Virtual reality in schools: beyond the goggles

If you think virtual reality is all about chunky goggles and almost-believable simulated school trips, you would be wrong. Dan Watson uncovers the true VR-enabled education future being researched in labs across the world – and finds that it promises something truly transformative
7th June 2019, 12:03am
A World Beyond The Googles


Virtual reality in schools: beyond the goggles

A single pupil sits at the front and centre of a classroom, in a lesson about the periodic table (a large copy of which hangs on the wall). The teacher is talking about gold and they gesture to its symbol, Au.

As if by magic, a piece of gold suddenly appears in the room, floating in mid-air, glittering and bright.

The teacher points to potassium. Again, a piece materialises. The teacher pauses, and then decides to demonstrate its explosive nature by dropping it into a bucket of water. The bucket emerges from nowhere, the lump drops, and the explosion shakes the room.

Later, the teacher mixes sodium and chlorine to make salt in a process so bright the pupil turns their eyes away.

This is not an exclusive one-to-one chemistry lesson - in fact, there are hundreds of pupils watching these experiments. Somehow, though, every one of them is “sitting” at the front and centre of the room.

The teacher is not a magician, either - but they are a little unconventional: it’s not a human at the front, but a floating orb.

You see, this is a virtual-reality (VR) lesson. It’s not the sort of lesson you might have read or heard about from tech salespeople, but instead it’s something cooked up in academia that is much more ambitious. And, with its promised economic and learning benefits, it might just be the future of teaching.

Virtual insanity?

VR has long been touted as a game changer in education. However, all teachers have seen of it so far is its use as a tool for virtual field trips: trekking the Great Wall of China or diving the Mariana Trench from the comfort of the classroom via slightly clunky goggles.

It’s fun, sure. Different, absolutely. But for most pupils, it is nothing more than a novelty that does not deliver true learning outcomes (and the engagement effect tends to wane pretty quickly, too).

However, VR is a nascent technology and its potential is still being understood. Researchers are developing better applications for it, and some of those academics have their eye on education. What they are uncovering is a vision of the future that goes way beyond humble field trips or even the Second Life scenarios of some years ago when it was believed that children would all sit in an exact virtual replica of their real-life classroom.

A leading light in this field is Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. He’s sort of famous: it is claimed that it was a demonstration of the power of VR in his lab that persuaded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to spend $3 billion (£2.3 billion) purchasing Oculus, maker of the Oculus Rift VR headset.

Bailenson is very highly regarded in his area of expertise and much of his work has been focused on understanding how VR can be used in education. For him, the rise of VR in schools is not just inevitable, it will be transformative. “I am convinced that once educational content starts becoming designed specifically for VR, we will see huge gains compared to traditional learning,” he says.

He cites a series of studies and experiments that he and his colleagues have conducted to demonstrate his point.

In one experiment, participants were asked to give a lecture within VR in front of a class of avatars sat on a curved bench. For half of the participants, if they failed to look at an avatar for a length of time, it would fade away and become translucent. The idea was to ensure that a teacher would not only focus on the pupils in the centre of the table, but all students equally. The data showed clearly that those with the translucent prompt had a far more even spread of eye contact with pupils, compared with those who did not have the prompt (

In another test, subjects wore a VR headset and were placed to feel as if they were sitting either at the front and centre of the classroom, off to the side or at the back of the room, during a virtual lesson, to see how this affected their learning outcomes. The results showed that a pupil who was “sitting” at the front, in full view of the teacher, had improved learning outcomes compared with those placed elsewhere (

“Specifically, sitting in the centre of the teacher’s field of view results in more learning than sitting in the periphery, and sitting in the front of the room results in more learning than sitting in the back,” Bailenson notes.

What’s intriguing about this is that, within VR, it would be possible for a large number of pupils to join a VR classroom - similar to a conference-call system - and for each to feel that they were sitting in that optimum seat, effectively receiving one-to-one teaching.

But that’s not all. A third experiment by Bailenson examined how digital avatars that are used to represent a person within VR can mimic the facial expressions of the person wearing the VR headset in real time. Within a VR classroom this would mean, for example, that if a teacher smiled, their avatar would also smile.

However, because VR environments can be manipulated, the researchers ran a series of tests where avatars adopted “enhanced smiles” when a participant smiled. Participants who talked with one another within a VR environment, represented as avatars with “enhanced smiles”, reported greater levels of engagement than those who met avatars with normal smiles or no smile (

So, as a teacher, if you are not much of a smiler in real life, or you are simply having a bad day, to your pupils in your virtual classroom you could be the very picture of happiness. “By enhancing facial expressions, the mood of a conversation improves, both in terms of how they speak (using linguistic analysis) and in terms of self-reported mood,” Bailenson explains, adding: “This definitely has applications to the classroom.”

But why does the teacher need a face at all? As other researchers in the field have pointed out, in VR you could have anything you want teaching you.

This was the starting point for an experiment at the University of Copenhagen, led by Professor Guido Makransky. He discovered that boys and girls respond better to different types of VR teachers. In the study of 66 students (half boys, half girls) at a Danish science school, girls performed better when taught by a pre-programmed avatar of a young female researcher. Meanwhile, boys performed better when taught by a “flying robot” (

“The potential to design pedagogical agents is very interesting,” Makransky explains. “The data suggests there is potential to design different pedagogical agents that can be ‘mentors’ to students. This is important, as in areas around Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths], girls [in particular] often lose interest - but if you can design an agent that appeals more to them, you could keep more people interested and make them consider it as a possible career.”

So, not only could you have every pupil front and centre, but the same teacher could be morphed into whatever each individual student would respond better to.

Scaled up, you can see how economics then come into play: a few expert teachers delivering to the masses in a form tailored to each individual, with no negative impact to learning, and no need for costly overheads such as school buildings…

But distributed learning to hundreds of pupils without any real human interaction, avatars with exaggerated smiles, flying robots - this is all a bit nightmarish, isn’t it? Would any teacher really want to enter, or stay in, a profession where they’re expected to put on a plastic headset and be represented as a floating orb or grinning cartoon character? Would any pupil really buy into this? Would society ever let it happen?

In some ways, a non-VR version of it is already happening. With Moocs (massive open online courses), an individual teacher can already reach thousands of pupils - and shifting this into the VR environments described above does not involve a huge stretch of the imagination.

Glitch in the Matrix

Meanwhile, Sugata Mitra has become famous (or, in some circles, infamous) for his School in the Cloud, where pupils from all over the world come together to learn with the help of the “Granny Cloud” - retired teachers offering a few hours of assistance per week. Again, converting this into the VR experience is entirely possible.

Complementary tech to aid the VR vision is fast becoming established, too: artificial intelligence-fuelled education enables personalised learning journeys within whole-class teaching and it is becoming increasingly prominent with platforms like Century; tech driven-teaching through the likes of Hegarty Maths; and collaborative learning via GDocs. Class size, in these scenarios, suddenly matters much less than it did.

In addition, the traditional model of teaching advocated in East Asia, which is increasingly prominent in England - direct teaching from the front, use of scripts, scaffolded rather than differentiated learning - lends itself to a VR-driven, mass consumer model of education much more than a pupil-centred, more progressive approach.

Put it all together and we are not as far off Bailenson’s vision as we might like to think.

And VR is already being used to help train the next generation of teachers. Graham Parton, staff lead for primary education and CPD at Leeds Beckett University, uses VR to explore how students respond to a variety of classroom scenarios relating to children with behavioural issues.

“We create scenarios where a child is exhibiting challenging behaviour, and it allows the students to see what choices they have as a teacher to try and help that child,” he explains. “We can also monitor their body during these environments to see how they react and respond, and this gives them the chance to rehearse how they might deal with it in real life.”

This is no gimmick: Parton notes that this is a training situation almost impossible to replicate, and it means that when confronted with such a scenario in a classroom, it won’t be the challenge it might have been.

So, should we all just accept that this is going to happen? The recruitment crisis solved as we will need fewer teachers; the budget crisis solved as we won’t need school buildings or other overheads (and we will need fewer teachers for bigger classes). If we’re already halfway there, why not keep going? Fetch me my goggles!

Parton raises the first key problem with this vision. “I don’t think in the future we will get some Matrix-style classroom,” he says. “[Teaching] has to be authentic - human interaction is really important. You can certainly learn through VR, but there will always be something missing.”

Steve Higgins, from the School of Education at Durham University, raises more problems. For example, he notes that while research may highlight interesting education outcomes, there are still questions around the age at which VR is suitable for children to use.

“I think we’d want to be cautious using VR with very young pupils until we know how it might affect their perception, coordination and development,” he argues. “There may be issues with fine motor control for younger pupils (early years and key stage 1) and if children are growing rapidly (ie, early teens) then overall coordination might be an issue.”

He can’t see it being a general solution, either. “As each new technology appears, it is heralded as a game-changer,” he explains. “[But] if we are lucky, it may find a niche, which improves a small corner of education somewhere.”

Cost is another issue. It seems clear that VR is a way off mass adoption, and thus affordability. Ben Davis, senior market analyst for education at Futuresource Consulting, puts it succinctly: “Technology is adopted at scale for two reasons: either a government mandates it - and I don’t see that happening with VR - or schools do it on their own. But [for that to happen], VR has to be scalable, offer cost savings, impact on exam results and be simple for teachers to use, rather than making life more complex. I don’t see VR ticking those boxes soon.”

It’s not just the cost of the kit itself, but the equipment and utilities to run it. The Office for National Statistics says 10 per cent of people in the UK don’t have an internet connection, and the Pew Research Centre says there is the same proportion without internet in the US. You also need extremely high-powered computer systems beyond the budgets of many households. And then you presumably need somewhere quiet to sit and log on - a room of one’s own. The English Housing Survey revealed earlier this year that more than 300,000 households were squeezed into too few rooms. How do the children in these homes “go to school” in the new VR world?

Proving the impossible

There are more questions: if the children are at home, who will be looking after them? Where will the teachers be and how will they be organised? How will socialisation be assured if everyone is on their own? What about safeguarding responsibilities? What about playing the system - is the avatar really a pupil attending or someone completely different “sitting” in class for them?

This is just the start of the list of queries. That’s not to say that there are no answers - the seemingly impossible has been proved otherwise so often in the past - but we seem a fair way off any realistic solutions right now.

What happens in the meantime? Most believe that VR will gradually seep its way into traditional classrooms, with teachers pre-teaching a topic and VR then being used for consolidation or exploration. But would this then eventually morph into the vision of education offered by Bailenson?

Teachers have been here before: iPads, Chromebooks, interactive whiteboards and more have arrived to great fanfare about a transformative impact, and the outcome has always been roughly the same: hype has turned into more balanced views about how these technologies could benefit teachers, before these things have become just another teaching tool that complements age-old pedagogical practices, rather than upending the current order.

Higgins cites a quote from Thomas Edison to show how long this hype-cycle has been going on: “Books,” Edison said in 1913, “will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of 10 years.”

It wasn’t, of course. And neither will VR make the waves some hope it will in the same time period. But the VR future envisioned in the research certainly raises questions worthy of consideration about economies of scale, teaching practice and the role of VR within that. We can often be guilty in education of being too closed-minded about alternative ways of working; if the likes of Bailenson can shock us out of that, then that can only be a good thing.

However, teaching orbs, enhanced emotions and a pupil population logging in from their bedrooms to a whole world of personalised education? The work of Bailenson and others suggests that these great transformations via VR are possible, but there is a hell of a lot of work left to be done to make them anywhere near plausible.

Dan Watson is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 7 June 2019 issue under the headline “VR: beyond the goggles”

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