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When Virtual Reality Meets Education

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Since the 1950s, virtual reality (VR) has been hovering on the periphery of technology without achieving accepted mainstream application or commercial adoption. Since 2012, VR startups have raised more than $1.46 billion in venture capital, including more than $100 million in funding during the last four consecutive quarters.

According to Citi analyst Kota Ezawa, 2016 is the year that VR will take off in earnest, with the VR market expected to grow to a $15.9 billion industry by 2019. Citi also anticipates the market for hardware, networks, software and content will reach $200 billion by 2020.

The content share of this market is of particular interest, as this segment of the tech industry has historically been dedicated to gaming — but the world is changing. We are shifting from the now relatively benign universe in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to Ernest Cline’s VR paradigm as described in Ready Player One. Like Huxley, Cline has written of a dystopian environment wherein technology has overtaken humanity.

For our purpose, let’s consider VR as a useful tool, and perhaps even a productive enhancement to human interaction, bringing together people from around the world to engage and interact — regardless of social, economic or geographic disparities. In the abstract as well as the applied, modern education is poised to take advantage of this latest tech innovation.

Over the last several years, VR has moved from being the purview of the military and aviation to the mainstream of professional development, as managers, instructors, coaches and therapists have claimed increasing benefit from immersive experiences.

While statistics on VR use in K-­12 schools and colleges have yet to be gathered, the steady growth of the market is reflected in the surge of companies (including zSpace, Alchemy VR and Immersive VR Education) solely dedicated to providing schools with packaged educational curriculum and content, teacher training and technological tools to support VR­-based instruction in the classroom. Myriad articles, studies and conference presentations attest to the great success of 3D immersion and VR technology in hundreds of classrooms in educationally progressive schools and learning labs in the U.S. and Europe.

Perhaps the most utopian application of this technology will be seen in terms of bridging cultures and fostering understanding among young students.

Much of this early foray into VR­-based learning has centered on the hard sciences — biology, anatomy, geology and astronomy — as the curricular focus and learning opportunities are notably enriched through interaction with dimensional objects, animals and environments. The World of Comenius project, a biology lesson at a school in the Czech Republic that employed a Leap Motion controller and specially ­adapted Oculus Rift DK2 headsets, stands as an exemplary model of innovative scientific learning.

In other areas of education, many classes have used VR tools to collaboratively construct architectural models, recreations of historic or natural sites and other spatial renderings. Instructors also have used VR technology to engage students in topics related to literature, history and economics by offering a deeply immersive sense of place and time, whether historic or evolving.

In what may turn out to be an immersive education game changer, Google launched its Pioneer Expeditions in September 2015. Under this program, thousands of schools around the world are getting — for one day — a kit containing everything a teacher needs to take their class on a virtual trip: Asus smartphones, a tablet for the teacher to direct the tour, a router that allows Expeditions to run without an Internet connection, a library of 100+ virtual trips (from the Great Wall of China to Mars) and Google Cardboard viewers or Mattel View­Masters that turn smartphones into VR headsets.

This global distribution of VR content and access will undoubtedly influence a pedagogical shift as these new technologies allow a literature teacher in Chicago to “take” her students to Verona to look at the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or a teacher in the Bronx to “bring” her Ancient Civilizations class to the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza.

And with VR platforms like AltspaceVR and LectureVR (an initiative of Immersive VR Education), entirely new possibilities are available for teachers of all kinds, as the technology of making avatars and supporting “multi-player” sessions allows for an exponentially­ scaled level of socialization and outreach.

Potentially, a collaboration between these innovative VR platform offerings could result in a curator or artist guiding a group of thousands around a museum exhibition or cultural site, or an actor or professor leading a virtual master class in real time with students from all over the world.

Perhaps the most utopian application of this technology will be seen in terms of bridging cultures and fostering understanding among young students, as it will soon be possible for a third-grade class in the U.S. to participate in a virtual trip with a third-grade class in India or Mexico.

Access to some type of mobile VR device is affordable for many more individual users and, in turn, many more schools.

Despite the fact that VR is still developing, real progress has been seen in the economic scaling of the technology. The cost to the consumer of VR hardware (headsets, in particular) has steadily declined, as noted in the head­-mounted displays (HMDs) commercially available today: Google Cardboard for $20 and Samsung Gear VR for $99 (at this writing, Oculus Rift, a desktop VR device, is available for pre­-order for $599).

The fact that The New York Times recently supplied more than one million subscribers with Google Cardboard headsets to access its newly launched VR experiences has further advanced accessibility and mainstreaming of the device, as well as this innovative means of media consumption.

Overall, access to some type of mobile VR device is affordable for many more individual users and, in turn, many more schools. Some forward-thinking instructors are even using 3D printers to print their own customized HMDs with their technology students, a solution that dovetails with the popular maker­-trend philosophy.

So maybe we are ready for the futuristic world of Cline’s Ready Player One. But perhaps the utopian rather than dystopian construct is not only more appealing, but also more relevant in this global community.

Educators and students alike are seeking an ever-expanding immersive landscape, where students engage with teachers and each other in transformative experiences through a wide spectrum of interactive resources. In this educational reality, VR has a definitive place of value.

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