At CES last month, Oculus (owned by Facebook) and Google both revealed standalone Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. The Oculus Go is expected later in the spring and is priced from $199, while Lenovo announced its Mirage Solo, which will be less than $400 per headset. Undoubtedly, the gaming sector is where the tech giants have set their sights, but the technology is becoming increasingly affordable (although far from ‘mainstream’). As a team interested in supporting pedagogic innovation, we were naturally curious about the value of immersive technologies, such as VR, when applied to experiential and social learning activities.

Looking at future emergent technologies is only a small proportion of what we do. Back in September 2016 we initiated a project to explore VR and started from a position where there was (and still is) little by way of instructional design guidance or evaluation of learning in VR. Having invested in new hardware, we developed the skills necessary to properly design and develop educational experiences in VR. In a little over 12 months, we have been able to put VR technology in students’ hands to start to evaluate the technology and their experience of it.

Design of VR experiences

At the outset, we discovered that without experiencing VR first-hand, it is difficult understand the strengths of the technology and how to design learning experiences that take advantage of these. We spent a lot of time debating when VR should and shouldn’t be used in teaching and learning, which Lawrence discusses here.

Our work over the last year has convinced us that both the pedagogy and technology need to be mutually supportive – you can’t design the experience upfront and then translate that into code – it’s an iterative process. Accessibility and scalability were considerations for us so Jamie, our lead developer, experimented with how we might enable affordable gesture control . Providing students with a high-end VR headset was beyond our reach so we opted for a combination of users’ smart phone and this Google Cardboard style headset which we supplied to students.

In September we presented our work to fellow educators at ALT-C and have since developed a VR Suitability toolkit, which aims to be a first stop for those unsure of whether their idea is suitable for delivery in VR.

Pilot, evaluation and what’s next?

In November 2016 we instigated work on a pilot VR application with colleagues in the Faculty of Business and Law. The VR app enables students to practice delivering a presentation to an artificial audience who react based on students’ interactions; this, along with quantitative feedback, is designed to enable students to refine their practice and increase confidence. This enhances the support we offer our students in terms of clinical legal education whereby they participate in public engagement activity designed to help them apply the law to real world problems.

It has been a busy 16 months involving students in user testing and the usual rigours of quality assurance processes to get to the point where we’re piloting the use of a VR application. We start 2018 looking to evaluate the pilot and keep up with the pace with which the technology is developing. All this will help us to make further enhancements to the VR suitability toolkit, the app and ensure we lead on best practice. Follow us on Twitter @TELinnovation to keep up with our work.