Learn: Transforming the learning experience, through technology

With Virtual Reality, the World Is Your Classroom

Virtual and augmented reality headsets are helping teachers take students on unbelievable adventures—without even leaving their seats.

A group of British elementary school students recently took a deep-sea adventure, exploring a coral reef alongside sharks and other creatures. Another toured an ancient Egyptian tomb. In the U.S., students are visiting Revolutionary War battlefields—in the middle of a battle. Their teachers haven’t quite cracked the code to time travel, not yet. But with virtual reality (VR), they’re on their way.

The concept of VR has been around since at least 1935, when author Stanley Weinbaum wrote about a pair of spectacles that could transport a user to a fictional world, complete with sight, sound, smell, and touch. Technologists have been working on making this vision a reality ever since. By the 1980s, they’d introduced a VR headset—but with a $10,000 price tag, it wasn’t accessible to the general public. That finally changed within the past 10 years. As the hardware has become increasingly affordable, more start-ups, media outlets, and filmmakers have started experimenting with VR storytelling and how they could take viewers to places and times that were, until now, impossible to visit. And they’ve concentrated not just on taking users to these places on a screen, as movies have long done, but actually placing them in the scenes.

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

It’s an entire industry now; Statista estimates that by 2018, the VR hardware and software markets will reach a $12.1 billion value, which will balloon to $40.4 billion by 2020. Though a lot of that market revolves around making more immersive video games, companies are beginning to focus on how VR headsets and lessons can transform the classroom. One of the first to hit the market was the ClassVR headset, from Avantis.

The Welsh students were wearing ClassVR when they went on their deep-sea dive. So were the students who checked out Rameses’ tomb in Egypt. Google’s Expeditions Pioneer program took others to the surface of Mars.

For teacher Dominic Board, using these technologies is more than a fun diversion. It’s a way to enhance lessons in all subjects. That chance to swim with sharks, for example, was part of a writing exercise. Originally the students were asked to write a story about sharks, based on a photo and a short paragraph. After they’d completed the story, they were given the headsets and then were asked to write a new story. Board saw an immediate difference.

“They now ‘swim nervously’ instead of ‘happily,’ and the entire encounter with the shark is far more ‘up close and personal’ due to their freshly gained experience,” he recounted in the ClassVR blog.

One of the reasons ClassVR works so well in the classroom is that the company has simplified the technology. While many VR headsets require either a computer or a smartphone to display the media, ClassVR’s model is all-in-one. All of the headsets in the class connect to a teacher-managed portal. Teachers also have access to lesson plans in subjects like science and technology, history, geography, arts and culture, and more.

The goal is not to replace teachers, but to enhance their ability to activate students’ imaginations. As ClassVR stated in a white paper, “There are clear educational benefits to be drawn from the use of VR, as previously discussed, including better engagement, increased stimulation, decreased ‘time to learn,’ and enhanced knowledge retention.”

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of LEARN, our discussion on how emerging technologies promise to change the educational experience as we know it, from elementary schools to prisons and everywhere between.