Educaton has changed very little since it became widespread 150 – 200 years ago. Since the beginning it has involved teachers, classrooms, desks, chalkboards and books. Advances in technology and population growth have changed some of the tools, but the methods have largely remained the same. For example, it isn’t as common for the entire school to sit in one classroom under one teacher, instead we have large schools with many classrooms for each grade and many teachers. No longer are notes taken on slates with chalk. Instead, pencils, pens and now even notebook computers and tablets are where we store lecture notes and work out our problems. Computers are frequently used to try to make learning a bit more entertaining by making games out of it. But the games either rely on having already been taught the material in class or else if the game teaches it, it does so in very much the same way that a book or the teacher on the blackboard would. So rather than being an educational tool, you could say that it’s more like a study tool.

I’m not knocking these advancements or education in general. But the world has changed an awful lot since the school system was created and education of the future is going to need more than just new tools to do the same old things. The world has never been static. Each generation added to our body of knowledge, but the rate at which these additions were made has not remained the same. At one time you would go to school and learn the facts that would get you through a life that generally consisted of one job and a family. For better or for worse, life is not like that anymore and storing facts in our brains is less important than learning to adapt, take risks, problem solve and plan a few steps ahead.

Virtual Reality is already being adapted for education. In a YouTube video put out by AMD (see sources below) one math teacher speaks of using virtual reality to demonstrate mathematical functions in a class or two that took him a year in University to be able to imagine and get his mind wrapped around. Being able to physically manipulate 3D coordinates in real time as the students watched made the lessons much easier to grasp.

In another video from TEDxCERN, Michael Bodekaer speaks about the use of virtual reality for science education. He lamented that students were bored in science class, often wondering why they were learning the things they were being taught. To solve this problem he made a virtual labroatory that gave access to top of the line science equipment and gamified the learning process by tasking students with solving a murder. If you have a Gear VR you can actually try a demo of the experience by searching for “Labster” in the Oculus store. Studies have been conducted by learning psychologists from Stanford, as well as Technical University in Denmark. In these studies they took 160 students, gave them a test then divided them in half and taught one group using only traditional methods and another group using only the virtual labs and then gave them a test at the end. The group that used only the virtual lab showed a 76% improvement in learning effectiveness. A further study combined the virtual laboratory learning with more traditional teacher led learning and found a 101% increase in learning effectiveness.

That may only be one study, but with results like that it certainly demands a deeper look. If we can double the effectiveness of our education by using virtual reality to augment the classroom experience with more practical, virtual experiences then it’s something that needs to be developed. And VR is still in the very early days. It’s only going to get better and more realistic and as it does virtual experiences will become more useful, and possibly just as useful as real situations, while being safer and cheaper.

Another way that VR is currently being used in education is through programs like Google’s Expediditions. With Expeditions, teachers can order the program from Google which comes with Google Cardboard headsets and VR capable devices for the students and tablet for the teacher. She is able to read the information off of the tablet while guiding the students through virtual tours of various places that they would otherwise not be able to go, places like Mars or the pyramids of Egypt. The teacher is able to draw the students attention to certain points of interest by touching them on the tablet and a marker then shows up in their experiences. This type of activity engages the students is ways that looking at a book will not. Being able to look down at Martian soil and then look up at the Martian sky is something completely unique to VR. Standing at the base of the Great Pyramid and craning your neck to see the top and realizing as you do just how big it really is will cement the idea in the students mind far better than the old tactic of drawing the pyramid next to a sky scraper, a whale, an elephant and a person.

There are certainly many more ways than just these to use VR for education and there will be more in the future. As VR develops and becomes more ubiquitous and VR cameras improve it could even become possible to attend school remotely and feel as though you are actually there. Or, instead of having a friends bring your homework home from school you could log on to the schools website and download the day and attend in VR when you feel better. This sounds like one of those old timey, black and white futurust videos from the Worlds Fair, but this isn’t wild fantasy. This could happen if the tech we have now improves. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that whatever VR education becomes in the future it will make my ideas seem just as quaint and ridiculous as those old videos that predicted women’s dresses adjusting to the time of day, but I only suggest it to get you thinking about the sort of things that will be possible very soon. It’s enough to make me want to do school over again.


VR In The Classroom: Early Lessons Learned from Google Expeditions:

These Two School Districts Are Teaching Through Virtual Reality:

VR in Education

Reimagining education | Michael Bodekaer | TEDxCERN