Learning Faster in a Virtual Reality Classroom

Virtual reality offers a solid educational tool investment that can positively impact student learning.

Every generation of teachers and pupils will have memories of new, cutting-edge technologies arriving in the classroom with a mix of wonder, excitement and perhaps a touch of trepidation.

From overhead projectors to interactive whiteboards, laptops to tablets, schools are often just as innovative and forward-thinking in embracing and adapting to new technologies as any other sector.

Taking Virtual Reality Field Trips

Take virtual reality, for example. Beyond its high-profile gaming origins, the technology is already being used in novel and exciting ways in schools. These include ‘VR field trips’ that allow school children to visit the bottom of the ocean or float amongst the planets in our solar system – fully immersive, educational and interactive environments that provide some serious ‘wow’ moments.

But there are questions that need to be asked. Is it a gimmick? Or does VR actually provide genuine learning advantages over existing pedagogical tools? A growing body of evidence, and front line use cases, suggests that it can.

The fundamental use of technology in a classroom should be about improving pupil learning and understanding of key topics. Key to this is getting pupils engaged with a subject so they find it interesting and are more likely to remember the pertinent facts.

Data from the Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) Digital Strategy Group notes that memory recall is vastly improved by deeper engagement, saying1: “our memory is a lot stronger when we have a deeper engagement and are more focused while learning about something. Retention rates are typically up from 15-20% to 75-80%” As such, VR and its ability to provide immersive environments across a wide range of topics means it is ideally suited to this goal.

Accelerating Learning and Retention

Indeed, there is a growing library of VR content2 aimed at providing the sort of experiences that can achieve this. These range from scientific insights – e.g. watching the Apollo 11 rocket launch3 – to embarking on a historical tour of Anne Frank’s house or even ‘shooting sums’ in maths game Number Hunt.4

The beneficial impact that these VR content types can provide is not anecdotal either. A study by the University of Warwick5 found VR helps people learn faster and remember concepts better than words or images alone.

In an experiment run by the university, 99 individuals were assigned one of three learning tools: a textbook, a VR environment and a video, all supplying the same information on plant cells. The results showed a clear outcome that VR headsets were the most stimulating form of learning method, improving both memory recall and overall understanding of the concepts being explained.

Sharecare VR enable students to explore the human body and its organs in amazing, immersive detail.

Perhaps even more importantly, give VR headsets to pupils and teachers and the benefits become apparent to them too. In early 2018, the ISC Digital Strategy Group loaned VR and augmented reality (AR) headsets to seven schools. They then interviewed them about their experiences of using the technology and how they felt it could be used to bring learning to life.

The report6 found that both teachers and pupils saw clearly the benefits that VR and AR could provide.

“The most common theme to emerge from the student and teacher interviews,” said the report, “was how VR/AR technology can be used to facilitate learning.” Visualisation, immersive learning and interactivity were all cited as pedagogical benefits the technology could provide, underpinning a belief that VR would offer a better, and more memorable, learning experience than more traditional content, chiefly textbooks.

Collaboration and Problem-Solving

There are plenty of schools putting these benefits of VR into practice, such as the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School7 in Elstree.

In October 2018, they ran a project where three boys at a time worked with two rocket engineers on understanding the construction of a jet engine. They used Future Visual’s VisonXr VR platform, with pupils highly engaged with what they saw and learned. Another VR use case has seen pupils create a ‘Maze Runner’ VR experience that presents problem-solving challenges that must be solved collaboratively.

Assistant head teacher of the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, and Chair of the ISC Digital Strategy Group, Ian Phillips8, explains more about how he has spearheaded the use of VR within the school, and the benefits it is deriving:

“We’ve got a number of wonderful applications [our students are] using,” he says. “And once a student has used them, they will be able to grasp that learning, that understanding, that knowledge in a way that you couldn’t replicate just in a standard classroom.”

Students at the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School are not using VR apps, they are building them.

So far, so good. But VR faces some key obstacles before it can become widely-adopted in schools. Cost may be an obvious one, but technological barriers remain too, from training teachers to use it correctly to ensuring a consistent end-user experience. Time constraints in lessons may also limit the number of children that can use a high-end VR headset, potentially forcing some to miss out and, as a result, left with a poorer grasp of a subject than those that get to use the headset.

But no new technology is without its challenges. Just as the arrival of tablets and laptops in recent years were accompanied by questions about their merits and concerns about their benefits, they have now become established teaching tools.

VR is Becoming a Standard Tool

VR is likely to follow a similar path. In China, for example, the ISC Digital group notes that VR is increasingly commonplace in many schools9: “In China we are seeing schools experimenting with high-end mobile devices for whole classes at a time. In many universities now, VR is becoming a standard tool for teaching complex subjects particularly in health and engineering training applications.”

The reality is that, like any new technology, VR will take time to become fully understood and utilised correctly. But for schools, and crucially teachers, an open mind and willingness to give it a go10 and see how it could be incorporated into lessons in beneficial ways, is key.

Real, Relevant and Engaging

There are plenty of resources that can help with this too. The ISC notes the importance of ensuring technology is integrated into schools in a holistic manner and it offers some simple but effective steps11 to ensure this is handled effectively. While a ‘clear, well-understood IT vision’ is a good start, getting external help is critical.

“We were really lucky that the Virtual Reality project we wanted to do dovetailed perfectly with what the industry was trying to achieve at the same time,” Ian Phillips adds. “So, it was really easy to get HP and Microsoft and Intel to allow us to access certain equipment that we could then lend to schools.”

IT partners SystemActive and Jarvis Tech, meanwhile, were able to “bring that technology into the classroom, work alongside our boys, and turn those learning experiences we wanted to into something real, relevant and engaging for the kids.”

If nothing else, schools and teachers should probably consider that whatever their views on VR, school children – and possibly their parents – will increasingly be used to using VR at home and come to class expecting to use it there too. Schools that can embrace new technology can deepen engagement and boost learning, equipping today’s students for an increasingly digital future.

“I think a lot of schools are looking at what Virtual Reality can offer them at the moment,” says Ian Phillips, “and with the obstacles of the technical barriers and the challenges that technology presents, that might be intimidating. But I would say to that school: There is no time like now to be able to invest your time even just to explore it.”

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