Tom Starkey's world of ed tech

7th November 2014 at 00:00

When I was a young 'un, we all knew that virtual reality (VR) was going to be big. There were movies about it (which were, admittedly, mostly awful - anyone remember The Lawnmower Man?). And in every arcade there seemed to be a couple of kids blundering around in massive oblong headsets trying to shoot stuff that wasn't there. It wasn't perfect, but it was a start.

I was fully convinced that by the time I reached adulthood we would be able to throw on a pair of uber-cool specs and enter other worlds. We're not there yet, but with the development of technology such as the Oculus Rift, a portable VR headset that links to a desktop computer, we're reportedly a step closer (although still a long way from uber-cool - check out the reaction videos on YouTube if you don't believe me).

Is there scope for using the Oculus Rift and tools like it in education? They can potentially offer an immersive experience limited only by the imagination of software developers. They could allow our students to pilot spacecraft, interact with long-extinct creatures and build houses, stadiums or even whole cities.

Simulations could provide vocational education scenarios in places where practical tools just aren't practical. Students with autism or social anxiety could familiarise themselves with buildings they hadn't yet set foot in, easing transitions. You could even work out the perimeter and area of a rectangle while riding on the back of a dragon (the educational value of that may be limited, but it's what I'm hoping for). The scope of this technology is massive.

Then again, it could just be a gimmick. Much of the promotion of these technologies has been based around users' panicked reactions to virtual roller coasters or horror games. Once the initial wonder of the experience wears off, there is a chance that VR goggles could simply be another accessory that ends up gathering dust at the bottom of the library's technology cupboard.

I sincerely hope this doesn't happen. I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to shiny things in the classroom, but I feel genuinely excited and optimistic about VR. A fully immersive virtual world offers endless options for learning. I know the real world does that as well, but it doesn't give you the opportunity to ride a dragon.

If education can get in on the act early, the market it offers may help to steer the technology in a direction that fulfils its potential as a tool to aid learning. We'll just have to wait and see.

And while we're waiting, I'm going to design an app that allows me to practice simultaneous equations while riding a unicorn. Just because.

Tom Starkey is a teacher based in Leeds. Email asktom@tesglobal.com or find him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212

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