Virtual Reality in Education: One small step for technology, one giant leap for Education.

Mylène DELEBASSE, Béatrice FRANQUET, Daniel PICOT, Tom BOCKSTAEL

Today, 500 classrooms across the world are changing the way pupils learn with Lenovo VR [1]. Earlier today, a Fort Worthington student (Baltimore, USA) travelled from Cape Canaveral to the surface of the Moon, all before lunch. This best epitomizes the way Virtual Reality (VR) and tech companies are oiling the wheels of Education by giving students new ways of approaching learning.

This immersive method is steadily gaining ground, for the best of the students. For Fort Worthington student Brian Williams “you get to see stuff you don’t get to see in real life” [1]. Here is what some may consider the biggest advantage of technologies like VR: broadening the horizons of educators and pupils while serving as an equalizer for children who do not have the opportunity to visit Buckingham Palace or The Great Wall of China. Indeed, VR offers teachers an invaluable asset that could very well reduce inequalities between pupils, and in addition, such tangible format of learning and discovering might pave the way for students to have a vocation more easily.

If, as British Education expert Ken Robinson once said, “curiosity is the engine of achievement”, then maybe VR is the new fuel. In fact, VR genuinely entices students’ curiosity. Fort Worthington Principal Monique Debi has seen the transformation on a daily basis: “We’re really seeing an increase in excitement […] they’ve begun to ask questions extending beyond their curriculum […] they are like ‘Now I want to do some research’ ‘’ [1]. This being said, such transformation in society and in the way one approaches learning still contains its shares of interrogations.

Whether Virtual reality is an asset for Education…

Education had not changed for decades and perhaps even centuries before the last 20 years. Today, e-books and online courses change the format of Education, not only its contents. Thanks to technology, knowledge is accessible to more and more people and educational contents are increasingly diffused around the globe. Nevertheless, despite an increased access to knowledge, teaching has not changed much. Virtual Reality might be a solution to that. It reshuffles it all. The VR wave is coming to revolutionize Education, offering a chance to anyone and leaving behind the rigid and obsolete frame of learning.

First of all, learning becomes easier, better and more diversified, making it therefore more efficient. A study in Denmark about 160 students of Stanford University [2] has shown that VR added to a normal one-teacher class could double the impact of the course on the students. How to explain it? VR is more efficient and playful: it has been demonstrated before that one memorizes better through simulation (90%) than simple passive reading (10%) [3]. In that perspective, VR perfectly echoes the “Learning by doing” theory [4], first demonstrated by Kenneth ARROW in 1962. Thanks to Virtual Reality, students get involved durably and physically to a class, without being disturbed by social media notifications. Using that technology, students rediscover their curiosity, which will eventually help them with their career paths and decisions.

Virtual Reality also helps personalizing the experience and adjusting it to the level of the student. To put it simply, it takes into consideration the level of heterogeneity of a group.  For example, for those who are having difficulty in classic lecture courses, VR facilitates the visualization of the course, through concrete examples. It makes it more tangible for them, which in the end help their learning. On the other hand, VR provides an easier access to knowledge. Education is key to the development of anyone, a fortiori to the development of a country. More often than not, being well-educated increases both the employability and the income of an individual. In isolated parts of the world, why couldn’t VR be a solution to the lack of teachers?

Adding to the equalization of chances between schools and regions of the world, VR technologies can make up for individual inequalities. VR allows anyone to travel the world and every existing museum. Financial and cultural inequalities are mitigated, and there is no age limit to access the technology. Boundaries to creativity, knowledge and ideas would be surpassed. In a nutshell, VR facilitates learning through better accessibility and better content.

The potential of this technology has no precedent. According to American VR expert John Macleod [3], the next step is to create classes with immersive experiences and an interactive teacher to help share and collaborate with students. So far, he has launched his XRLibrary project in public libraries because it is a place accessible to anyone. The project already connects 600 libraries in Northern America. If funding can be an issue at first, John Macleod remains very optimistic because the price keeps decreasing. For instance, in 2017, you had to have a computer and a VR helmet for about $1500. In 2019, you only need a helmet that costs about $500. This price range will “make things a lot easier for schools, libraries and public institutions”.

In our changing world, VR could be the key to a good and accessible education for all.

…it is nonetheless a source of debates like any new technology…

Indeed, the first thing VR will need in order to truly be a revolution is massive usage. But having most people adopting a new technology is not easy, and most of the time it boils down to its cost. Virtual Reality, like any new technology, does not contravene this principle. Although VR material is less expensive than computers back in the days, qualitative VR equipment remain costly today. For instance, a medium-range material like the HTC Vive Pro already costs 1200€. And if VR helmets seem affordable, it might be to the detriment of their quality. Therefore, one could hardly see how and why such poor-quality material could and would be used in Education. The cost definitely ranks first in terms of boundaries, not every school has the financial ability to go all-in on Virtual Reality.

The price could lead to a second and broader issue: Education budgets. Although it might seem foolish to say so, but budgets dedicated to Education in Western Countries tend to be too small or insufficient today. “It is very true in France” have already claimed multiple French High School Principles. Inequalities between schools are already flagrant and increasing steadily, and such technology would just make them even bigger. Privileged schools and students would just be even more privileged when on the opposite, schools in “Educational Priority Area” would be more and more left behind. In the end, for as long as the prices of the technology will not decrease significantly, VR will not be accessible for every pupil. 

Now, for the sake of argument, let us imagine that every school in a given country had enough funds to resort to a massive usage of Virtual Reality. Other issues would still appear, the first one being teachers’ qualifications. Will teachers have the right skillset to teach students how to use VR material? Will they be able to adapt their course to the technology? For the past decades, technology has been extremely discriminating, so one could easily ask: if a teacher still has not switched to computers because of its lack of understanding today, how can the same teacher adopt VR material tomorrow? A common and thoughtful response would be that as VR is gaining ground, teachers will be trained, which means more expenses, once again.

Finally, is the VR technology as good as you could think? Masahiro Mori’s 1970 “Uncanny valley theory” questions the so-called greatness of that technology. As robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he studied the human behavior when interacting with human-like robots. His conclusion was that humans tend to formulate fierce criticisms very early on towards technology, most of the time for details. The same reasoning could be applied to VR. Here, the smallest aspect differing from reality would make users of VR very unhappy and pessimist about the technology. That would harden the learning process if VR were used in classrooms. The default would become the focal point of the pupil’s attention and the course would lose all its interest because the student would not be focused on the right thing. So, for the sake of argument, if one were to follow that theory, VR would happen to be very limited.

The VR industry is only starting today. Only a few companies are specialized and machines and content remain restricted. The technology still has to mature if it aims at being the cornerstone of tomorrow’s Education.

…debates that will decline as Virtual Reality progressively turns into a worldwide shared objective.

Despite being a new technology, Virtual Reality is already in the head of numerous governments. Indeed, many Head of State decided to open up to that new technological trend when they realized the potential benefits for their people’s life. Education is one branch that nourish big expectations. However, as we already explained, making VR the cornerstone of an entire segment of Education is a watershed that not everyone is ready to embrace due to lack of funding, qualifications or willingness.

While the United States undoubtedly lead the world in terms of venture capital funding and tech companies, China also have its share of homegrown innovations and companies (e.g. Lenovo) ready to tackle the American supremacy, once again. Today, China is the country that equips the most VR material in classrooms, while the “New World” focuses on finding new branches to be disrupted by VR, through its recent program called EdSim Challenge [5]. 

In the meantime, the “Old World” faced a slower start (once again?), but the process has sped up over the last two years and today, about 300 companies work in the VR branch, mostly in the United Kingdom. In Switzerland, neuroscience company Mindmaze recently raised $100 million and in the Netherlands, design expert TheConstruct is currently working on VR and Real Estate. So far, the French are only testing VR in some schools, and decided to focus on the main markets of VR which are Video Games and Real Estate.

Like any big change brought to life by technology, investments will not be the biggest issue. Having people buying into your project is what it is going to boil down to. In other words, mentality. In fact, the lifestyle and culture of each region will be the ultimate boundary to Virtual Reality. If technology is more accepted or if the population is open to changes, Education should benefit quickly from this technology. The situations of China, the UK and the USA illustrate it. The opposite could be seen in countries like France where evolutions and technology tend to be accepted over a longer period. Opposition is these countries will be fiercer, undoubtedly.

Territorial inequalities remain strong when it comes to technology. South America, Africa and parts of Asia do not address the VR revolution yet simply because they lack funding and economic development. Their priority remain industrialization and increasing living standards. VR remains a matter for highly developed countries, especially in Education.

As you have learnt, Virtual Reality may very well have the world go through unseen changes at some point in the near future. One could not minimize the impact Virtual reality already has on our lives, especially the impact it has on our children’s lives and their education. Progress is alive and kicking, it is tangible and inarguable. However, like every evolution (revolution?), VR in Education is having difficulty with funding, habits and teachers’ ability to teach through cutting-edge technological tools. Therefore, you can easily argue that, like any other significant change in society, VR in Education will progress when mentalities will have evolved. As of today, the technology still has to be widely accepted in order to be the genesis of unprecedented changes. Now, while some might say the future could not be bleaker due to Covid-19, will some experts claim that VR could be a solution to a shutdown world?

Sources

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=3099 Learning by doing theory written by Kenneth Arrow in 1962.

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