VR for Education: A natural fit?

google expeditions

google expeditions

Education is one of the most significant use case of virtual reality. We look at Vito Technologies and Google Expedition to examine more closely about how VR fits in education.

Why Education?

We live in an information age, with books, search engines and our computers giving us information at a click. But this  is no difference from the past 3000 years, just that it is now much faster.

When we look at education and learning, one of the best and hardest to implement methods of learning is experiential learning. For example, field trips, science lab, robotic making sessions, etc. They are:

  • expensive,
  • limited by time and space, and
  • sometimes impossible to achieve like travelling to outer space or into the body.

But they also provide us with the most amount of learning, as by doing things and through exploration, we understand concepts and perspective better.

Virtual Reality makes it possible to achieve exploration and experiential learning and more importantly to scale them up at lower cost (compared to real field trips and science lab experiments). A smartphone together with a $5 google cardboard is able to create a basic VR experience and as smartphones becoming more powerful each year and cost going down, we expect that in the next 5-10 years, VR is really coming into your classrooms.

In fact in the last one year, Google Expeditions has been to 100 schools in over 11 countries (including Singapore) all over the world bringing VR experiences to over 1 million students.

Teachers as facilitators

Throughout the 1 year of creating content and sending kids on VR expeditions, the Google team has learnt a lot and they have shared these information at the recent google I/O event. 

One of the key things they focused on during this journey was that the software was built with teachers in mind to make it simple and quick to start an expedition. A tablet for teacher is used when facilitating an expedition, with features like:

  • pause button to gather the students attention when needed,
  • sight indicator to know where the students are looking at,
  • no requirement of internet to be available (the tablet serves as a local server to transfer data to the viewing devices)

This is really important and often forgotten when creating VR content as sometimes adults are the ones resistant to new technology and making the implementation fuss-free and easy is key to getting teachers to adopt it.

In creating VR content, a lot information is researched and these information are provided to the teachers freely so that they can focus on guiding the students to explore and share instead of spending time researching and then teaching this information which students rarely remember anyway.

“The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” —Seymour Papert


Making a Education VR app

To learn more about developing VR apps for education, I interviewed Jiang Kuo from Vito Technologies who VR content creator that specializes in education. Check out their Project Arctic Demo video below.

One of the key takeaways from the interview was that other than creating immersive and interactive content, it is very important to involve educators and students in the creation of the content. Vito worked several Beijing schools for user testing so as to fine-tune the interaction mechanics and also to test out the content to see if the students are interested.

One of the key difference with the google expeditions, this demo is not guided by a teacher. Instead a clever storytelling technique that Vito used was to use a friendly avatar to follow where the user look so as to guide, prompt and tell the story.

One of the weakness of VR content is that with the whole world to explore, viewers sometimes get lost in them. A lot of effort was also place into creating onscreen cues like arrows and stars to guide the viewers to progress in the story plot line.

Throughout their one year experience in making this demo and testing it with different groups of audience, Vito has face a lot of challenges like the high number of hardware and software platforms to use and has also experimented with the many input methods available. There are many plans that are underway to remake the demo with the lessons they have learnt and also release more content for education on the different VR headset available and on the different online platforms.

(Featured image by K.W.Barrett. CC BY 2.0)