To VR or not to VR...

I start my inaugural blog post with some thoughts about Virtual Reality (VR) and its place within the HE sector and education as a whole. In taking up the mantle of designing educational and pedagogically worthwhile VR experiences, it seems a lot has been, and has yet to be, learnt about what VR can bring to our students.

Will it offer students improved levels of immersion – Looks likely given the right environment and equipment,

Or

Will it provide students with new and more valuable methods of learning study content – Not so sure about this one right now.

When I am asked to think about the validity of an educational VR project, I am reminded of my days as a teacher and what I learnt about the realities of student engagement. Obviously, working with driven and pro-active OU students affords certain benefits not necessarily realised when teaching children in a classroom setting, however, regardless of these differences, I like to think about the following things as a starting point:

 

  • Does the experience do something that goes beyond another medium like video

  • Is the learning contingent on the accuracy of assets within the experience

  • Does the experience have solid pedagogical aims which can outlast the fragility of novelty

There are plenty of other points worth considering but I am just going to focus on these few. In the first point, you may find that an experience offers nothing more than a video or web version would, and in these instances you really need to think about why you want to produce a VR experience and whether it is simply better suited to one of these other outputs. An educational VR experience should provide something beyond video, even if that one thing is increased immersion.

My second criteria relates to asset driven pedagogy, which in my mind doesn’t necessarily play well into the hands of VR. For example, it is indeed a great use of VR to send students to a historical Egyptian site which they would otherwise not be able to visit. The problem with this experience arises when you start relying on the accuracy of your environment to provide learning; it is not hard to see that asking students to read hieroglyphics in VR will not only be difficult (given the resolutions) but also potentially inaccurate (if the assets have been created as 3D objects rather than a photosphere).

 

The last of my criteria has its roots firmly in my earlier teaching experiences, in particular, when I used one of my classes to test some ideas I had for Augmented Reality (AR). Aside from the potentially game changing developments with mixed reality by Magic Leap and Microsoft with its Hololens, AR is pretty one dimensional once you strip away the novelty factor. At that time, I was using a free version of Aurasma to create experiences which were reliant on well-designed trigger images and forearms of steel. The latter point may seem like a joke, but my students really did, especially when trying to keep the device in the air and in focus of the trigger image for the duration of the experience. The main point I want to make here is that novelty does wear off and students will be quick to see the lack of real worth in a tool once this has happened.

 

Therefore design is important too, as is the actual content that goes into it. You need to have solid learning objectives which stand strong against a tide of distracting and novel experiences, and you need to make sure that these objectives are achievable in the VR platform just as well, if not better, than anywhere else. If students get tired with repeating the same experience in order to get information, then the experience will fail.

So when is the right time to use VR to teach? To be honest, I think that depends on what you want to achieve. I can’t see whole lessons being taught in VR simply because of how long users can spend in it, but VR could be useful as a supplementary piece; an experience which is exactly that, an experience. Students should be able to dip into VR to gain better experiential and practical understanding of a topic. I would say this is very important and will only change if better tools are developed for helping students record their learning within the platform. Don’t forget, students won’t be able to write or type in VR, nor will they be able to effectively bring artefacts out with them into their study domain. Again, each of these disadvantages could be overcome with the development of better tools and some creative thinking, but at least for the moment, when we are trying to accommodate even the most basic user with a Google Cardboard, we have to be increasingly aware of them.

I am still unsure what I believe the future of VR in education to be, and I think I will reserve judgement until we have seen it catch up with the gaming industry. I am also a bit biased towards aesthetically pleasing environments and the immersion that brings, almost to the point where I can forgive slight lapses in the learning criteria if it is well achieved. I’m not being hypocritical here, I simply believe that the strength of VR inherently lies with its immersion factor, and I am still somewhat dubious as to whether unique pedagogy can find a home in VR. That said, the potential is there, it might just require some fresh ideas and a new perspective to enable the education sector to really make VR its own. For the meantime, I would be happy with stunningly immersive environments which seek to reinforce a learning point through the simulation of first-hand experiences.