Virtual Reality: New Frontiers for Educational Experiences

by Gabe Baker, Content team

Teachers are getting excited about upcoming virtual reality hardware and experiences, and plenty of companies are vying for attention in the space. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and Sony all have new hardware offerings in the late development stage. While early attention has focused on using these tools for video games or other entertainment, I’m more interested in the way that these immersive headsets can be used for learning purposes, and how educational content and environments can be created for them. I think the potential is extraordinary.


Google is already targeting teachers with an early foray into the virtual reality space, Google Cardboard. Cardboard is a cardboard sleeve in which one can slide a mobile device. The sleeve can then be worn like glasses to immerse the user in a visual experience that takes up one’s entire visual field. It’s admirable in its cheapness, scrappiness, and ability to meet users with smartphones where they are. In contrast, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, although a more immersive VR headset, requires the use of an external Windows PC. Google Cardboard is so portable that the New York Times - shipped a million of them out to subscribers for free, and they made an immersive, news-viewing app that’s already getting rave reviews.

These tools, however, would be nothing to teachers without compelling software that can be used for the classroom. In keeping with that, Google also created a neat tool for Cardboard called Expeditions, which in the words of Google, is a “virtual reality platform built for the classroom.” In a nutshell, Expeditions stitches together views taken from Google Maps Street View to immerse the viewer in another environment, and then presents it together with an interface for note reading and editing layered on top.

Google Expeditions is just one of many immersive experiences being designed for classroom use. As a recent New York Times article claims, Google Expeditions is evidence of an “industry strategy shift” — instead of half-heartedly re-skinning existing consumer products for teachers (e.g. early Google Apps for Education), large companies are creating products specifically for classroom use (e.g. Google Classroom). For example, Alchemy Learning is also making a VR software for students, a “trip down the Amazon” for the Oculus Rift, and on the Oculus Rift webpage, there’s a section of curated “educational” apps and experiences.

Even though all of this stuff is exciting, keep in mind that even optimists about the mainstream potential of new VR devices don’t think that significant adoption is coming for another few years. One notable optimist is about the potential for virtual reality is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg. Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion dollars in early 2014, and in a Facebook post, he said that virtual reality was the “next platform” after PC and mobile. If he’s anywhere close to right about that, teachers and educational content creators are right to be thinking ahead!

In the meantime, many teachers already tout the benefits of the immersive digital environments that are accessible from laptops. Although the full sense of immersion that a headset provides isn’t there, the popularity of such tools like Minecraft hint that students enjoy being in 3D graphical spaces, headset or not.

I’m particularly interested in the collaborative potential of virtual reality. When compared with other communication platforms, virtual worlds provide a playful and powerful way of interacting. Virtual worlds are essentially the dream of early technologists in the 1970s — they provide an opportunity for total immersion and therefore foster a sense of presence and togetherness. As this medium gains more traction in the tech industry, it will transform the education space.

Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Tweet @gabrieljbaker.