Where IS Virtual Reality in Education?

Last week’s class presentation by Logan Petlak and Bill Cook was all about virtual and augmented reality technologies. In my head, I was thinking of something like this:


flickr photo shared by USUHSPAO under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

This example is real from an actual demo and it is pretty obvious it is from military applications (the date posted is 2002). It is no surprise that we’re looking at that becuase military has been doing virtual training for years and it is only more recently that we are seeing virtual reality move to gaming (because flight simulators were appealing to lots of people) and then also into education. The visor, the gloves, those are what I expected to be seeing by now when I watched movies and tv growing up. Science fiction had very clear ideas about how virtual reality would work.

Sometimes it went more extreme with something like Tron and blurring the lines of reality and virtual or digital reality:

That movie and the remakes give new meaning to the idea of digital reality and whether the digital world is real. Okay, not what we mean when we talk about that, but still, that sort of thing is in my head when I think of virtual reality or augmented reality. Needless to say, neither of these views are here yet but we are still expecting virtual reality to be completely immersive, we are just considering different ways it could happen:

Yes, that is Sword Art Online. If you haven’t seen it, the premise is that a new video game has come out and you put on a helmet which sucks your consciousness into the game but the only way out is to beat the game. So people’s bodies are left in a coma-like state in the physical world while they live in a virtual reality. Spoilers, not everyone lives. It’s an interesting question about where tech is going and the potential dangers of it.

So far, though, virtual reality is not even remotely there. And augmented reality isn’t yet at the pervasiveness of Minority Report:

So far, you notice I’m supposed to be talking about education but only one of the things I’ve shown is real. But these days, our imaginations are driving the developments of science and technology. Science fiction is pushing what will become science and technology fact.

What about education?

Well, the NMC Horizon Report has been listing Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality as being within 5 years of huge impact on higher education for quite a while. Five years ago they were saying the “time to adoption” would be within five years. Now they are saying within two to three years it is going to be much more widespread. If you check out the report, you can see links to various recent articles highlighting ways VR and AR are being used in education or could be used.

The applications are promising. Stephanie shared some of her thoughts about applications in nursing and Sharon has talked about it previously too. During class, I know Andrew was involved in some discussion about applications in science (and he mentions his excitement in his blog).

But now I am back to thinking about the first examples I gave. Why were most of my thoughts of VR formulated through entertainment? Well, mostly because that is where the dreamers and visionaries get to play. Military applications might come first (because they have the budgets) but gaming is rarely far behind because again, they have the budget. They also have more freedom to explore and to think and question. The only limitations they have aside from the abilities of the coders and the technology they can work with are whether consumers will buy it.


flickr photo shared by BagoGames under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Yup. Consumers will. In fact, a family member already has and was showing others what it’s like to be in a shark cage in the ocean!

So why is education lagging behind?

I think we are seeing something really important here and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately for various reasons. When I think of education, I tend to get excited and think that is where we should see creativity and ingenuity and innovation. I think our kids and even university students should be experiencing the latest and most interesting ways to learn. If technology is changing at an exponential rate, then a part of my brain just assumes that education is part of that. And it is, as the Dunleavy and Dede chapter shows in terms of who is developing educational designs around augmented reality. And yet. Heidi talked about her hesitancy at first because her first thought was gaming, not about educational uses. Benita thought the same thing. When did gaming outstrip education in the ability to do cool things, be experimental, drive technological change?

Oh. Right. This is one of my frustrations about educational technology. So rarely is it driven by educators on the ground because it takes money and the money that goes into education isn’t going into teachers and educators developing edtech. (It’s going to companies and infrastructure and salaries and services, mostly because there is not enough importance and money going into education, but that’s another rant entirely.) So even though companies find education profitable to market to, we aren’t often seeing education in general driving developments. We might see small labs or individuals doing innovative things (like Alec) but as a whole, education is not really a land of change and pushing boundaries. Those who do want to do that find ways but mainstream changes are hard.

So it is less surprising that VR and AR are slow to move into education.

And even less surprising that there are going to be digital divide issues when they do. Natalie pointed out that “the digital divide goes beyond our students. Perhaps there is a dividing digital line between educators as well. A lack of training or available resources between teachers and schools also creates a gap of equity.” So sure, there are some innovators out there who are doing cool things and who are up for the challenge of learning on their own because that is a) part of their personality and b) part of their experience. What about everyone else? What about the teachers who can’t afford to do the experimentation? Who don’t have the time because that’s the reality and they also have kids and a family and hobbies and there are not enough hours in the day or money for apps or tech or whatever? Not everyone wants to be trying the newest and most cutting edge thing. Sometimes they worry they will bleed and so will their students. It’s a justifiable concern. As Natalie said, who is supporting those teachers? And what about the students who don’t have a phone or don’t have data or who have an old model that can’t run the app?

I see a lot of promise in virtual reality, not least for connecting online students. But I think we are farther behind than we want to be. I think it will take longer. I think we have to keep looking outside education to see what is possible and keep thinking about how we could use that. We need to keep talking to one another to get all sides of the issue.

And yes, I do enjoy video games. I also read. For me, it’s a similar thing, a way to experience things in a different world, to think differently, to be challenged and creative, maybe even hang out with my husband and do something together (we are a couch co-op family). I see logic puzzles and analytical thinking and even just the joy of exploring. And yes, I button mash a bit too. But what this VR and AR discussion has got me thinking is this:

I think we need to keep exploring.

(and for those who heard anything about No Man’s Sky, there is a new update and maybe it’s better now but the premise is amazing even if the execution wasn’t as good as hoped.)

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