Virtual Reality in K-12 Education: How Helpful Is It?

With affordable devices such as Google Cardboard, a growing number of virtual experiences are suddenly available to students everywhere.

by Jennifer Snelling / July 28, 2016 0
AJ Reynolds

This article originally appeared in the Q2 issue of Converge magazine.

With school budgets tight and parents often complaining that kids spend too much time playing video games, why are educators pushing students to use a relatively little-understood, but visually powerful technology? More and more school districts and classroom teachers are finding that virtual reality can be just what they need when classes can’t afford to take a field trip across town, much less to another state or overseas. And that’s just the beginning of the possibilities that VR offers. With affordable devices such as Google Cardboard, a growing number of virtual experiences are suddenly available to students everywhere.

While data on just how widely virtual reality is used in schools is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence and the rate at which VR apps and devices for educational purposes are popping up suggest that educational VR is here to stay.

Long considered a novelty for gamers, VR is making the transition to the classroom for two key reasons: affordability and available content, according to Maureen Brown Yoder, professor of education technology at Lesley University. Inexpensive equipment, offered most notably by Google Cardboard, is helping VR with the affordability issue, while an increasing number of apps aimed at education are helping make content accessible. “VR has been around for many years, but I don’t think it was very widely used at all in education,” said Yoder. “But the real difference is that now there’s better content.”

Right now, anyone with a smartphone and a cardboard headset can experience free VR programs produced with 360-degree cameras. More sophisticated headsets are readily available from Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Open Source VR and Samsung, but cost from $300 to $1,000 each, making them cost-prohibitive for most school districts, unless they’re donated.

In May, Facebook announced that its company, Oculus VR, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based startup behind the VR headset known as the Oculus Rift, is piloting programs with an educational component. Dubbed VR for Good, the program will donate gear to San Francisco schools and connect students with professional filmmakers to produce three- to five-minute, 360-degree videos about their community.

Impacts Beyond K-12

Colleges and universities are also getting in on the VR action. It starts with helping students decide what school to attend. Before deciding to fly across the country to visit every potential college, students can walk through a school’s virtual campus with YouVisit, including tours of Harvard and Dartmouth.

Medical schools are one of the main places VR is showing up, for obvious reasons. According to a survey by the American Association of Anatomists, about two-thirds of first-year gross anatomy is spent with cadaver dissection. Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., has opened a first-of-its-kind center that allows students to learn through VR. The Virtual Reality Learning Center houses four different VR technologies: two zSpace displays, the Anatomage Virtual Dissection Table, the Oculus Rift and Stanford anatomical models on iPads.

Architecture is another area where VR shows clear potential. The University of Minnesota College of Design uses a motion-capture system to offer students a way to evaluate decisions, construction details and other factors before a design is realized.

Stanford, Dartmouth and Purdue are among the schools using VR to help athletes train while reducing the impact of contact sports. Football teams may only be allowed to have four sessions with live tackling and blocking, but with VR, a player can step on the virtual field and count those hours as traditional film study. Basketball and hockey are next, said Next Galaxy, maker of the programs.

Google Cardboard, however, is the real game changer for VR in schools. The cardboard and Velcro headsets open up the world of virtual reality for as little as $7 per device.

In its simplest form, VR allows teachers to show, rather than tell, their students about places or times that they wouldn’t be able to visit otherwise. “It provides equity in access,” said Janice Mak, an instructional coach and teacher from Phoenix. “I’ve taught in Title I [a federal program to provide funding to local school districts to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students] places where kids have never traveled outside of Phoenix, even to the Grand Canyon. VR is about bringing the experience to students everywhere at very little cost.”

 

Does the technology’s growing availability translate to value in the classroom? Imagine a student sitting at a desk, looking at a TV set or a computer monitor. Her eyes may appear to be focused on that screen, but she may also be looking out the window to the playground. If she’s looking through a VR viewer, all distractions are blocked out. “When adults first look through viewers, they just look through the viewer, straight ahead,” Yoder said. “But give one to kids, and they’re looking around, looking backward. The view is 360 degrees.” And that includes only intended content.

Cutting out distractions is just the beginning. In using a format that children are familiar with through games, teachers can present content more effectively. A study published in Nature Biotechnology found a “76 percent increase in learning outcomes when student[s] used a gamified lab simulation ... and a 101 percent increase when they used it in combination with traditional teaching methods.” Those are some rather promising numbers.

VR has the power to excite kids in a way that textbooks and worksheets don’t. Barbara Mikolajczak, marketing and community relations manager at the Immersive Education Initiative, runs VR camps and classes for students in the Boston area. Her pupils have worked with other students from Australia in Minecraft, a virtual game where users can create their own world or experiences, to build a virtual version of the Old North Church in Boston.

“The students were so excited about converting meters to feet,” Mikolajczak said. “They realized that the doors wouldn’t be in the center, so that evolved into a lively discussion about what’s more important: the pure numbers or the symmetry of design. You wouldn’t have seen that in a normal lesson about the Old North Church.”   

Jaime Donally, instructional technology coordinator at the Gladewater Independent School District in Texas, said virtual reality can also help kids be open to experiences that may scare them. “Students who may be afraid to go underwater or can’t swim can go to the Great Barrier Reef. It gives them that experience, a toe dipped into the water, to see what it’s about,” Donally said. “It may inspire them to be explorers and take risks in the class.”

The opportunities don’t end with VR. There’s also augmented reality (AR). Whereas VR replaces the real world with a simulated one, AR uses elements in the real world that are supplemented by virtual ones. AR builds upon the physical world by displaying information overlays and digital content tied to physical objects and locations. Microsoft HoloLens and Eon Reality devices are examples of this technology, although AR apps also will work with a phone or tablet.

With an AR app, you can point your phone at a picture in the book and it comes alive so that the dinosaur in the picture growls or, in the case of the Anatomy 4D app, it lets you study a picture of a heart while it’s pumping.

 

As Yoder suggested, content is key. Last October, The New York Times sent Google Cardboard viewers to 1.3 million people and released a film, The Displaced, about children caught up in the global refugee crisis. The newspaper is now producing regular VR content through a new division, NYT VR. Other news organizations have followed suit, such as ABC News VR, where a correspondent leads tours of places in the news.

Journalists aren’t the only ones using VR to take people places. Respected organizations like NASA and National Geographic are producing VR content that’s useful in the classroom, and much of it is free. NASA videos allow students to take field trips to Mars; the Guggenheim Museum VR lets students replicate a walkthrough of the famous New York art museum’s galleries. YouTube 360 provides content made by people all over the world, including a tour of the Large Hadron Collider (the world’s largest particle collider located near Geneva, Switzerland), along with an explanation provided by the BBC News.

Timelooper, a virtual time travel app, takes students to a geographic location linked to a historic event, such as the Great Fire of London 350 years ago. WildEyes films 360-degree views of natural habitats, producing interactive earth science, biology and physics lessons.

Not surprisingly, Google has become a leader in producing educational content. Google Street View allows people to make 360-degree videos of their own locations and post them online. Google Earth lets people see places that are closed to the public, such as the San Jacinto nature preserve in California.

Nearpod, another tool that many teachers value, recently launched what many consider to be the first virtual-reality-based curriculum. Nearpod partnered with 360Cities to use its library of panoramic images of the Egyptian pyramids, Easter Island, the Great Barrier Reef and more. Prices for schools and districts start at $1,000, but select schools will receive the content for free. Similarly, ThingLink has launched a content app, VR Lessons, designed for elementary school students. Students visit different kinds of ecosystems from the French Alps to a jungle in the archipelago of northern Australia.

The Immersive Education Initiative and National Park Service paired up with high school and college students to create a 3-D version of Bent’s Old Fort along the Santa Fe Trail in Colorado using Minecraft. Google Expeditions is a program developed specifically for classrooms, although it’s currently available to a few pilot schools.

Many educators, including Yoder, say VR has the potential to open up the world of education once students are creating their own virtual worlds. The process of researching and collaborating makes VR creation ideal for enhancing education.

Finally, there is zSpace for STEM and medical education and Anatomy 4D, a good example of augmented reality. LectureVR allows students to be in a room with Einstein as he discusses the Theory of Relativity. AltspaceVR provides a social virtual reality experience that could allow students from across the world to collaborate as if they’re in the same room. 

 

There are many potential benefits to incorporating VR in the classroom and, yes, it’s fun for students. But there are potential negative impacts. While many of the apps are free for educators, and Google Cardboard, in particular, is inexpensive, virtual reality technology overall isn’t cheap. Also, while Google Cardboard is inexpensive, it is also fairly breakable and it’s hard to sanitize cardboard as it passes from face to face.

Schools must provide Wi-Fi access and, while many education institutions have iPads, teachers will need smartphones to work with the headsets. Even though many kids have phones or parents have old phones they could donate, not all districts let students bring smartphones to school.

Besides the costs, there are some physical challenges to using VR in the classroom. Sometimes students can experience motion sickness or bump into objects as they wander around the room. Plus, it can get noisy because the kids are excited. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Mikolajczak. “Teachers have to learn to embrace the high fives,” she said. “You don’t see kids getting this excited to learn in a normal classroom.”

Many teachers don’t know where to start. “They need training and tools,” said Donally. “A few teachers will try something different, but if you want your district to buy into it, it has to be laid out so they can customize it. When I train teachers, I give them lesson plan ideas for incorporating VR and connecting it to content. Otherwise, they would think it’s cool, but it never shows up in their classroom.”

In addition, there’s always the risk of using technology for technology’s sake and not tying it to a curriculum need. While using time with virtual reality as a reward might be fun, it’s not reaching the potential the tech has to amplify learning. The most important factor, said Yoder, is that the VR experience is tied to the content. For instance, in a French class, students may go to Paris virtually, then write a story about it.

“The teachers who use this thoughtfully and effectively will figure out how to enhance what they’re already doing,” Yoder said. “Virtual reality needs to be embedded in a meaningful way if it’s going to work.”

Mak suggests looking at the International Society for Technology in Education Standards for guidelines for implementing technology in the classroom. “We always emphasize creating with technology rather than just consuming it,” said Mak. “It’s always about pedagogy first and technology next. We must emphasize creative thinking, writing, logical thinking. It’s not just a new toy. It can be powerful if leveraged in the right way. The more ways to integrate into the curriculum, the more students can get from the experience.”

While there’s no substitute for touring a world-famous museum or the Egyptian pyramids, letting students walk through a simulated version of these places has many potential benefits. Chief among them, VR has the power to democratize education for children.

“We must recognize that our kids have to have these types of experiences to become who they need to be in the future. VR can help kids become more well rounded and be ready to make it in their future,” said Donally. “It’s not just a fun thing to have, it’s necessary. Educators aren’t looking at it that way yet, but they will.”