Virtual Reality Comes to the Classroom

By Tracey Dowdy

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you one of the biggest struggles they face is keeping students engaged. Research demonstrates that the greater the level of student participation, the higher the achievement. That’s sometimes easier said than done.

Today, in classrooms full of students raised with smartphones and tablets, traditional chalkboard and lecture instruction is sometimes not enough. Teachers have always incorporated technology into their lesson plans to boost student engagement, and now, educators are looking to add virtual and augmented reality to their resources.

Think of the power of experiencing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Winston Churchill’s words after Dunkirk, or even Lou Gehrig’s farewell when he retired from baseball. Virtual reality allows students to do just that.

Instead of simply reading a textbook or watching a documentary about the Curiosity Rover, students can now explore Mars in an “immersive web experience” called Access Mars. The site is web-based, so students and teachers can access it through a desktop computer, mobile device or virtual/augmented-reality headset. It’s based on the collaboration between Microsoft and NASA to develop software called OnSight, which enables scientists to “work” on Mars using wearable technology called Microsoft HoloLens.

Back in 2015, Google introduced Expeditions, a virtual reality experience that allows teachers to take students on virtual field trips anywhere in the world using a simple cardboard viewer and a smartphone. Sites like AltspaceVR and Immersive AR Education are making VR educational experiences more accessible and have the potential to transform education and teaching methods for the next generation.

The potential goes further than the opportunity to “see” creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean or explore The Louvre. Through VR/AR experiences, students can have the greater understanding of what life is like after a fire, flood, tornado or other natural disaster and develop empathy for people who experience those events. These immersive experiences span every subject – art, history, science – and allow students a deeper understanding of each experience, serving as a catalyst to discover their passions.

One of the primary challenges at this point is the expense. Many school districts face budget cuts, so funding for VR is not a priority despite its potential in the classroom. As a result, some schools have students use their own phones and the school supplies the headsets. The obvious problem here is that not all students have access to a smartphone. Other school districts share devices district-wide, with phones and headsets reserved and picked up from a central location.

Many see VR as the future of education. The cost is trending downward and more people are becoming aware of the possibilities it presents, which in turn should help the VR/AR education market to grow over the next several years.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.