable, immersive virtual reality.
Many of the biggest problems facing public schools today can be overcome with virtual reality. While it obviously won’t fix every issue, the technology goes a long way towards solving chronic challenges in education and also igniting a passion for possibility in students.
One issue we have in modern society is that we have students who are content to simply exist. They’re trained from preschool to follow directions, stand in line, raise their hands, etc. There’s nothing wrong with those things since they’re necessary to maintain order of the masses, but at the same time we are squishing children’s natural curiosity, taking away their motivation to do anything other than the bare minimum (pass a test, finish a project, etc.), and – worse yet – eliminating the possibility that the world is full of potential just waiting to be unlocked.
Virtual reality is meant to enhance real life, not replace it.
Below are some of the biggest challenges we’re facing in public schools and how virtual reality could help alleviate or solve these problems.
Due to budget cuts and other factors, many classrooms are bursting at the seams, with many more students than the optimal recommendations for particular grade levels (18 students through grade three; 22 students in grades 4 – 8; and 25 students in grades 9 – 12).
The basic issues with large groups of students revolve around teachers feeling overwhelmed, not being able to maintain crowd control, some students aren’t engaged, and keeping up with monitoring the work of that many students.
Virtual reality would solve every one of these issues.
Even in a classroom with 28 high school aged students, if half of those were engaged with the teacher and the other half using immersive learning options available in virtual reality, this would allow the teacher to focus on students who might need more guidance with particular topics. It would definitely enable both groups to be more engaged. Many educational programs already exist and I’m sure more will come that will enable students to log into personal accounts so teachers can easily check their individual progress.
Educational institutions are beginning to realize that students might actually have more access to technology than they do. This has resulted in many schools incorporating technology in the classroom, such as allowing students to bring their own laptops, tablets, and even smartphones to complete tasks. We’ve also learned how to use the Internet for research, training, and other educational purposes in educational settings.
Virtual reality is the next stage of evolution in this process. Rather than looking at a screen and reading the latest research data about weather patterns or watching a video of nature studies, students can actually enter the environments and learn with the oldest method possible: hands-on experience.
Benefits of Virtual Reality
Although it might seem like a bit of an oxymoron to call virtual reality a hands-on experience, the immersive VR experiences now available absolutely make you feel like you’re observing ocean animals on a deep sea dive, building an automobile motor, taking a tour of the Hoover Dam, visiting Saturn, and so on.
Isn’t this what we’ve always wanted for our students? Shouldn’t the goal of education be to make the world more accessible to them?
Speaking of accessibility, I think virtual reality is the greatest advancement ever created to give greater access to the world regardless of someone’s physical or other limitations. The immersive experiences can be enjoyed on any level – from someone who has no use of their limbs to people who wouldn’t be able to safely experience physical activity in real life to someone with autism who isn’t comfortable speaking with others in person.
It’s not all going to be plastic. Today, virtually everyone loves everything about VR, which accounts for the magnitude of its success. But the technology continues to evolve at a breakneck speed. One focus of technological advances related to VR is the engineering and design of the headset. Expectedly, there are ultra high-tech and complicatedly designed headsets out there. But some tech wizards have taken it one step further, thereby making it way more accessible to everyone. Now, there are tutorials about making VR headsets out of pieces of cardboard. Not only has this opened a plethora of possibilities for VR, it has gotten people to think in creative ways to upsize their experiences.
The list is endless. I meet people in virtual reality who are not only amazed, but they sincerely feel like it’s one of the greatest gifts that has ever been bestowed on them. VR opens worlds to people that were previously inaccessible.
Bullying / Inclusion
One only has to look up the number of suicides associated with bullying to see that this trend has increased with the growth of the Internet and social media sites. In virtual reality, users have the opportunity to customize their avatars, choose their gender in some situations, even disguise their voices if they so desire. While I don’t necessarily advocate all these things (I greatly dislike voice changers), the point is that people can be who they want in VR.
Students can experiment with various identities in a safe environment and even when they’re in social areas, they are in charge of what to share or not share – unlike the traditional school setting where they might become a target if they are different in any way. Virtual reality offers an opportunity to promote inclusion and simultaneously allow students to learn in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable since that’s simply not always possible in real life, despite our best efforts.
Obesity is at record high levels with 18.5% of children considered obese in 2015-2016, according to The State of Obesity 2018: Better Policies for a Healthier America . The main causes of obesity in young people are unhealthy dietary behaviors and physical inactivity.
While virtual reality might not help with the unhealthy dietary behaviors, definitely it exchanges seated, sedentary behavior or interaction with technology with physical activity as they interact in immersive virtual environments.
Recommendations for VR in the Educational Setting
There are a variety of virtual reality products, but some will work better for the educational setting.
Although it won’t be released until spring 2019, I’ve tried the Quest and based on my personal experience, discussion with others, specifications for the product, etc., this is the headset I would recommend for educational settings other than college-level. The Quest will make virtual reality accessible to the masses because it’s affordable, easy to use, doesn’t require a pricey high-end computer, and it will have a plethora of experiences available.
Specifically in regards to educational settings, this is a perfect product and the financial investment is feasible. When you consider all the points made above, the Oculus Quest would qualify for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) funding under several categories and should be sought by schools that need the assistance. With a price point of $400, it’s also possible to have sponsors donate headsets or do fundraising and purchase numerous headsets that could then be used in a computer lab shared by teachers of literally every subject (math, science, history, etc.).
Tell you something interesting, U.S. government is in love with the VR Technology. NASA makes use of technology to connect engineers with the devices they send into space. Using Oculus and Xbox One gaming console, NASA engineers are developing ways to control a robotic arm with gestures made by operator on Earth.
Another benefit of the Quest is that there will hopefully be a VR esports league available to high school students by fall 2019. This will enable enthusiasts who have access to VR at their schools to participate in VR esports competitions and then feed into the Collegiate VR Esports League for college-level competition. (There are also also other leagues available to them such as the VR League , a professional league sponsored by ESL and Oculus.) Virtual reality encourages physical activity, but VR esports take that to the extreme. Team games also encourage cooperation, leadership, strategic planning, and other skills we want to encourage in adolescent development.
- Reasonably priced at $399
- Will run Rift-quality experiences
- Wireless self-contained headset (no PC required)
- 6 degrees of freedom without external sensors
- 1,440 x 1,600 twin OLED displays with a 72 Hz refresh rate
- Will launch with over 50 titles in spring 2019 (There is every reason to expect that educational titles will developed for the Quest.)
Another affordable option for educational settings is the Oculus Go . This product is already being used in many schools and since it’s half the price of the Quest, it’s definitely an affordable option. The Go also offers some amazing educational experiences, but the big drawback is that it only has three-degrees-of-freedom. Students will definitely be able to enjoy educational experiences and the joy of virtual reality, but if you’re able to invest in the Quest for high school level students, there might be more opportunities for them.
- Reasonable price
- $199 for 32 GB
- $249 for 64 GB
- Wireless, self-contained headset (no PC required)
- 3 degrees of freedom without external sensors
- 2,560 x 1,440 LCD panel (1,280 x 1,440 pixels per eye) with a standard 60Hz refresh rate
- Numerous educational titles already available
For virtual reality at the college level, the Quest would be a good option, but students will have more options for VR esports with a tethered headset such as the Oculus Rift or its successor ( which is yet to be released) or HTC Vive .
A tethered headset would be a nice option for schools that could afford the investment in high-end PCs, but that’s an additional chunk of money (approximately $1,000 – $1,500 per computer station plus the cost of the headset) that is out of reach for most schools, even with university funding. It’s also important to consider the fact that most elementary or secondary schools will want to invest in numerous headsets, but a college or university could begin with six or seven stations in a VR lab (with enough room for movement around each station).
I grew up in a chaotic home environment with a series of abusive, alcoholic stepfathers and (alternately) a working single mother. I never wanted to get married when I grew up because I thought that’s the way life was when you were married. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to meet families with stable lives that didn’t move to a different trailer every six months. Even my teachers began inviting me to their homes because I was very curious about what else was out there.
Previously I didn’t realize what my options were, but suddenly I began to dream of a different life, of going to college, of having a husband one day who didn’t hit me or my children, and even having a home of my own. The seeds that were planted during my high school years became the life I now have. In a few weeks my husband and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, we have five awesome children, we’ve hosted over 100 children in need through the foster system, and I have a house with a garden. Life is good.
The U.S. Government Loves VR. Both NASA and the U.S. military are investing in virtual reality. NASA uses the technology to try to connect engineers with the devices they send into space. Using the Oculus, and motion sensing equipment from the Xbox One gaming console, NASA engineers are developing ways to control a robotic arm with gestures made by the operator here on Earth. The military uses VR to recruit and to train soldiers before they are deployed. The simulated scenarios provide opportunities for teams to work together in immersive, realistic environments to better prepare them for the chaos of combat.
I share that personal tidbit for a reason.
As stated at the beginning of this post, virtual reality will not solve all the issues facing public schools. We can’t force parents to be more involved in their children’s education, remove all family chaos in the home, or eliminate poverty.
However, we can provide access to virtual reality technology that will give students a glimpse of the world outside the one they’re accustomed to, which could in turn inspire them to make different choices as they’re exposed to positive immersive experiences.
Virtual reality literally opens worlds like never before and students should have access to it. Then, encourage them to dream, explore, play, research, learn, and open their minds to amazing possibilities!