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Education virtualization: The incursion/excursion continuum

Only time will tell whether virtual reality (VR) is a fad or the next big thing, but there are strong signals the technology has the potential to be a valuable tool for teachers and an engaging experience for students.

Venture capital investors certainly think so, with some analysts projecting that the VR market – hardware, software and content – will grow into a $15.9 billion industry by 2019. The education sector has seen a corresponding flurry of activity, with developers rushing to provide schools with dedicated VR-based content and tools.

But will the technology kill the school excursion in favour of VR incursions?

VR: Pros and cons

It is too early to say, but all the indications are that students benefit from the active, immersive experience VR provides. Besides providing visualizations of esoteric concepts, VR aids with retention and encourages student engagement. This is especially true for subjects such as astronomy, geography and maths, which can be difficult to convey in a traditional classroom setting.

Educators do need to be mindful that VR doesn’t replace interpersonal communication, which is so essential in contemporary education. Advanced VR technology is also expensive, so cost could be a barrier to entry for many schools.

Key VR platforms and software

The most basic VR experience comes via simple cardboard viewers, like Google’s Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear, which strap onto a smartphone and turn it into a VR headset. These are affordable but offer a limited VR experience. More sophisticated and immersive units – such as Sony’s PSVRHTC’s Vive and Facebook-owned Oculus Rift – all run off a dedicated computer.

VR platforms like Google Expeditions are another option. This immersive teaching tool has 500 ‘virtual’ expeditions that students can join, including tours of famous museums, spacewalks and more. Educators can lead classes, choosing what to highlight on a tour – all without leaving the classroom. Developers and content creators are also emerging to take advantage of VR, as are 360-degree video production companies and peripherals manufacturers.

Does VR have a future in the classroom?

While VR is unlikely to replace school excursions and ‘real world’ interactions, the technology has the potential to become an effective new tool in the classroom. Schools should incorporate VR into their curriculums so students can experience its myriad benefits.

It is also an unprecedented opportunity for educators to make their classes truly immersive, engaging experiences unhampered by physical location.