As far back as the early 1960s, inventors have created elaborate devices capable of projecting realistic virtual worlds onto our senses. American filmmaker Morton Heilig pioneered an early version of virtual reality with his Sensorama Machine, patented in 1962, that mimicked a speedy motorcycle ride through Brooklyn. It played a 3D film along with smells, stereo sound, seat vibrations, and wind to complete the illusion.

While virtual reality (VR) systems continued to evolve in the decades that followed — from mechanical machines the size of a refrigerator to portable, head-mounted displays — their exorbitant cost kept them out of the general public’s hands. However, the last few years have marked a rebirth of the industry due to rapid technological advances and a lower price tag.

By the end of this year, consumers will have a plethora of VR headsets to choose from: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Google Cardboard to name a few. The widespread availability of these products has led many to consider how VR could be applied in educational settings in an attempt to provide students with a new, immersive way to learn.

“Virtual reality technology keeps changing in a way that is better for both the consumer and the educator,” said Larysa Nadolny, an Assistant Professor of Education at Iowa State University. “There is a lot of older research on these huge headsets with wires everywhere, but this is really the first year that VR is fully accessible to the consumer and reasonably priced.”

For this reason, the hard evidence on whether VR really helps students with engagement, motivation, and learning is still lacking. However, despite the unknowns, the technology has already entered the classroom through various pilot programs and educational grants.

In September of last year, Google launched a pilot program for an educational virtual field trip application called Expeditions. In conjunction with its inexpensive Cardboard headset, students can take more than 200 different trips to faraway places like Machu Picchu, Antarctica, and even Mars. Each Expedition trip comes with place descriptions, talking points, and questions for teachers to integrate into the classroom environment.

Google expeditions and beyond

Google’s biggest advantage for capturing the educational market is cost. The price of a Cardboard is far less than other VR headsets because it uses a smartphone as the display, encased in a cardboard frame fitted with lenses. The technology giant followed the announcement of Expeditions with 11 months of pre-release testing in which involved more than 1 million students in 11 countries.

“Google has done a really good job of being accessible to educators, especially when it comes to cost,” said Nadolny. “The headsets themselves are so cheap, and many students already have their own phone to use with it.”

VR systems that sell at a steeper price point than Google Cardboard have added features, such as higher quality imagery and an interaction component like hand-based controls. For instance, zSpace‘s VR setup includes tracking eyewear and an interactive stylus which can be used to manipulate virtual objects. It allows students to view and rotate a 3D representation, as well as take pieces apart.

“If students are learning about a molecule, they can view it from different angles or even dissect it to look at the subcomponents,” said Zahira Merchant, an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technologies at San Francisco State University. “It’s way more exciting than reading about it through text, looking at a 2D image, or exploring a concrete model of the molecule.”

In many cases, teachers must apply for grants to bring these high-end VR systems into their classrooms. A computer from zSpace has a monitor, keyboard, tracking glasses, and stylus which work in tandem to create realistic beating hearts, electrical circuits, or zero gravity worlds for kids to explore. But that quality comes at a price — in the U.S., schools must pay $50,000 to $70,000 for a set of 12 stations, which includes hardware, software, professional development and support services for teachers.

Because many of these newer systems have just launched or will be released later this year, research that investigate the benefits of learning with advanced VR technology have not yet been published. But we can look at older experiments using similar devices for hints of what VR could do for students.

What the research says

In the mid-2000s, a number of studies looked at the educational applications of “desktop virtual reality,” which use an ordinary computer with a screen that displays a 3D virtual world. Students can then navigate this world with a mouse and keyboard. A review paper published by the British Journal of Educational Technology in 2010 found that an overview of the research suggests that such software improves learning outcomes and helps students interact with one another.

In 2012, Merchant and her colleagues had 204 undergraduates enrolled in an introductory chemistry course try out desktop virtual world software called Second Life. The students explored virtual spaces that taught them fundamental chemistry concepts, allowing the user to rotate and zoom into molecules. The authors concluded that the 3D virtual reality-based instruction can be effective for enhancing chemistry achievement, but it also depends on learners’ characteristics and the interaction experience.

“We have known since ages that experiential learning is the best form of learning — it’s deep, profound, and meaningful because you have learned the material through all your senses,” said Merchant, who published the results in the journal Computers & Education. “Virtual reality curriculum is embedded in that philosophy of experiential education.”

Nadolny has experimented with augmented reality, defined as technology that allows the real world to be altered or supplemented by computer-generated sensory input. She compared students’ reactions to two paper handouts, one with augmented reality features and the other traditional, finding that engagement and interaction was higher for the digitally enhanced version.

However, experts warn that the adoption of shiny new devices for the classroom should go hand in hand with a solid curriculum. While it can be exciting for students, VR should be supplementary to traditional teaching methods and not a standalone.

“Being an educational technologist, my fear with technology is that it should not become the end in and of itself,” Merchant said. “The gimmick and glamour of VR should not overpower the goal of why we are using this technology, and there should always be a proper curriculum backing its use.”

With the growing number of startups working on educational VR content and hardware — including Nearpod, Alchemy VR, Discovery VR, and EON Reality — it seems inevitable that more classrooms around the world will open their doors to VR. But whether it truly proves viable as an effective learning tool and not just the latest fad remains unknown and untested.

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