With the recent changes to education brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, educators, parents, and students alike are all thinking about alternatives to traditional education settings.
Long before COVID-19 there were innovative groups already integrating virtual reality into K-12 education and higher learning as well. I recently had the chance to sit down with virtual reality consultant Jim Intriglia, and talk about the fascinating reality of VR education, for both K-12 uses and professional uses. In the conversation, Jim dives a bit into the history of virtual reality, how VR is being used in education, and what we can expect to see in the future.
Lauren: To start, can you tell me a little about the history of virtual reality, and how it is impacting academic education? With the reality of COVID-19—is the trajectory of VR education moving forward more quickly now?
Jim: Virtual reality as a technology has been around since the 1960s. It’s one of the key technologies that’s been used over the years to train military and commercial airline pilots to fly. VR as technology is not really all that new, but it’s just emerging now into everyday use for professionals and general consumers.
For a few years, educators and consumers relied on the Google Cardboard headset. The Daydream Team’s Google Cardboard product was an inexpensive cardboard VR headset that used a smartphone running cardboard VR apps. It provided a near approximation of a virtual reality experience. And, this headset was inexpensive and easily obtainable. Many students and teachers already had a smartphone, so the end result was that the Google Daydream Team succeeded in introducing virtual reality experiences to the education and consumer market segments. I wrote a series of articles on my website, JimIntrilgia.com, about Google’s Daydream Team, where you can find more information about this invention and its uses.
In September of 2018 Oculus announced something new to the market space—the Oculus Quest. The Quest is a self-contained VR headset that doesn’t need to be tethered to a $3,000 gaming computer to use. Starting at $399, consumers and professionals can use this VR headset for gaming, for work, or for school. To me, that innovation represented a tipping point from a market adoption perspective. It certainly made VR more accessible for educational uses since for not that much more than the cost of a Chromebook, students can also have Oculus Quest to enhance their learning experiences.
In 2018, two educators, Lorelle VanFossen and Daniel Dyboski-Bryant launched Educators in VR (EDVR). EDVR first gained traction with colleges, universities, and postgraduate professors and students. As word spread about the innovative programs being developed and presented, EDVR caught the attention of K-12 teachers. Today, EDVR hosts and teaches over 500 educational events a year in virtual reality spaces.
In public schools, online learning, along with the rise of virtual reality learning, was being offered as an add-on component to in-classroom educational programs. Some schools viewed online education, especially emerging virtual reality educational applications, as more of a novelty than a practical platform for effectively educating students.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that in a matter of weeks when in-person instruction wasn’t an option anymore due to shelter-at-home directives from government officials worldwide. Teachers, students, and parents were suddenly thrust into remote learning practices and environments, whether that was learning in a virtual reality space, or more conventional online platforms such as Canvas, Blackboard or Google Classroom.
For many educators, parents, and students, this change was traumatic because teachers and parents weren’t prepared for the sudden change from learning in a physical classroom setting to learning in a virtual, online environment. Some students that were already engaged in online learning—those that were being educated in private schools or home-schooled—had the opportunity to transition to learning in a virtual reality space, led by the same educational innovators that help pioneer online education.
Lauren: What was helping to drive the transition to educate in a virtual space, as compared to educating online in 2D multimedia, or through text-based education?
Jim: Simply put, there are things you can do in VR that you can’t do in 2D—like anti-gravity. And how can teachers and students use this to their advantage? Well, one example is being able to explore a virtual art gallery. A few months ago, I was in a virtual art gallery looking at works I’ll never see in my lifetime, done to a very high resolution. Some of these works seemed like they were two stories high. In a real art gallery, I wouldn’t have been able to see the top of the painting. But in virtual reality, I could just levitate and I spent about half an hour exploring every part of that painting.
One of my blog readers, Jerimiah Goh, commented that “One of the biggest benefactor of VR is in learning and employee training. Lower cost, lesser risk, greater efficiency.” He cited Hiverlab’s VR beverage can Decorator Machine Training (DMT) application for employees of the Thai Beverage Can (TBC) company.
In the video segment, a TBC employee/instructor stated that he felt new employees learned the fundamentals of operating the machine faster than those who only had on-the-job training while the machine was in production.
In addition to TBC employees being able to engage DMT training from their homes via VR, employees reported that the application was useful in helping them learn operational aspects of the DMT, that they could not have learned on a running machine in a production environment.
Another use case would be viewing Michaelangelo’s masterpiece artwork in the Sistine Chapel. If we went to Rome, we would be able to see it, but we can’t see it from Michelangelo’s perspective. But in virtual reality, the IL DIVINO: Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling in VR experience provides a view of Sistine Chapel artwork, from Michelangelo’s perspective as he painted it perched high on scaffolding.
Lauren: It sounds to me like whether it’s a K-12 application or professional education application, VR really allows the person experiencing it to take learning into their own hands. Right?
Jim: Yes, that’s what’s called free agency. Free agency is another main feature that separates the classroom environment from a VR environment and even sets VR apart from an entertainment environment like Disney. That’s not to say anything negative about Disney, they’re doing amazing things in VR. But typically at Walt Disney World or Epcot, you sit down in a car and experience the ride that way. VR is just the opposite. The users are supposed to have the free agency to make the choices.
That’s one of the challenges educators are having in VR, both professionally and in K-12— some educators are getting into a virtual environment and saying “Okay, let’s have a class!” And VR users are shaking their heads, knowing that in a virtual space, they want to be able to engage, not just sit and listen to a lecture.
When I did a talk with a colleague, Jared Bitner, at the Educators in VR Summit 2020 back in March, we prepared a PowerPoint to share context, we spoke for just 10 minutes, and then we asked for questions and comments. At that point, people started to get involved, and that’s the key. It’s free agency. Let the audience come up on stage, let them interact with each other, even let the discussion go off-track. That’s what it’s about.
VR learning is not supposed to be refined. You do need some guidance around an experience, but the idea is that people want to be involved. And during that specific presentation, there were a lot of smart people in the room with a lot of different experiences. So it made the event rich. That’s much better than just sitting there and listening to someone talk endlessly for 40 minutes.
Lauren: I love that! What incredible potential there is for students of any age to have rich learning experiences through VR. So, even as governments are considering transitioning back to in-person learning in the fall, will virtual reality still continue to integrate into education?
Jim: As the challenges of COVID-19 carry on, and the future remains uncertain, we keep hearing people say, “When are we going to go back to normal?” The former “normal” is now a thing of the past. We are embarking on creating a new normal, which for education, involves more self-directed learning in both the real and virtual worlds. It doesn’t mean students will not have the opportunity to engage in face-to-face and group learning sessions in brick-and-mortar schools; it simply means virtual learning technologies will be engaged more often, giving both teachers and students more flexibility and options for learning.
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