This course actually came at an ideal time for me. Last semester I took an EC&I class with the often alluded to Alec Couros. Throughout that class, we learned a lot about the history of educational technology while also looking ahead to the future. One of the areas of technology that I was fortunate to have spent quite a bit of time researching was Virtual Reality.
As noted in the Horizon Report, “Virtual reality (VR) refers to computer-generated environments that simulate the physical presence of people and/or objects and realistic sensory experiences”. Most people, when they think of VR, picture a giant headset and while that is partly true, it is worth noting that there are 3 different types of VR – Non-immersive, semi-immersive, and fully immersive.
Non-Immersive VR – As the name implies, this is the least immersive of the 3 simulations. In these simulations, only a small number of the user’s senses are stimulated which still allows for them to be aware of the reality outside of the VR simulation. Users experience 3d environments usually through an HD monitor on a standard desktop computer. Picture a golf-simulator here.
Semi-Immersive VR – As the name implies, the user is partly, but not totally immersed in the simulation. The best example of semi-immersed would be a standard flight simulator using large screen projector systems or multiple television projection systems to properly stimulate the user’s visuals. Best thing to picture here is a flight simulator.
Fully Immersive – The most immersive type of VR. Head-mounted displays, handwear, and motion detecting devices are used in order to stimulate ALL of the user’s senses. This would be an example of your stereotypical VR setup.
Due to its high cost (the first example of fully immersive VR cost approximately $350,000 back in 1989), VR has historically been viewed as somewhat of an expensive gimmick. That, however, has started to change recently as the cost of the technology has started to come down. Playstation VR, for example, can be purchased for approximately $400 (though you’ll also need a PS4 which will set you back an additional $300ish). Meanwhile, the Oculus Rift can be purchased for somewhere around $500.
With VR becoming more mainstream, what has this meant for education? Well, there have been quite a few examples of VR being used for educational purposes. The most common use of VR in the classroom at the moment would likely be virtual field trips, with Google Expeditions being the most accessible. That said, Google Expeditions is not the only example of the “field trip” potential of virtual reality. The Frontier Driving Academy in Winnipeg has used VR to train drivers while some colleges have used VR as a recruiting tool to simulate campus life. The use of VR has extended to the medical field with many universities (UCLA’s surgical theatre, for example) using VR to train surgeons.
Training drivers and surgeons? Simulating life on a college campus? These are all great uses of VR but what, if any potential does VR have in your standard classroom in Regina, Saskatchewan. Let’s face it, the likelihood of grade schools in Saskatchewan being equipped with VR capable of simulating the above is zero which brings us back to this:
The above is an image of Google Cardboard – the low-cost alternative on the VR market. With each headset costing around $15-20 (can be cheaper if you go for a non-Google model), this represents the most accessible option for your average school. So, what can Google Cardboard do? As mentioned earlier, the most popular use has been Google Expeditions which allows teachers and students to take immersive virtual journeys to Europe, coral reefs, the surface of Mars, and beyond.
Other educational apps include, but are not limited to, Titans of Space (allows students to tour the solar system), InMind VR (journey into a patient’s brain in search of neurons that cause mental disorders), and Discovery VR (allows users to learn about topics such as ecology and conservation).
In a time when many students have become disengaged by “traditional” schooling practices, Google Cardboard represents a relatively cheap and accessible alternative. That said, it’s not perfect. Compared to driving simulators and surgical theatres, Google Cardboard is obviously quite limited. In addition, it’ll still cost over $400 for a class set and requires students to have access to both a smartphone and reliable internet access. This is not a gamechanger by any stretch. What it is, however, is a tool that can be used to engage students using non-traditional methods.
VR has tremendous potential within the field of education. Whether it’s training drivers in a safe environment or simulating brain surgery, VR has already started to leave its mark on education. What does that mean for K-12 though? That remains to be seen. Google Cardboard is a neat option but let’s be realistic, it’s still fairly limited and in the current time of limited budgets, you’re not likely going to see school officials rushing to Best Buy to pick up a class set. Remember though, this is just the beginning. Not too long ago, your only option for fully-immersive VR cost over $350,000! It’ll be interesting to see whether VR can establish itself as an accessible force in the K-12 system rather than being limited to well-funded universities.