Opening New Worlds: The Persistent Role of Virtual Reality in Education

By Steven McGahan, Associate Director for Instructional Design, University of Nebraska at Kearney

Steven McGahan, Associate Director for Instructional Design, University of Nebraska at Kearney

The educational graveyard is full of technologies that were touted as the next game-changing innovation. From the rear-view mirror, supposedly failed experiments litter the educational landscape: podcasts, MOOCs, iPad courses, and, of course, virtual reality. While some educators still use these technologies, the paradigm-breaking change promised by those who opined their instructional effectiveness has yet to be seen. It’s not that these technologies lack merit; the hype machine just inflated their worth, propagating that anything less than revolutionary must be an educational misstep. Virtual reality has held a place on “Educational Trends” lists for so long that it’s tantamount to vaporware, but meaningful use of virtual reality in both online and on ground classrooms is closer than most educators may realize.

An important distinction to make before moving forward is the difference between virtual reality and interactive virtual reality. Developing an interactive 3D space takes much more time and resources than an image or video VR experience. While the interactive spaces may be more engaging in some ways, for most faculty the ROI for simple image or video VR could be even greater due to the ability to create multiple experiences with less time and effort than a fully immersive 3D world.

"With the use of virtual reality in education growing more feasible, opportunities abound to reshape the way students experience and consume content"

Virtual reality is a scary term to those who have never worked in the field. It invokes images of teams of technology professionals working long hours to develop a single virtual world interface. Most educators would see it as an educational strategy beyond their abilities to implement. In (virtual) reality, the technology has become easier to implement with each passing year. What was once the realm of computer scientists and visual designers is now accessible to anyone with a willingness to try, which for most faculty is the hardest part of the process. Most faculty can create a virtual world in which students can learn by completing a few tutorials and using some trial and error. Basic VR development is as easy as learning photo editing software, as most packages are now equipped to handle editing 360° images. This makes the inclusion of written content, 2D imagery, and other signpost style content incredibly easy. The hardest part of this type of VR content development is taking a good picture.

Beyond the technical ease of entry, equipment and software costs to produce virtual reality images and video continue to decrease. A basic hardware setup to capture 4K VR images and videos ranges from around $300 on the high side to a few dollars on the low side. TheGoPro Fusion is a great camera for VR, but with a cost at the high end. There are also $50 to $100 add-on cameras for cell phones. For a budget-friendly option, software that uses an existing cell phone camera can be downloaded for a few dollars or for free. A small capital investment by a college or department can yield great results for faculty and foster better learning in students if applied correctly. Student costs range from $15 to $60 for a cell phone based headset. The average cost per course lessens as more courses adopt VR technology.

With the use of virtual reality in education growing more feasible, opportunities abound to reshape the way students experience and consume content. Content doesn’t have to be a blunt instrument; it can be more subtle in its presentation to learners. Pairing immersive 360° content with traditional foundation content helps not only to reinforce learning, but also to increase engagement with the content itself. The student first reads or watches the content that informs the trip into a virtual world before putting on a headset and applying those concepts. It is the literal one-two punch of learning to reinforce and engage at the same time. Even when the figurative shine has come off the penny, a properly designed virtual environment exercise will require students to combine different forms of learning into a single experience.

As an example, a geology instructor could set up a case study on water management as a VR image of a watershed with embedded content presents a different way for learners to receive their information. Instead of reading data off a table, embedding the information in the image requires students to engage with the content. A social work professor could stage a room with items and convert that image into an exercise where students look for warning signs of issues with a client family. The uses for this type of VR content are only limited by what can be photographed and by the imagination of the instructor.

The thing to remember about virtual reality is that anyone can create a learning experience for students. It doesn’t take a huge budget, a team of VR professionals, or a degree in computer science to create an experience that guides students to educational content. What it does take is some basic hardware and software, and most importantly, the willingness to try something new. Opening up new worlds to students can be one of the easiest educational technology implementations of all.

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