We are very familiar with the term, “content is king” and most of us associate that expression with Bill Gates’ 1996 article named as such. Even though this can be traced back to a photography book published in the early ‘70s, the relevance to us today very much rests with the message Mr. Gates is trying to convey.
The means of delivery of content is not as important as the information being transmitted. Whether a printed book, a textbook app, or 3D video on a screen, the means by which that information is delivered or presented is not the most important element. This can seem blatantly obvious. Why then is this not infinitely apparent when talking about immersive environments?
What is On Display
Go to any EdTech event, educational conference or trade show and check out the VR offerings. What is the first thing that is on display, and similarly for sale? The VR headset.“Look at our cool device.” “We have 6 DOF (degrees of freedom)!” And on and on it goes. The afterthought? Content. Should the VR not be held to the same standard as a TV and PC? We need go back to Bill Gates, and reflect upon his thoughts toward magazines online.
But to be successful online, a magazine can’t just take what it has in print and move it to the electronic realm. There isn’t enough depth or interactivity in print content to overcome the drawbacks of the online medium.
If people are to be expected to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen, they must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will. They need to have audio, and possibly video.
Is the reward for using VR the device itself, or should we be circumspect about the hype, and focus closely on what is under the hood?
Is Shiny Enough?
Yes, VR is the new toy on the block, and if we don’t properly attend to the content part of things, this gadget will be relegated to the back of the closet, gathering dust. The WOW factor is attractive, but the meat of this newest device must remain the content. Why this is important is the easy question.
Good content encourages engagement, which in turn encourages more time on topic, and new ways to interact with a concept. An enthusiastic learner is an open learner, which in turn is a receptive learner. Each one of these points is important for any teacher.
Since we know the why, it is important to answer the what.
What Content is Needed?
This can be a more interesting idea to consider, and not always as easy as it seems. Is it enough to put all content into a VR? Hopefully, there is no one who would answer affirmatively to that. It just wouldn’t make sense. If I am to teach about the heart, my students would benefit greatly by getting inside this organ and discovering the different parts and the inner workings of the heart. VR gives them that chance. But if I were to teach arithmetic, I would much prefer to pull out a paper and pencil and work with my learners that way. The point is, that the greater the complexity and difficulty in visualizing a concept, the greater benefit that VR provides us. But complexity alone is not the answer, and here is why.
There is a fair amount of content available now that is attractive and engaging. Google Expeditions is a great example, as is something like Wild Immersions, with Jane Goodall. I have been wildly captivated (pun intended) by the latter. But what of the implications for a teacher, and how would this work for a school?
There are factors which need to play a part in any decision about whether to go the “VR route” or not. Actually, I don’t think it is possible to not go that route, because of the inherent advantages that VR has to offer. But, we need to stay smart about these decisions. Does the content align to my curriculum needs? Are the objectives clear and learning outcomes realistic? Are there analytics built into the system so that I am aware of what my students are doing, and are gaps in learning easily identified? These are important questions which get to the heart of learning. Be vigilant… look for these and ask the hard questions!
There is another, more technical, question which is also important to be aware of, and to ask. What is the physical size or weight of the learning experience? That is, how many MBs or GBs does that one module take up? This becomes an important consideration because HMDs have a limited storage capacity, and if there are 32 GBs available, and half of that is taken up with one experience, that does not bode well for a variety of content to reside on the headset. Even if the size was not that dramatically large, do I really want to have a system with 4-5 really good experiences, which has to satisfy the needs of all of the students in my school. This just won’t do.
Be very leery of a company that has 10 really good modules, and then loads the HMDs with 2000 images and 3D videos. In essence, that company has 10 really good modules for learning. The rest is filler. Any company, or school, can load thousands of such items on a VR device. But that is a strong indication that they don’t have serious attention to content. As noted at the top, content is king, and good, vetted content, created by teachers and educators is not always easy to find. Keep a sharp eye out for this kind of content, because it will transform the VR from a fad, toy and gadget, into an important device which can truly assist in the learning process. And that’s what we all need.