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How Virtual Reality Could Help Tackle Some of Education’s Biggest Problems

February 19, 2019, 16:03 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Matthew Murray explains how virtual reality could help us deal with some of the biggest problems facing education in the UK
How Virtual Reality Could Help Tackle Some of Education’s Biggest Problems

The technologies that will change the world in the next 10 to 20 years have probably already been invented; they just need to become cheaper.

One such technology is virtual reality, or VR – computer-generated experiences that immerse the user’s sight and hearing. The technology is already mainstream, with people across the world using it to play video games and watch movies. And as the price of VR headsets falls over the coming years they’ll likely find their way into our schools, which could have interesting implications.

The benefits

The growth of VR in education opens up the prospect of reverse field trips, where learners are taken on virtual tours of simulated environments. This is a significant development, because VR could have important benefits for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A key aspect of the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is the so-called ‘word gap’ – the difference in the number of words that certain groups of children know. According to the DfE’s 2017 social mobility plan, most disadvantaged pupils are almost a year and a half behind their more affluent peers in early language acquisition by the age of three. A further study published by Oxford University Press found that over 80% of primary and secondary teachers believe children with poorer vocabulary have difficulties accessing standardised tests, such as SATs and GCSEs.

The range of words that a child develops is shaped to a large extent by their experiences outside of the classroom. Children from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to visit different countries, witness a range of environments and be exposed to more poetry, literature, music and art. They gain a wider range of vocabulary through a wider range of experiences. Often, disadvantaged children do not know words because they simply haven’t encountered them.

Imagine being able to give children the kind of experiences they wouldn’t normally have access to. Imagine being able to visit any country; see deserts, oceans and the polar ice caps. Placing children into unfamiliar settings will necessitate their acquisition of language in order to describe the environments they find themselves in. Children will be more likely to then understand this vocabulary, because they’ll be able to see the words in action and in context.

VR could also help raise the aspirations of disadvantaged pupils. There are no limits to the experiences VR can generate – only our imaginations. We’d be able to put children into the role of a doctor or pilot, which could help raise their aspirations by increasing their self-efficacy in such roles, and thus their ability to imagine themselves doing these things. VR won’t be a silver bullet in closing the attainment gap, but it could certainly help.

VR technology has advantages over listening to something being read aloud or watching a screen, because it’s so immersive. VR is perceptually surrounding, so that no matter where a learner looks, they’ll be seeing the contents of a virtual environment. In an educational context, this means that pupils can be surrounded by a learning environment free from distractions outside their field of vision; a potentially useful aid for children who struggle with their concentration.

VR could make a big difference across subjects. Imagine being able to turn gravity on and off during a science lesson, or a history lesson where you could take a tour around Pompeii or board a Viking longship. Applications such as these could help teachers really bring lessons to life.

Yet despite all the potential the technology offers, the introduction of VR into classrooms across the UK may be a slower process than its developers might hope.

The costs

The biggest barrier schools need to overcome in adopting VR is cost. Just like smartphones and other mass produced technologies, VR headsets vary greatly in terms of quality and price. At the low end of the market, headsets designed to work with smartphones, such as the Samsung Gear VR, can be acquired for as little as £30. However, these takes on the technology represent something of a compromise, and are thought by some to be more prone to inducing motion sickness in users.

Genuine VR headsets, such as Oculus Rift can set you back well over £500 per headset. However, that doesn’t include the cost of the motion controllers you’ll need to fully operate them, nor the reasonably powerful PC you’ll need for the technology to run at all. And that’s before you even get to the physical space required for users to experience the movement and motion-tracking aspects of VR safely.

Regardless, many VR developers see education as a potentially lucrative market, and have made moves to take an early share of it. Last year saw the makers of the HTC Vive – a market leading product at the high-spec/ high-cost end of the spectrum – announce a ‘Vive Group Edition Bundle’ aimed at schools in China. It contained 10 headsets for the price of 49,999 yuan (around £5,700), representing a saving of around 40% when compared to buying individual headsets.

But whether it’s high spec or low spec, prices across the market will continue to fall in the long term. When the latest generation of consumer level VR technology first launched at the middle of the decade, the combined cost of the headset, accompanying computer and other necessary components came to over £3,000. A similar high-end package will now set you back something close to £1,000.

In the short-term, though, schools may be able to help their children access VR without having to purchase what’s still relatively expensive hardware. A handful of technology firms have already begun delivering VR experiences in some UK schools at far lower cost. Google, through its Expeditions Pioneer Program, has even provided one-off educational sessions to schools across the country for free. These admittedly aren’t permanent solutions, but they can provide children with a taste of virtual experiences, and may yet help promote the technology across the education sector.

As VR becomes ever more accessible in the years to come, it’s disadvantaged pupils who stand to benefit the most. They’ll gain access to experiences previously only available to a certain proportion of school children, and we’ll see the technology gradually help level the playing field.

Ultimately, the impact of VR will depend on how much we invest in it. If the penetration of VR in UK schools remains patchy and teacher training in the area lacklustre, then its potential won’t be realised. If, however, we choose to make the most of VR, then the possibilities are endless. We’d be able to give children learning experiences that would once have seemed impossible.

Jargon Buster

VR makes up one strand of a wave of immersive technologies soon set to become mainstream. Here are a few other related terms you might encounter:

Augmented reality (AR)
Overlays virtual objects on a real-world environment when viewed through a camera and digital display – think Pokemon Go

Mixed reality (MR)
Doesn’t just overlay, but anchors virtual objects to the real world and allows users to interact with said objects

Haptic technology
Recreates the sensation of touch by applying forces, vibrations or motions to devices held or worn by the user

Matthew Murray is a primary teacher in Manchester and co-creator of the site 2 Stars and a Wish, where he regularly posts ideas for using songs, videos and poetry to teach literacy and guided reading; follow him at @2_starsandawish.

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