The great bard of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, was of the view that education should be a ‘joyous exercise of our inventive and constructive energies’. As an educator, my interest in VR therefore lies in understanding its role and potential in spearheading changes in our educational ecosystems. Although, change, as Larry Cuban rightly points out, is often entangled together with the constant when it comes to school environments, rather than an either/or dichotomy as reformers would have us believe. Cuban defines useful instructional technology as any teaching tool available to teachers for use in instructing students in a more efficient and thought provoking manner, instead of depending solely on the use of the teacher’s voice.
Likewise, Bill Ferster, in his seminal work Teaching Machines, observes that classroom instruction is an expensive and time-consuming process, fraught with contradictory theories, motives, and frustratingly uneven results. This is the juncture at which virtual reality in education can be of use, in creating a more dynamic and participatory learning environment for young learners. At a time when technology is becoming an increasingly integral part of our lives and more so that of school-going children around the world, it behooves technologists and teachers to work together to find creative solutions in order to bridge learning gaps, and VR can pave the way in such endeavors.
Capturing the imagination of information-saturated students is perhaps paradoxically the easiest and hardest task for VR-based learning. However, as Jamie Donally discusses in her new book, Learning Transported: Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Reality for All Classrooms, ‘Most students want to explore learning through a technology lens and these tools are still building momentum, making this the prime time to capture their attention. Students are eager to see the new technology because it’s part of their culture’ (2018). To elucidate upon Donally’s view, she believes that though students of today may have already encountered immersive technology in some shape or form (games, etc…), seeing it figure into a lesson or curricular activity holds the palpable possibility of engaging and intriguing them. In addition to increased engagement, students can further benefit from:
- authentic and purposeful learning experiences
- going beyond the walls of their classrooms
- communicating and assimilating better at their own levels of proficiency and pace
- and learning through collaborative exercises.
When given the opportunity, students want to discover learning for themselves rather than being told the answer, states Donally. Take for instance, the Virtual Harlem Project (VHp), is a collaborative learning network that was started with the purpose of studying the Harlem Renaissance, an important period in African American literary history, through the construction of a virtual reality scenario that brings to life Harlem, New York, as it existed in the 1920-30s. Even as traditional learning methods continue to stress upon declarative knowledge, primarily in the form of facts and concepts, VR-based learning can usher in a richly experiential mode of acquiring, absorbing and retaining knowledge by bringing reality–past, present, and future–to life, virtually.
The Future Forward
The most important question for innovators and educators, as we peer into the crystal ball, is how to take VR based learning forward into the future. In mapping the future of virtual reality in education, experts believe that AI, artificial intelligence, will play a pivotal role. While VR can provide a complete learning environment, the backbone of AI is data. With AI in VR, innovators can glean data regarding which part of the environment the learner finds most interesting or chooses to ignore, track student activity, and understand learning gaps, eventually building on the data gathered to devise dynamic learning solutions, sophisticated metrics of evaluation, and a more textured learning experience.
The objective will always be to better comprehend how each student learns and what kind of learners they are, with a view to assisting educators in performing their tasks in the most efficient way possible, creating a seamless and riveting educational experience. Although individual learning is a key component of the learning process, collaborative exercises, as in a classroom, are fundamental elements towards acquiring a purposeful education. The future of VR, therefore, will incorporate more social aspects in the learning environment, and AI can help in making interactions realistic and spontaneous for the student.
Nothing endures but change, wrote the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, and that sums up the most exciting part about the future of educational technology. We are only beginning to unravel the skeins of future possibilities when it comes to VR in education, and if the history of its development is anything to go by, an extraordinary journey awaits us all.
Behera, Arun K; T. Bhuvanesh Ram. ‘Rabindranath Tagore’s Progressive Educational Vision’. The Dawn Journal Vol. 4, No. 1, January – June 2015.
Cuban, Larry. Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920. Teachers College Press, 1986.
Donally, Jamie. Learning Transported: Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Reality for All Classrooms. International Society for Technology in Education, 2018.
Ferster, Bill. Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology. JHU Press, 2014.