While most of the world is understandably in over their heads trying to envision a time when the pandemic is finally under control, the futurists have already moved on to celebrating the unintended consequences of the coronavirus. The frantic shift to online learning forced schools, colleges and universities to adapt. But the beauty amidst this chaos is the freedom from stubborn fear of the unknown. While some schools are known for their innovation, American education as a whole has long lagged behind industry in technological innovation thanks to the educators who stand in the way of progress because change is scary. But now, we have become used to living in a constant state of fear and it somehow freed us from our shackles and forced the resistant ones among us to transition to, if not embrace, a culture of change.
The pandemic fixed one of education’s biggest problems. It ripped us out of our comfort zone and showed us that we are capable of surviving massive disruption. People can adjust faster than most likely thought. So, the engineers who have been developing emerging technologies are now in an incredible place to ride this wave of adaptability and lead us into the future of mixed reality instruction faster than anyone could have imagined just one year ago. The country has perhaps never been in such an advantageous state of mind to usher in a new era of education that integrates pretty mind-blowing innovations in mixed reality technology (MR).
The future classroom will look nothing like 300-seat lecture halls. It won’t be constrained to a place or even time. The future will look like autonomy from the structure that some theorists believed students needed to succeed in a learning environment. In the future, educators won’t struggle this hard to hold students accountable in endless Teams meetings that look like black holes only dimly lit by student initials because no one wants to turn on their web camera. In the future, parents won’t have to fight with their children to turn off the video games and do their homework because learning will be just as, if not more, entertaining and engaging as Fortnite and League of Legends.
The future that awaits us has some exciting, interactive gamification. We will be greeted by new iterations of virtual reality (VR) technology with stronger mixed reality integrations as more companies develop ways to enhance augmented reality (AR) with VR and vice versa. Other companies, like Alteredux for example, are taking it a step further, even integrating video conferencing, AR, VR, MR and artificial intelligence. Textbooks will come alive as 3D digital animations, photos and videos jump off pages and into mobile devices thanks to AR QR codes.
VR is without a doubt the future of education. VR offers solutions to so many of education’s mounting problems. The coronavirus isn’t going away tomorrow and the affects it made on remote working will be imprinted in our country’s industries forever. The pandemic accelerated and highlighted the need for a solution to boredom, isolation, distractions, campus infrastructure and costly faculty salaries. Not only can VR help schools bounce back from this trying year, it can also greatly enhance learning. Since Jaron Lanier was first credited with coining the term VR in 1987, the technology has dramatically improved, as has its ability to create meaningful learning experiences for students.
The augmented reality company Zappar is also investing in more virtual reality technology. They just launched a kickstarter campaign for a project they’re calling ZapBox. This would integrate some of the AR technology Zappar is known for with VR to elevate mixed reality to a new dimension. ZapBox is expected to be relatively less expensive since it relies on a smartphone instead of a gaming console. The $40 price point would make this VR tool more accessible. Zappar also says the headset is much more customizable for different smartphones than many mobile headsets. This integration of AR and VR is likely to be a much larger part of the future of education. As of Nov. 26, 2020, 703 people pledged over $76,000 to launch this new tool (ZapBox, 2020).
While 360 degree video in mobile headsets is a phenomenal teaching tool to immerse students into photos, videos and animations, the next iteration of VR will change the game for educators. Several companies are now working on integrating wearable VR haptic suits with full-body tracking. As of Dec. 4, 2020, Shockwave raised $108,423 on kickstarter for a new VR spandex jacket that allows people to feel everything from a gentle touch of a hand to an explosion. The vibrations elevate the user’s senses to not only see and hear in VR but to literally feel the environment they’re in. This specific technology is designed to work with Oculus Rift, Oculus Rift S, Oculus Quest 1 & 2, HTC Vive, HTC Vive Pro, HTC Vive cosmos, and Valve Index.
Some companies like Immersive VR Education are already winning awards for their VR tools that include ground-breaking production value. In 2019, the Berlin Blitz collaboration with the BBC won Best VR Experience at the Digital Broadcast Awards. This cinematic VR experience immersed students in the middle of an intense WWII battle. They were recognized for accurately recreating historical events using mission data and voice recordings from 1943 (“Berlin Blitz,” 2019).
Immersive VR Education proves there’s financial incentive for educators to invest in VR. According to their September 2020 annual report, their revenue increased by 37% since 2019 (“VR Education Holdings,” 2020). The chief executive credits part of their recent success to the growing need for physical distancing because of the pandemic.
In addition to the increase in VR instruction, the future of this emerging technology will also increase access for students, teachers and instructional designers to create their own virtual content. A lot has changed since WordPress and YouTube launched new initiatives to make VR more widely available. In 2015, YouTube began supporting 360 degree videos on its platform (Wilms, Verma, & Bengali, 2015). Shortly after in 2016, WordPress enabled everyday users to enhance their websites with VR (“Embedding 360°”). This was an important step to democratizing VR content publication (Alba, 2015).
Since then, several educators have launched innovative VR curriculum. Robert Hernandez from USC Annenberg’s School of Communication and Journalism launched a VR storytelling project called Jovrnalism. Using 360 degree cameras and photogrammetry, Hernandez teaches students how to create immersive stories that enhance empathy and compassion. One project aimed to show people what it’s like to be homeless. Students set up a 360 degree camera inside a homeless person’s tent and edited a day in the life VR video to humanize people who are so often misunderstood and overlooked. VR’s ability to increase empathy is only beginning to be tapped. The future of VR in education will not only make history lessons more fun, it will also arm educators with a powerful tool to teach emotional intelligence and compassion, especially when the students are the ones creating the content (Hernandez, 2018).
This prediction is reinforced by several studies that found VR can make students feel “more committed and motivated” (Kerawalla, Luckin, Seljeflot, & Woolard, 2006). It is also consistent with a constructivist approach to learning that promotes a “full student-centered learning experience, given that students are main performers when experimenting and practicing with virtual objects,” (Winn, 2002). VR empowers learners to literally construct their own knowledge. The collaborative potential in VR education also suggests what Lev Vygotsky theorized that collaborative and social interactions can greatly enhance cognitive development (Padgett, 2020).
The implications for elevating an immersive multimedia experience to one where students can feel the environment around them opens an entirely new world where educators can grab the learner’s focus and truly offer them a visceral experience that lead to emotions that have been found to strengthen memory and activate learning in the brain.
In a 2018 study, researchers at the University of Maryland found that people recall information better when they use VR compared to 2D learning tools. Of the 40 participants, researchers found an 8.8% increase in memory for those who viewed images in a virtual environment instead of a desktop computer (Krokos, Plaisant, & Varshney, 2018). Part of the reason VR may have been a more effective learning tool is that study participants said they could focus better in VR. With the increasing distractions vying for our students’ attention, a tool that helps learners focus could be a game changer. This is especially true in the wake of a global pandemic.
In June 2020, Béatrice Pudelko explained that people’s struggle to concentrate during the pandemic is directly tied to neuroscience. As students fight back thoughts of anxiety and isolation, it becomes harder for them to focus on learning. Pudelko says that’s because people are “not only highly sensitive to the emotional charge of their perceptions but they are also unable to ignore it.” Her research suggests the more cognitive effort a learning assignment requires, the more easily students are likely to struggle with concentration.
This is where VR comes in. While VR is immersive and interactive, it requires much less tedious cognitive effort than say reading a text book. If we can reduce the effort students must put into an activity, they can focus on the experience and, according to Pudelko, will be less distracted, thus increasing learning. (Pudelko, 2020)
Even before we could see what VR would become, educators began predicting that an immersive experience may enhance learning because of the way the brain processes the unexpected. One study looked at how the physiological response confirmed predictions in the associative learning theory. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of causal associative learning they found that “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is associated specifically with the adjustment of inferential learning on the basis of unpredictability” (Fletcher. Et al. 2001).
While many are embracing the potential benefits of VR in education, there are some concerns that will need to be addressed to improve access and equity. Cost is by far the most commonly published concern in regard to VR technology; not just the cost of buying a headset, but the development of VR experiences.
Some VR headsets may require a high-end PC to operate. Others may require a gaming console like PlayStation. Some require external sensors or monitors and may be complex to set up. Some require mobile devices. Some headsets like Samsung Gear VR and Google Expeditions have reported overheating which may lead to disruption if the device needs time to cool down (A Guide to VR & AR in Education).
To create VR content, a 360 camera would be a common requirement which may be out of the budget for some teachers and students. But, smartphone cameras increasingly capture panorama photos that, while not completely 360 degree, do integrate into some social media and VR platforms.
Because of the budget cuts schools are now facing thanks to the coronavirus, my recommendation is that schools start now with what they can control. There are many free 360 degree videos on YouTube that teachers can start embedding into their learning management systems. Starting here will help transition some educators who may be hesitant to jump head first into VR content creation.
Another less intimidating place to start is by using mini clip-on VR glasses. These lightweight and often foldable VR glasses simply clip on to a smartphone and easily work with VR videos on YouTube. If schools buy these in large batches, they cost about one dollar each. If a teacher or student wants to buy one on their own, they can find different brands online that go for well under $10.
Many university libraries like the University of South Florida, for example, now allow students and educators to check out 360 degree cameras for free. I recommend that teachers consider recording 360 degree videos of experiences that are now hard to recreate because of COVID-19 safety restrictions. For example, a marine biology teacher can take a 360 degree camera to record a lecture on the plants and animals that live along the waterfront. Anthropology teachers can bring a 360 camera onsite to teach students about a specific place that might be hard for the entire class to travel to. One of the ways I used a 360 degree camera this semester was to record a VR lighting demonstration for my TV news students. This allowed students to look around to see where they should set up the lights and cameras.
While educators wait for administration to unfreeze budgets, they can apply for innovation grants that may cover the costs of VR headsets for their students. My biggest recommendation is that teachers just start using it themselves. They need to force themselves to become comfortable with the technology that the consumer gaming industry shows us is more commonly used by our students. Not only do we need to start meeting our students where they are, we also need to step it up and take the initiative to learn about these new tools so that we can give our students reasons to want to learn. Let us show them how we can take a devastating pandemic and turn it into a catalyst for innovation. Let us lead the way to show our students that we can adapt and thrive in the face of tremendous challenges.
1943: Berlin Blitz in Collaboration with the BBC: Immersive VR Education. (2019, September 02). Retrieved from https://immersivevreducation.com/products-vr-experiences/berlin-blitz/
Alba, D. (2015, November 05). YouTube’s Grand Plan to Make VR Accessible to Everybody. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2015/11/youtube-360-virtual-reality-video/
All-new ZapBox: 6-DoF Mixed Reality for $40. (2020, November 26). Retrieved from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/all-newzapbox/all-new-zapbox-awesome-mixed-reality-for-40?ref=6byho3
Embedding 360° Photos and Virtual Reality (VR) Content. (2020, October 06). Retrieve December 05, 2020, from https://wordpress.com/support/embedding-360-photos-and-virtual-reality-vr-content/
Fletcher, P., Anderson, J., Shanks, D. et al. Responses of human frontal cortex to surprising events are predicted by formal associative learning theory. Nat Neuroscience 4, 1043–1048 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn733
Hernandez, R. (2018, December 31). USC students produce Homeless Realities: HOMELESS REALITIES: Immersive project by JOVRNALISM. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from http://homelessrealities.jovrnalism.io/2018/12/31/usc-students-produce-homeless-realities/
Immersive VR Education. (2020, September 10). VR Education Holdings plc [Press release]. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.immersivevreducation-ir.com/docs/librariesprovider26/archive/results/interim-results-for-the-six-months-ended-30-june-2020.pdf
Krokos, E., Plaisant, C., & Varshney, A. (2018). Virtual memory palaces: Immersion aids recall. Virtual Reality, 23(1), 1-15. doi:10.1007/s10055-018-0346-3
Padgett, D. (2020, November 30). Learning Theories: Understanding the 4 Major Ones for the Classroom. Retrieved from https://www.leaderinme.org/blog/learning-theories/
Pudelko, B. (2020, June 08). Having trouble concentrating during the coronavirus pandemic? Neuroscience explains why. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/having-trouble-concentrating-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-neuroscience-explains-why-139185
Wilms, K., Verma, S., & Bengali, H. (2015, November 05). YouTube presses play on virtual reality. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from https://blog.youtube/news-and-events/youtube-presses-play-on-virtual-reality