VR in Education

Today’s challenges and tomorrow’s promise.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jon Roepke

CREDIT Oculus.pngOf all the areas where virtual reality technology is now being used, VR may hold the most promise in education. By enabling immersive experiences, VR can engage students’ imaginations in ways previously impossible. Whether experiencing the undersea wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, walking the streets of ancient Rome, or seeing inside the cells of the human body, the educational scope of VR is truly limitless. The ability to interact in these virtual worlds can enable a more intuitive, play-based form of learning. As a bonus, there are indications that VR even has the potential to increase empathy among students. Despite this, significant challenges remain to the implementation of VR as a true learning tool and not just a fun diversion. Let’s look at where VR in the classroom stands today and where it is going.

Whether experiencing the undersea wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, walking the streets of ancient Rome, or seeing inside the cells of the human body, the educational scope of VR is truly limitless.

Public high schools that have set up VR labs, such as Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, New York, are witnessing its potential. Richard Lamb, a University of Buffalo graduate school professor working with the kids at Enterprise, has found evidence that VR can be used alongside traditional teaching to improve student engagement, comprehension and critical thinking. In a separate study by Foundry 10, an education research organization, students in 26 schools who tried VR indicated it could help increase motivation, develop new perspectives and promote interactive learning.

Perhaps the most comprehensive example of VR in the classroom so far has been Google’s Expeditions. Using Cardboard VR viewers and Android phones, Google has brought more than 1 million students in schools around the world on what they call Virtual Field Trips. With content provided by AP, National Geographic, and major museums, the destinations range from Machu Picchu to the surface of Mars. The trips have highlighted content with commentary that can be managed by the teacher on his/her tablet. The widespread success of these virtual field trips demonstrates how VR can be a great “equalizer,” providing students in any classroom with access to places and things they would never experience by other means.

In their presentation at Google I/O 2016, the Expeditions team said the most important lesson they learned was the challenge for VR to provide measurable value as an education tool beyond the initial wonder and awe of the immersive environment. For them, the key is how VR can incite students to learn by doing. An example they created was an app where you assemble an array of human bones into a skeleton as a 3-D puzzle. The Google team believes building great VR education apps will demand a multi-disciplinary approach, with input from researchers, educators and game designers.

In addition to VR’s ability to promote interactive learning, early evidence suggests an ability to increase empathy among students. A recent article in Slate notes the impact on students of a 2015 New York Times VR video series on refugees that made kids feel as if they were standing in the Sudanese desert while bags of food fell from helicopters. The study of how VR can increase empathy is a subject at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Their research has shown that people who used VR to inhabit avatars of a different race scored lower in tests of racial bias.

It is this shift in perspective, the enhanced ability to perceive and feel other people’s experiences, which may be the true killer application of VR. And while empathy is not technically a school subject, increased empathy not only helps today’s children have a better understanding of important social issues, but also helps them become more engaged in their communities. In a world where most communication technology seems to increase ephemerality and fragment interaction, VR could achieve the opposite, and that would be a very good thing indeed.

Despite all of its potential, very few K-12 schools are using VR today. One major challenge is expense: the best and most immersive high-end systems like Oculus and HTC Vive cost thousands of dollars. Of the schools that now have VR labs, most have funded them through grants. Smartphone-based systems like Gear VR and Google Cardboard are cheaper solutions, but many classrooms also lack the necessary high-speed connectivity. Google Expeditions solved this problem by turning the teacher’s tablet device into a local network hub. Other challenges are institutional and cultural, since historically, schools have been slow to adopt new technologies.

But perhaps the greatest challenge to adoption is this: the metrics to define VR’s educational value have not yet been codified and incorporated into accepted learning standards. It will likely take the multi-disciplinary approach outlined by Google to build VR apps with built-in methods to measure student engagement, interaction and performance, and then translate these metrics into a form that give teachers confidence that learning standards are being met. This is no small task, but the developers who take it on will fulfill VR’s great promise in the classroom.

Jon Roepke is the director of product management for Belkin International, Inc. He leads the creation and fulfillment of new business ventures, and helps define and develop technology solutions, including mobile apps and hardware for next-gen learning environments in partnership with Apple, Samsung, Google and other core technology leaders. Follow @Belkin

  • HarryKeller


    It’s unfortunate that our children’s imaginations are so meager that they must have 3D VR instead of mere 2D to have a good learning experience from a virtual field trip.

    There’s also that “inside a cell” VR that has to be an animation. A real cell is a transparent blob. You cannot readily see the organelles until they are dyed.

    IMHO, AR will be a big deal in education before VR will. It takes less technology and has immediate value for learning.

    • Kevin

      This is a great article with some key points that are important in this ever evolving field. The previous commenter said they feel that is unfortunate that there are not more 2d experiences for students to experience. This is something that many in the field of VR in education have said they have been told in the past. The key here is balance. Often times VR is used in applications and environments where a 2d field trip is too expensive or one that can be enhanced with a VR experience.

      With regards to the limitations for VR in education, the field is always evolving and some of the latest apps address some of the limitations that were pointed out.

      AR is also making strides and will play an important role in education. The latest apps and adoption rates across the United States show this. I think a balance between all three will make a significant impact in education over the next decade.


      • HarryKeller

        Well …, I did not say that it was unfortunate that there are not more 2D experiences. My comment was about the imaginations of our children. Some years ago, they read words and imagined pictures — even in 3D.

        We cannot say that full VR is not an experience that surpasses ordinary 2D. Even better is actually being there, hearing the sounds, smelling the odors, feeling the solid parts of the environment. This is, of course, for real stuff. Digital drawings, even in 3D and VR, are another matter entirely.

        It may be about balance, but it’s even more about appropriate use. I’ll step slightly aside from the focus of the article to provide an example that may be apropos for some.

        Science lab investigations have long been part of our education, beginning at the end of the 19th century. With the advent of computers, even shared large computers, educators had the idea that you could reconstruct those science experiments from the known equations of behavior of the experiments and save time, money, and space (not to mention safety) without sacrificing the learning value of the experiences.

        They were wrong.

        The most important part of the learning value lay in seeing the how the real world reacts and in carefully making your own measurements. Any shortcuts reduce the value. Students should have real experiments and hands-on measurement.

        Nevertheless, those animated simulations we see so much of are not devoid of pedagogical value. Sometimes, visualization allows difficult concepts to be learned by students. It’s quite possible that a visualization in an animated simulation will do the trick. It’s also possible that an excellent video will work as well.

        I am simply saying that even though animated simulations are poor lab substitutes, they can be great pedagogical aids for overcoming the problems of learning difficult concepts. Use the right tool for the job.

        Lest anyone think that I am a Luddite who is opposed to online learning, let me say that online real experiments with hands-on (online) measurement not only is possible but also has been created. It’s in use in hundreds of schools right now. Its use has boosted science scores on fourth-grade state tests and on AP science exams (by 2x).

        Will VR become important in science learning? Again, it may work well for those tough concepts. It’s hard (right now for me) to imagine it working as a replace for laboratory investigations. There’s also the infrastructure challenge, which will be overcome in time, probably a decade or so for most schools.

        Keep an eye on VR, but do not expect it to invade our science courses tomorrow.

  • Elizabeth Lytle, Director, Education & Product Experience, zSpace


    This column is an interesting exploration of headset VR in education and the challenges to be overcome. There is a type of VR not mentioned here that is seeing adoption – in over 400 K12 districts here in the US and hundreds of thousands of students are learning every day through virtual reality with zSpace. zSpace combines elements of VR and AR on an all-in-one computer to create mixed reality computing experiences that are immersive, interactive and lifelike. With zSpace, students and teachers work collaboratively and experiment together – no headset required.

    What are they doing? Dissecting frogs, exploring the human body, building the skills to pass a medical certification, such as EMT or EMS. They’re experimenting with gravity and learning about biomechanics by manipulating the joints of the fingers in three dimensions. They can pick up and view virtual microscopic elements of cells, or troubleshoot a broken quadcopter. zSpace is supporting learning in every subject and at every grade level. It’s not tomorrow’s promise. It’s today’s reality.

    Educational outcomes? The research is starting to come in and it’s more than engagement that is created when students can access lifelike representations of content rather than pictures or videos of that content. While there is much more to understand, it’s starting and we’re looking forward to learning and growing with the research as it comes in.

    Check it out at http://www.zSpace.com

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