With a number of consumer options hitting the market, 2016 may well be the year virtual reality goes mainstream. The consumer market isn't the only space the tech is poised to shake up, though: Education also stands to benefit from VR.
Virtual reality tech has been working its way into the classroom for a few years already, and while new research from Samsung, released at last week's ISTE conference in Denver, shows that only 2% of teachers are currently using VR content, 85% agree that it will have a positive effect on students. The increasing affordability of headsets and growing familiarity with producing content in the medium will likely speed its adoption in coming years.
"Virtual reality can potentially open up a new window of opportunity, allowing content to be presented in a new and exciting way," said Shari Sentlowitz, senior manager of education solutions for Samsung Electronics America, during a panel at the show.
The panel, titled "Virtual Reality: Blend This Into Your Learning," also featured former high school social studies teacher and Free Tech 4 Teachers Founder Richard Byrne, Beaverton School District (OR) technology education teacher Ben Lloyd, Labster Project Manager Jan Stålberg, and FabLab and Nickipedia host Nick Uhas.
Over the course of the following hour, the panelists discussed how the tech could change classrooms, especially when it comes to science, history and social studies.
Virtual fieldtrips: To the museum — and far beyond
Perhaps the most obvious use of the tech, virtual fieldtrips allow students to experience locales they might not be able to visit physically, whether that be due to proximity or cost. A student in, say, rural Oklahoma could take a virtual trip to the Louvre in Paris or Great Wall of China, experiencing the sights and sounds of both locations in a navigable 360-degree interface.
But it gets even more exciting than modern day terrestrial locations: Teachers could also use virtual reality to take students into space, or even into the past. The possibilities have barely begun to be tapped.
Additionally, Samsung's research suggested that 42% of high school teachers would also like to use VR to tour college campuses and encourage students to pursue higher education.
VR puts students in control of learning
Part of the appeal of incorporating tech into classrooms has been the potential of increasing student engagement. Though the results have not always reflected this.
"It's not so much the initial engagement that is an obstacle. We can get kids engaged in a lot of things very quickly, with that 'cool factor.' That piece is easy," said Byrne. "The longterm engagement is more of a struggle. Once that initial 'cool factor' wears off, then we have to look at what we can do to continue to engage kids in using the technology in the classroom."
Byrne said the key is to avoid a scenario when the use of the tech becomes too teacher-driven, with steps being prescribed to students and exploration being limited. With VR, however, students are immersed in a virtual world where they feel more in control of their experience with less prescription from teachers.
"I think that's one of the real powers of virtual reality, that kids are going to be in control of their learning experience as they move forward through that," said Byrne.
It can reinforce and strengthen understanding of concepts
Lloyd recently blended VR into his 8th grade classroom at Beaverton's Highland Park Middle School. His initial experience with the tech came three years ago, when he bought a Google Cardboard, though he noted there was next to no content for it at the time. He later purchased a single Samsung Gear VR for his classroom, funded through DonorsChoose, rotating his class through the headset.
"We started out with Labster and had every kid do the demo experiment, that was DNA sequencing," said Lloyd. "It actually synced up pretty nice with some of the things they learned in seventh grade. That experience not only sparked engagement, but it wasn't just the virtual reality. It was, 'Whoa, this is awesome. I can understand this. I know what I'm doing.'"
From there, Lloyd said his class got creative and experimented with making content, creating 3D stereoscopic videos that tied into a video unit he already taught. The exercise ultimately helped students better understand concepts like framing shots, and also allowed them to be even more creative when it came to designing the mounts that would hold cameras together.
Speaking to the survey finding that 82% of teachers see science reaping the most benefits from VR, Stålberg added that the tech can truly open students' minds to the beauty of the subject.
"It should be beautiful. The only problem is that most times science is actually made to be sort of something that you have to go through," said Stålberg. Showing a video of Labster's VR simulations, he noted that science is engaging because of that beauty and also because of its sometimes dangerous nature.
"All those things should draw in students and pupils in ways that they don't do in other subjects. It's about emotions, and that's what virtual reality does: It draws in all these emotions. It brings in this connectivity to science that other digital materials can't."