Travel without leaving class is a virtual reality

4th April 2014 at 01:00
`Game-changing' headsets will soon be used in schools, experts say

Fully immersive virtual reality will transform education within a decade, allowing students to travel to ancient and foreign lands without leaving the classroom, experts have predicted.

The technology is already being used by Harvard University to enable Egyptology undergraduates to visit the pyramids of Giza from the comfort of their own campus. And with cheaper hardware expected to flood the consumer market, school students will soon be able to plug in to the "game-changing" technology, leading figures have said.

The prospect of virtual reality classrooms was thrown into the spotlight after Facebook paid $2.3 billion (pound;1.4 billion) for leading developer Oculus VR, citing education as one of the main applications of the company's headset technology.

"Imagine enjoying a court-side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face - just by putting on goggles in your home," said Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who predicted that virtual reality would become a "part of daily life for billions of people".

Thierry Collet, vice-president of global education at Dassault Systmes, which developed the Giza experience for Harvard, said the technology would transform teaching in schools.

"I believe it is a complete game changer when it comes to education," Mr Collet told TES. "It will change the way we comprehend pedagogy. You can help students move from theory to concrete experiments instantly, because they will experience it in a more natural manner rather than following a more traditional, conceptual approach in a textbook."

In a Google Hangouts webchat at the start of the year, hosted by the White House, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey argued that virtual reality would be particularly important for science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) education.

"Kids don't learn best from reading a book or looking at a chalkboard," he said. "As a society we've decided there's benefit from field trips, of having hands-on experiences. The problem is, it takes a lot of resources to do that and you can't do it every day.

"Virtual reality will make a lot of these experiences, like travelling to virtual locations, seeing all the planets next to one another to scale. It is going to take things that are impossible to do today and make them part of everyday education."

Early adopters over the next five to 10 years would most likely be the Ivy League universities, with the technology later spreading to schools, according to Mr Collet. But Neil Schneider, faculty manager of immersive technology services at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Canada, said the affordability of hardware meant schools could be using it within three years.

"Whereas before it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to buy the kit, now it only costs hundreds of dollars," he told TES. "Applications can range from distance learning, where a student could put on the goggles and join a classroom anywhere in the world, to dissecting frogs in an experiment, all in a 100 per cent digital world. I think within three years we'll start to see experimental scenarios in the classroom."

Schools have experienced major technological advances in recent years. Governments around the world have committed to providing students with tablet computers and are pouring money into better connectivity. As a result, augmented reality is already being used in lessons.

Dassault Systmes will be offering school students the opportunity to experience the Second World War D-Day landings in virtual reality from May. But Mr Collet said training was required to help teachers make the most of the technology.

"The potential is tremendous, but it takes time for teachers to become aware of it and capable of using it as a worthwhile tool," he said. "Look how long it has taken other technologies to be used, such as tablets, which are far less disruptive and less expensive."

Miles Berry, board member of the UK's ICT subject association Naace, and principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton, said it was possible to think of "lovely uses" for virtual reality, such as exploring cells inside the body. "That said, the heart of good education for many of us is about a conversation between teacher and pupils," he added.

Facebook's move into the technology follows an announcement from Sony last month that it is working on virtual reality headsets for its next video-game console. The company said that educational applications would be a key element: it is developing a "walk on Mars" in conjunction with Nasa and is building a "Walking with Dinosaurs" experience.

The VR experience

Matt Hill, editor of technology magazine T3, writes: "Strapping on a virtual reality headset is a thrilling experience. The effects are incredibly immersive. You move around and interact with this artificial world using a game controller, motion-sensors and even your own body, tracked - like film studio motion capture - by an external camera. Looking down at your artificial body or wafting a digital limb is truly surreal.

One demo had me exploring a Tuscan holiday retreat's period architecture and vibrant foliage. In another I sat playing a board game in a Lord of the Rings-esque throne room. A third brought multiple users together to play music in a virtual rehearsal area.

Oculus is not alone in this space, either. Sony PlayStation's Project Morpheus prototype is also in development.

How about a recreation of the fall of Pompeii for next term's Latin syllabus?"

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today