It’s relatively safe to say that we remember most things better when we experience them versus when we read or hear about them. Remembering how the Battle of the Somme unfolded by reading about it in a book requires serious mental effort and a significant amount of repetition, whereas you’d be able to recall the battle in much better detail and much more vividly if you were the commander of the English army at the time.
Virtual reality can immerse you in a different world better than any other medium. Anyone who’s ever worn a VR headset knows how real it feels, how very much your brain can be tricked into believing it’s somewhere else. This makes VR an excellent tool for training and education. Around the world, students and teachers are increasingly using VR to learn about a wide variety of topics.
That’s not to say that VR is a silver bullet; a panacea to learn without effort. It’s not. Learning, and memory retention in general, will always require effort and some degree of rote. It’s important to cut through the hype of VR and understand how it can best be used in the classroom, in combination with all the wonderful ways of learning that students and teachers already have access to.
How to Use VR in the Classroom
VR is an engagement tool. People enjoy being in a virtual world and immediately exhibit the curiosity that young children grow up with. Use it to give your students something to do, not something to learn. The learning will come from the doing. Here are six examples of what you can do with VR in the classroom:
- Explore the world
Think of history and geography. Taking a field trip is expensive and difficult, which is why most schools organize at best one or two trips a year, to locations that aren’t too far away. But VR can take your students anywhere in the world, without even leaving the classroom. You can go to the Colosseum, Mount Fuji, Christ the Redeemer, you name it.
You can “access” the world through Google Earth VR, but that requires an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. These devices are too expensive for most schools and still need to be tethered to a relatively powerful desktop PC, which makes it impractical for the classroom. Instead, Google has over 900 different places you can explore with its Google Expeditions, which you can use on any VR device.
- Explore impossible places
We’ve talked about exploring geographical places, but that needn’t be where it stops. You can explore places that are impossible to visit too. The Mariana Trench, the Moon, the human heart. VR is only limited to the imagination and the capabilities of the content creator. Google Expeditions already has a few virtual field trips that aren’t geographical locations, and they’re only ever adding more.
- Develop empathy
VR is the only medium that can fully put you inside someone else’s body. This is called embodiment. Stepping into someone else’s shoes makes you more empathic to that person’s situation. Depending on the subject you’re teaching, your students can experience how it feels to face racism or bullying on a daily basis, what it’s like to be a refugee in a refugee camp, or how dangerous it can be when a driver is drunk or behaves inconsiderably when you’re cycling.
This might not be common subject matter in schools, but they’re nonetheless experiences that are important for students to deeply understand, so they become more empathic towards people that are different from them and better understand that actions have consequences.
- Understand abstract concepts
Human beings have incredibly advanced spatial capabilities. People who have to remember something like a speech or a list of facts often use a technique called the memory palace, where the things they want to remember are placed in a familiar environment in their mind, such as the rooms in their house. They associate a fact with a room, and if they want to remember that fact, they walk through their house in their mind’s eye until they encounter the room they’ve mentally placed the fact in, which helps them remember the fact.
This is why learning abstract concepts, of which there are many in mathematics, are difficult for many students. For example, how can you deeply understand higher dimensions if there’s no way to visually reproduce the fourth, fifth, sixth, etc… dimensions in real life? In a virtual world, you can demonstrate how that looks like, as demonstrated in this VR lesson on string theory.
- Experience careers first-hand
Want to be a firefighter? A surgeon? An astronaut? VR makes it possible to experience “a day in the life” of different professions. For companies thinking long-term, VR is already used as a recruitment tool. Manufacturing company Cooper Standard developed a VR application to bring students to the factory and show how manufacturing has changed over the years, as well as the kind of jobs that they can offer the students.
- Let students be creative
VR is a great tool for students to showcase their creative skills. A tool like Tilt Brush can have students paint whatever they want in 3D space. Students can then upload their creations to the Internet. It’s perhaps not the ultimate expression of creative freedom, but it’s a good bit better than having to work with real-life material.
Challenges For Using VR in the Classroom
Not all of the above is easy to implement, but some of it is. Google Expeditions is specifically geared towards schools and students and can be used with Google Cardboard, which costs $10. Considering upcoming VR devices, such as the Oculus Quest, are untethered and becoming cheaper, it will become easier for schools to give their students a more immersive VR experience.
For teachers, effectively educating students with VR is a new skillset. If you’re a teacher, you’ll need to learn how to lead up to a VR experience, how to guide your students through it, and what to do once the VR experience is over. Not everything has been created in VR either. You will have to rely on the VR content that’s made available to you.
Hardcore VR fanatics might object that 360-degree experiences aren’t real VR experiences, but that’s beside the point. It’s currently the easiest way for teachers to create content in a new medium without learning how to use complex rendering engines.
A New Medium
Increasingly, progressive schools are experimenting with VR to understand its effectiveness in the classroom. It’s not a silver bullet for learning, but it’s a great tool for students to learn something more deeply and to understand it better. As VR technology becomes less expensive and more accessible, we’re likely only going to see more of it in the classroom.