Virtual reality: not the edu-fad it is made out to be?

Far from being a gimmick, virtual reality may prove a useful tool for teachers if we use it properly, argues Mark Steed

Mark S Steed

virtual reality

The lift doors closed, and I ascended to the 45th floor. When they opened again, it was not to a generic corridor but to a plank extending out from the building.

It was a test: did I have the nerve to walk out there?

I was experiencing acute anxiety and the inevitable vertigo associated with looking down from a skyscraper. I froze – I could not leave the safety of the lift. I had failed.

So I took my goggles off.

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Virtual reality lessons

Throughout, part of my brain had known that I was in the safety of a classroom in the sixth-form block at my school and that the plank, in reality, was an expanse of carpet extending in front of me.

But despite knowing that I was in no immediate danger, I was terrified. My senses had been hijacked by virtual reality and some primal sense of survival deep inside me had kicked in. Try as I might, I could not overcome it.

The "Plank Experience" has been part of our IB Diploma psychology unit on fear and anxiety for a couple of years now. It is an extraordinary way of approaching the topic. It is one of many examples of how virtual reality is transforming the classroom experience of pupils.

At a very basic level, virtual reality gives almost limitless scope for teachers to take pupils on trips anywhere in the world without leaving the grounds.

Trips to the world

A class can visit China and experience what it is like to walk up and down the crumbling steps of the Great Wall, they can take a stroll along Wall Street, gasp at the view from the top of the Burj Khalifa, or even dive the Great Barrier Reef.

In the past six months, Year 7 went to Africa, Year 3 have been to the Pyramids, Year 4 visited the Vikings, Year 5 went to Ancient Greece and Year 1 even travelled into space.

All these "school trips" are available in the classroom within a matter of minutes – a further bonus is that there’s no disruption to the curriculum, no additional paperwork, no buses to order, and the hi-vis jackets can stay in the cupboard.

Over the past 20 years, we have seen videos, DVDs, classroom projectors, interactive whiteboards, 3D projectors and computer games recruited to improve the learning experience of pupils.

But is it all just another gimmick to grab the attention of a new generation?

Research-backed pedagogy

It is understandable that teachers and school leaders are sceptical. We know that each tech innovation that is deployed in schools requires the development of an effective pedagogy, too.

With the luxury of hindsight, too many schools have deployed new technologies without really knowing what they were doing or why they were doing it.

So rather than just sit back and be impressed with virtual reality, we wanted to know if it actually worked.

With this in mind, the Independent Schools Council Digital Strategy Group launched an action research project last spring. The study was managed by Ian Phillips, assistant headteacher at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School (@IanHabs) and involved teachers and pupils from seven schools completing questionnaires and interviews on the impact of the introduction of virtual reality into the classroom.

The results of the study were published in November as Growth Headset: Exploring the use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Schools, written by Dr James Mannion (@RethinkingJames). 

The verdict...

The most common theme to emerge from the research was that virtual reality technology can be used to facilitate learning in two ways: first, through visualisation and seeing in 3D; and, second, by providing an interactive and more immersive learning environment that makes topics more memorable than information in textbooks.

While some teachers in the study expressed concerns about the logistics of using virtual reality in the classroom, the majority of students and teachers were able to share examples of where they felt using virtual reality had had a positive impact on learning, or where it was likely to have a positive impact on learning in the future.

The Growth Headset report also provides some initial insight into how virtual reality might be deployed in schools and seeks to answer some of the important questions about the place that this technology might play in schools over the coming years. We need to develop policies and protocols to disseminate this best practice.

Best practice?

For example, at JESS, we have found (the hard way) that primary children are best using virtual reality headsets sitting down and that that they hold the viewer to their eyes, rather than being strapped on, so that they can disengage from the experience more easily.

Furthermore, as my lift experience illustrates, virtual reality is a very powerful tool that can elicit a whole range of emotional responses from the participants and thus needs to be used with care. Teachers need to be sensitive and alert to the potential that the experience of "going over the top" from a First World War trench might be so real that it is traumatic. Lessons need to be planned so that there is time to allow children to talk about their experiences and to "decompress" before heading off to their next lesson.

And one of the determining factors in whether or not virtual reality has an impact on wider schooling will be the extent to which industry can supply a broad range of high-quality content that starts with the curriculum, rather than teachers having to appropriate apps for use in the classroom. As with so many new technologies, educational priorities must drive the technological ones.

Without this, and reductions in cost, it is likely that the adoption of virtual reality in schools remains the preserve of a few schools with dedicated enthusiasts.

Mark S Steed is the Director of JESS, Dubai, and has been appointed the principal and CEO of Kellett School Hong Kong from September 2019

Further reading:

Each week, Tes produces a magazine (available in print and online to subscribers) that gives you detailed, up-to-date teaching and learning guides, analysis and advice based on the latest research. It is essential reading for the informed teacher and school leader. You can subscribe here

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Mark S Steed

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