The Future of Virtual Reality in Education

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A group of friends gather around a table to play Uno. A race car driver takes a sharp turn on a dirt track, barely managing to stay on the road. A surgeon tries desperately yet delicately to perform a heart transplant. These may just sound like scenes from a movie or even everyday life, but there’s one distinct difference: all of these are player-controlled actions from video games steeped in virtual reality – the current wave of the future for simulation, and one that is able to take the education sector by storm, if it hasn’t started already.

From Amusement to Education

While the origin of what can be defined as “virtual reality” may be up for debate (some may consider the panoramic paintings of the nineteenth century the first true instances, given they immerse the viewer in a different, simulated environment than the one the viewer is currently in), by the 1960s, VR advances were relegated strictly to entertainment, with the View-Master and 3D movies both incredibly popular. That began to change in 1968, however, when a team at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory developed “The Sword of Damocles” – so named given its monstrous size and need to be hung to the ceiling thanks to its weight. Much more importantly, however, it is considered the first head-mounted, computer-powered VR system, paving the way for VR to expand into fields beyond entertainment.

Several decades later, and virtual reality systems finally have become lightweight enough and cheap enough for the general public to purchase and use for personal entertainment, with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift systems available on Amazon and “VR cafes” popping up around the globe. With the cost and weight reduction, however, the technology has also seen an escalation of use in the business sector, in notable industries such as aerospace, medical, automotive, and most importantly, education. In fact, the technology may be so beneficial to the education field that it could be considered vital, if not now, then soon. Peter Rubin, writing for Wired about the subject, put it best: “Virtual reality is much more than a gaming technology. In fact, VR has the makings of a pedagogical silver bullet.”¹

The bottom line is this: implementation of VR positively affects the outcomes of students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It has always been challenging to engage this grouping as they are most often deficient in writing and math skills and require remediation so that they are able to understand the mechanical properties of today’s technical oriented Vocational programs. Virtual Reality levels the playing field, engaging students in an immersive learning environment with visual and tactile repetitive stimuli which replicate a real-world working experience and provide equivalent learning opportunities to all.

VR, when implemented, will increase revenue per student and student populations, reduce dropout rates, enhance the excitement of training, provide for student independent skill practice, increase graduation rates, augment student referrals, and increase the EBITDA of a school. Of course, the technology is not all roses, as there are factors such as health risks, overall costs, and the sheer nascent nature of the technology to take into account. Yet in the end, the numerous pros coupled with the already emerging trend of VR implementation outweigh any of the possible cons. And that’s a virtual certainty.

Note: while virtual reality will remain the central focus, AR, or “augmented reality,” will also be discussed in relation to education or training when necessary. The difference between the two is that virtual reality is an all-encompassing simulation of an environment, while augmented reality is a system that blends a real-world environment with virtual objects or images.

Crunching the Numbers

Before anything else, a look at the statistics behind VR technology is necessary – and also head-spinning:

  • Education is expected to be the fourth largest sector for VR investment.
  • VR in education is predicted to be a $200 million industry by 2020, and a $700 million industry by 2025.
  • 97% of students would like to study a VR course.
  • While only about 7% of teachers regularly use VR technology, almost 80% have access to it, 93% said that their students would be excited to use it, 70% want to use it to simulate experiences relevant to course material, and 69% would allow students to use VR to visit distant locations.
  • 49% of high school teachers would like to use VR to allow students to visit college campuses.²
  • Over 90% of educators agreed that using technology is an effective way to provide differentiated and/or personalized learning experiences that adapt to student needs.³
  • In addition, with regard to the health care field, virtual reality revenue is valued globally at $260.5 million in 2018 and is expected to reach $3.44 billion by 2027.4

From this data, two points can be extracted: virtual reality is a hot economic commodity as the technology just recently has become affordable and available, and that while the market for VR is one nascent and with limitless possibilities and anticipation with regard to the educational sector, it is one that, for the most part, still desperately needs to be tapped into.
That isn’t to say, however, that some institutions and fields haven’t already leapt ahead of the curve.

Virtual Reality in the Vocational Sector and Occupational Training

In hands-on career fields such as automotive maintenance, aerospace, HVAC, and medicine and therapy, VR and AR are proving both popular and beneficial both in vocational education, and occupational training. Students at Pennsylvania State University – Altoona’s rail transportation engineering program, for example, have access to VR tech that allows them to practice types of arc welding, with plans for a locomotive simulator to teach students how to operate a locomotive. Meanwhile, VR in HVAC and construction industry has allowed workers, engineers, and architects to explore spaces, models, and designs in anticipation for the actual construction of systems. This trend is even reaching high school vocational courses; Manor High School in Manor, TX, for example, has incorporated AR into its automotive and welding training to give students hands-on experience with minimal risk of real-world injury or mistake via programs that allow the students to pull virtual parts and systems into the air to take apart and modify.

The aerospace sector, too, has benefited from virtual reality, with newer VR pilot training programs not only replicating the interior of an airplane cockpit, but also replicating the touch and feel of it via sensors attached to fingertips, allowing a trainee total hands-on interactivity. NASA, too, has adopted such technology for spaceflight, with their Project Sidekick equipping astronauts with Microsoft HoloLens which “augments standalone procedures with animated holographic illustrations displayed on top of the objects with which the crew is interacting” and may end up reducing time needed for pre-flight training.5

One of the more publicized sectors for virtual reality, however, has been that of medicine and therapy – and not merely on the physician side of things. The effectiveness of virtual reality has been applied to helping children with autism with social interaction and nonverbal cues, training potential users of power wheelchairs, rehabilitating one’s upper arm after a stroke, and even performing “tele-therapy” in a simulated environment. In addition, VR has been making inroads as a medical training aid for university students to tackle clinical procedures or emergency scenarios, such as at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, Western Carolina University’s School of Nursing, and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Thus, not only is virtual and augmented reality technology aiding in training the workforce of this generation and those to come, but it is also helping people with medical needs to live normal lives, highlighting its importance for the future.

Virtual Reality in Higher Education

VR and AR are also making inroads into traditional higher education in various ways at a number of different institutions. For a few out of numerous examples:

  • The Gabelli School of Business at New York’s Fordham University is utilizing VR exercises in its Execute MBA program to help them understand the power of communication and teamwork, utilizing simulated life-or-death scenarios such as walking across a balance beam thousands of feet in the air while urged on by team members, and selecting a person to defuse a bomb while the others instruct him or her.
  • Maine’s Husson University is using augmented reality tech to develop an app titled AR Stagecraft, allowing entertainment production students to visualize and modify a set on stage before any of it has ever been built.
  • San Diego State University has developed and built the Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) space for its students and faculty, using both virtual and augmented reality as education aids for 30 courses.
  • The Savannah College of Art and Design has utilized virtual reality beyond just its courses. The school has begun sending Google Cardboard VR glasses in its acceptance letters, allowing students to pair the glasses with a smartphone so they can take a virtual tour of SCAD’s campus from thousands of miles away.

In addition, virtual reality may prove beneficial for educating the general public outside of the education system. The arts collective Bombshelltoe, for example, has utilized the technology to show people how a 1979 uranium mill spill has altered land near Churchrock, New Mexico. Capturing 360-degree footage and compiling it into a film titled “Ways of Knowing,” the collective has attempted to show how the 94 million gallons of radioactive waste spilled into a nearby river have altered the land over the past few decades via this immersive experience.

Even then, the technology is still available right at everyone’s fingertips with smartphone apps that can pair with relatively cheap VR glasses (like with SCAD’s Google Cardboard) to give the user an educational experience, such as with numerous public speaking apps available that allow the user to simulate numerous environments and scenarios which allow them to practice giving a public presentation or speech, attending a business networking meeting, or even practicing for a job interview. With smartphones being totally commonplace in today’s day and age, apps for them being able to be developed by anybody, and simplistic and affordable (if not necessarily high-tech) VR glasses readily available, the possibilities with virtual and augmented reality are decidedly limitless.

Problems with Virtual Reality

Of course, nothing in this world is perfect. While a “pedagogical silver bullet” with many beneficial applications and economic and social success, virtual reality nonetheless comes with its own fair share of problems, including those that may affect a person’s well-being. According to Samuel Greengard, the laundry list of possible side effects “if [a virtual environment] is too realistic” includes “dizziness, nausea, disorientation, panic, or even a medical problem such as a stroke or heart attack.”6 Meanwhile, as described in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: Myths and Realities, “the use of [head-mounted VR devices], by nature, poses problems of comfort and health,” not in the least of which are addiction (though that may be less probable when VR is used for education or training than for entertainment), provocation of eye problems, or even long-term ocular damage thanks to prolonged exposure to the light emitted from the devices.7

These ocular nightmares are due in part to the lack of standardization among virtual reality systems, and few customization or adjustment options on individual devices – the former proving notably problematic in the fields of therapy and medicine, where a range of disabilities and health conditions require unique needs and interactions even more so than the general populace. In addition, while the context of use may not be a problem, it may be “an important consideration” depending on the field, as a professional setting may have the space for more advanced, full-body capture VR systems that are “likely to be impractical for home use” compared to basic head-mounted systems or simple VR glasses.8

Less immediate and more overarching are the social and legal consequences of VR – most of which are either unknown or not concrete given how recently VR has become widely available. As virtual reality simulations become more advanced with multiuser compatibility and worlds linked through the internet, would simple “street crimes” like “disturbing the peace, indecent exposure, and dishing out deliberately harmful visuals or other stimuli” have real-world legal repercussions were they to leak into virtual via hacking or other means?9 Would impersonation of another person or disputes over in-simulation avatars and likenesses lead to legal action? Such questions are still up for debate.

Finally, the last major obstacle comes in the form of cost. While readily commercially available nowadays, VR systems still cost hundreds of dollars for all the necessary and recommended equipment, such as the headset apparatus, controllers, and cables – and that’s just for one system. As Sarah Schwartz explains in Education Week with regard to a conference for the International Society for Technology in Education, “the technology can be expensive for cash-strapped districts,” with one of the educators in attendance commenting that the cost is “the biggest barrier” for expansion and “a significant expense for his district.”10 Even as cheap as VR glasses are, they may not suffice for more complex simulations, and would fail to capture a full experience if it requires the use of one’s hands or body.

Conclusion

In the end, nonetheless, most of these downsides can be attributed to the nascent state of VR for public use at the moment, with the benefits far outweighing any possible problems. The technology, while not universal, is still being implemented gradually and to great success in the various educational and training fields after decades of improvement – and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Writing for the Motley Fool, Travis Hoium states that while VR “is already a multibillion-dollar business” with 4.7 million headsets sold in 2018 alone according to Statista, the technology “has only scratched the surface of its potential.”11 Fellow Motley Fool writer Chris Neiger agrees, listing off that while the VR market was worth just $1.8 billion in 2016, projections for 2025 have the market exploding in value. With estimates of its 2025 worth ranging from $7.5 billion, to $22.5 billion, all the way up to $48.5 billion, “virtual reality is poised for huge growth no matter which estimate is more accurate,” and investing into any facet of it or any of the companies currently competing or showing interest in the VR/AR market – Alphabet, Facebook, Sony, et cetera – would be economically wise, even if it may take at least five to ten years for the market to take off according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.12 An investment for the long-term, certainly, but one with projected exponential growth over the course of the next several years and a bright future ahead. Likewise, investments by for-profit institutions in a VR teaching infrastructure will significantly influence their student outcomes, institutional growth, market reputation and will significantly involve bottom line R.O.I.

Thus, the bottom line: if you’re not already researching or investing into the technology, you’re already behind the times. With both projections and expectations high and numerous institutions already implementing virtual and augmented reality systems in a range of fields, why haven’t you looked to the future yet?

SOURCES:

  1. Peter Rubin. “Field Trip.Wired. September 2019. 33.
  2. Virtual Reality in Education in 2017 Infographic.” eLearning Infographics. June 6, 2017.
  3. Educators Believe Educational Technology Can Personalize Learning— And Want Additional Support in Training and Professional Development
  4. Global Virtual Reality in Healthcare Market is Expected to Reach US$ 3,441.4 Million by 2027, Growing at an Estimated CAGR of 33.2% Over the Forecast Period as Hospitals are Implementing Virtual Reality for Operational Efficiency, Says Absolute Markets Insights.” PR Newswire. July 10, 2019.
  5. NASA, Microsoft Collaborate to Bring Science Fiction to Science Fact.” June 25, 2015.
  6. Samuel Greengard. Virtual Reality. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 2019. 121–122.
  7. Ed. Bruno Arnaldi, Pascal Guitton, and Guillaume Moreau. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: Myths and Realities. Wiley-ISTE: London, May 2018. 275–276.
  8. Ed. Joav Merrick, Wendy Powell, Albert Rizzo, & Paul M. Sharkey. Virtual Reality: Recent Advances in Virtual Rehabilitation System Design. Nova Science Publishers: New York, 2017. 5.
  9. Greengard. Virtual Reality. 136.
  10. Sarah Schwartz. “Educators Share Hopes, Concerns About Virtual Reality at ISTE.” Education Week. June 26, 2018.
  11. Travis Hoium. “What You Need to Know About Investing in Virtual Reality Technology.” The Motley Fool. August 27, 2019.
  12. Chris Neiger. “6-Point Checklist for Investing in Virtual Reality.” The Motley Fool. August 17, 2017.
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