The classroom of the future: through the lens of VR

Richard Henderson, Director of Global Education Solutions at Lenovo, discusses why exposing students to working with VR and AR could be essential to their development.

Digital transformation is happening across all industries, not least the education sector. Wrapped in this transformation is the growing role of Virtual Reality (VR) technology and its ability to revolutionise educative experiences, where students are no longer bound by classroom walls or buried in textbooks, and instead they are launched into immersive VR environments.

While the notion of VR within education may seem a novel experience, the education sector should take note of the applications of VR already in use. VR has already seen strong adoption in gaming, but the use in commercial training is growing in prominence. For example, Healthcare is using VR technology to help prepare trainee surgeons for the operating theatre. Visualising these numbers, Statista figures show that the VR and AR markets are set to grow to an extraordinary $192.7 billion by 2022, showing the opportunity for education to tap into this market.

This is running parallel with the idea that students are more technology savvy than ever before, making it a natural course of progression for education. Technology is central to student’s day-to-day lives, and as such they now expect the world of education to adapt to innovations in technology, and in turn, provide enhanced learning experiences. One of the key responsibilities for education institutions is to train students for workplace readiness, and exposing students to working with VR and AR is essential to this development.

Taking control of the learning experience

The power of VR is in its ability to create a truly immersive educative experience, that not only puts students at the heart of learning, but also the teaching process. Through VR headsets and 360 degree cameras, students are able to capture content, and then have this visualised on a VR headset for other students to explore – an exciting opportunity never experienced previously within education. This is enabling students to take others on a journey with them to areas not previously experienced, making the intangible, tangible.

Exemplifying this, here at Lenovo we recently partnered with academic professionals and the National Museums of Liverpool to give students from Groby Community College in Leicester the ability to develop their VR content following a school excursion to Liverpool. This resonated positively with the students who enjoyed the visual and immersive learning experiences and having a voice in what was shaping their learning. By having more control of their experiences combined with guidance from a teacher, students can be more engaged in their education and better equipped in their ability to absorb information.

VR technology is also helping address some of the barriers that have often halted education experiences and ensure that students across the board have equal learning opportunities. As the technology develops, we can imagine future applications of VR technology where students can tune into lessons, no matter where they’re based – meaning that they’re no longer bound by geographical location or time zone. Students who may be unwell or find it difficult to travel, can tap into an immersive experience from the comfort of their homes and absorb information as they would in a physical environment.

Transitioning to a new way of learning

Of course, with any new technology, VR is still very much in its infancy and will require a period of adjustment. Even within gaming which has seen positive adoption of VR, it is still a new trend that requires development to truly hit its potential. VR has typically not been part of the curriculum and wider conversations between teachers and education institutions will need to be held to boost awareness of the benefits that VR can offer students’ learning experiences.

To aid discussions on the benefits of VR in education, Lenovo conducted a study asking 500 UK primary and secondary school teachers about their views on the technology. A staggering 94% of respondents believe it would benefit the classroom. But as it’s still relatively new, only 23% of teachers have used VR in the classroom, and of those that have, 97% believe it led to more engaged students.

These findings are reassuring to support wider adoption of VR in education and seeing more ways for it to be included in the curriculum. Subjects such as geography and science, can form a starting point for VR as these are often harder topics to visualise in the classroom, allowing room for progression for other topics to be visualised and included in lessons. From the research, teachers cited climbing to the top of Everest and exploring wildlife as areas of interest to explore, thanks to VR.

To ensure this is achieved, more content will need to be produced that not only enables effective learning experiences for students, but also meets academic guidelines and course syllabuses. Google Expeditions is a good example of a software platform that is enabling both VR and augmented reality (AR) offerings to aid teaching experiences, but until content is at a suitable level, VR within education can be considered a complementary aid to the existing syllabus.

More pilots of VR technology will aid this development and create more acceptance within education. VR technology vendors can partner with schools for educational trips and encourage students to create their own VR content to support the teaching for other students. In the future, more open dialogues such as forums can foster communications between teachers and students about content of interest and methods of wider integration within education – helping expediate VR in education.

Aiding the curriculum

There is a growing awareness that students don’t just learn from books or from screens. Instead, visual learning is one of the best methods in retaining information, representing a good buy-in for more adoption of VR in education. VR helps submerge students into learning experiences and helps level the playing field helping to maximising the learning experience.

One of the biggest struggles for the education sector is justifying the budget for the VR headsets. While VR may seem like a significant expenditure, its initial CAPEX would be offset by the longer-term benefits to students’ learning experiences, and additionally in its ability to complement teacher’s lesson plans to create more engaged and stimulating environments for students. Through VR learning, teachers and students alike can continue to create new types of content for others for years to come and can use software such as Google Expeditions to explore even more new areas – boosting the longevity of VR in education.

Of course, there will need to be a time and effort investment from teachers to commit to VR learning. This will ensure that VR is factored into student’s education, but also that students are aware of how the technology works and how it can be combined with their studies. Studies have shown the visual aids such as VR learning, can make abstract concepts easier to understand and more welcoming to learn, making the learning both more effective and longer lasting. If students are in fact more engaged, then initial costs of the technology will have been worth the investment.

Increasing adoption of technology within education is just part of the wider digital transformation happening all around us. VR technology is not looking to overtake or replace tried and tested models of teaching for students, instead, it’s a way to facilitate more immersive and visual experiences that would have been too difficult to achieve through books or via the internet. Transitioning to an education system powered by VR will ultimately require an adjustment period, not only for students, but for teachers to understand the technology and ensure it can be easily used as part of the syllabus. However, through pilot schemes and a positive outlook on the benefits of VR, which will create wider buy-in across the entire education system, VR has the power to transform student’s experiences and open-up entire new worlds in which to explore.

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