If you haven’t ever had a virtual reality experience before, you probably will in the next twelve months.
Virtual reality is coming online in a big way. VR headsets for high-end gaming PCs started shipping this past spring. This fall, Sony is launching a VR headset for its PlayStation 4 game console. Beyond gaming, Google has been experimenting with VR for two years, using phones and a cardboard holder. The low-tech, low-cost solution was designed to get VR into the hands of as many people as possible, and Google has already managed to get many developers on board with cardboard, creating games, simulations, and more. Google has created K12-focused Expeditions, where users can get the full 3D and 360-degree experience of being somewhere very few could ever go–like the Great Wall of China, the Great Barrier Reef, and even the surface of Mars. YouTube is also filling up with 360-degree 3D videos that are meant to be consumed with virtual reality devices. But VR isn’t always just consumptive–apps like Tilt Brush allow users to create 3D paintings in midair. And Google is getting ready to launch a more sophisticated VR platform with its next Android release in a few months, to build on and enhance their Cardboard platform. 2016 is the year of virtual reality.
As an instructional technologist, my natural tendency is to get excited about new technology and its potential in higher education. My instinct is to imagine all the possibilities that the next big thing affords for our classes and to push for the rapid adoption of the latest and greatest tech. But in the case of virtual reality, I’m a little skeptical that it’s going to be a true transformative technology for a couple reasons.
- VR experiences don’t provide much more information than a 2D video, simulation, or game can. Sure, in a VR environment, you can turn your head to expand your field of view and perceive depth of field more clearly. But in an educational experience, that could easily be a detriment. In most cases, you want your students to focus on one thing, and in a 2D experience, you can control where a student focuses just by framing the video.While VR may not provide increased information over a standard video, it can certainly provide for increased immersion and engagement. Yet I’m skeptical about the importance of this in higher education. For kids, maybe the excitement of “being there” really enhances how much their learning sticks. It’s harder to make the case that that would be true with higher ed in the long term. It may be a novel experience at first, but after it becomes commonplace, the friction of students having to put on a headset to access course materials could easily outweigh that benefit.
- The production costs for creating any kind of game-like simulation are going to be prohibitive for instructors and most institutions. We see this today with educational games and mobile apps–software development needs to be done at scale to be economical, so instructors are rarely in the driver’s seat. In time, textbook publishers and other vendors may produce VR simulations as part of their supplemental materials, but, as with current publisher-provided materials, instructors may have difficulty integrating them seamlessly into their curriculum when they don’t have full control.
There may be some applications though. While I don’t think it’s likely that virtual reality will transform higher education, I do think there are some potential uses to have a positive impact.
- Highly technical physical procedures–especially medicine. Recorded patient interaction and medical procedures or simulations may become a valuable on-ramp to firsthand clinical experience for medical students. Seeing human anatomy and symptoms in 3D could provide students a more complete picture to prepare them for what comes next, and having simulations that immerse students in the actual environment they’ll be working in through virtual reality might be better preparation than a traditional simulation.
- 360-degree 3D videos. More realistic for instructors and institutions than hiring programmers to create game-like simulations may be creating immersive videos using 360-degree camera rigs, which may be within the budget of a university. Instructors could use this for any number of enhanced virtual fieldtrips in the humanities, social sciences, or physical sciences. If it was used judiciously (in situations where full immersion and 360-degree view was more important than focusing a student’s attention on one thing at a time), it could be a beneficial supplement to a class.
- Immersion for the sake of focus. Recently, in a training session for new online instructors, an instructor lamented to me that in an online class, he couldn’t control the attention of a student as much as in a face-to-face class. He had watched relatives taking online classes, switching between paying attention to a lecture video for a few seconds, then tabbing over to Facebook, and having two or three text message conversations, all while “watching” the lecture.Ironically, the solution to this lack of focus may wind up being more technology. VR doesn’t lend itself to multitasking or task switching. When you are in a VR experience, you cut off other apps, other screens, notifications, and even physical distractions around you. Wouldn’t it be something if in a few years, students were watching VR lectures solely because having a headset on made it easier to pay attention?
It’s the early days for VR. We can only guess on the anticipated impact of any technology on education, but the only way to know for sure is to experiment. And I look forward to those experiments over these next few years.