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A Virtual Education? by Emily Spicer

“I am convinced that once educational content starts becoming designed specifically for VR [virtual reality], we will see huge gains compared to traditional learning.”*

This is the opinion of Stanford Professor, Jeremy Bailenson, as reported by Dan Watson in this week’s TES. But can virtual reality really add value to education over and above traditional models of learning?

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Earlier this year, I attended BETT, the world’s biggest education technology event (see my post on desirably difficult learning, inspired by my time there). At BETT, virtual reality was certainly a buzzword. Various providers hosted big-budget stands, enticing punters with bright colours and giveaways, packed with people trying out their headgear.

While the offering was impressive, I struggled to see its true education value. Though virtual reality might have the ‘wow’ factor for students – and so ticks the ‘student engagement’ box – I was unconvinced by its pedagogical value. As far as I could see there was no proven way in which it was helping students to learn something more effectively.

This week though, prompted by Dan Watson’s article, I’ve been challenged to read around this subject a little bit more. He argues that we’re only just starting to see the potential of VR in education, and that as the initial excitement around the field trip fad fades, we might start to see something far more trans-formative happen.

It seems – as with most pieces of technology – with virtual reality in the classroom its effectiveness almost entirely depends on how it is being used. While one of the most fun applications of VR is taking students to see the pyramids, this is far from its most effective use.

So, in what ways is it effective?

A (now slightly dated) 2014 study in Education Media International found that virtual reality could help to reduce student cognitive load, while another literature review found that it could help autistic students to deal with academic situations. Alaina Gay, a freelance EdTech content specialist, surveyed these studies and other sources, and in late 2018 wrote that we are ‘on the verge of seeing a huge shift in education’.

This week’s TES article explored the potential of virtual reality to give every student a front-row seat in class, which gave students improved learning outcomes. VR could also give students their own individual class arrangement, according to their needs. It could even provide different ‘teaching avatars’ for different students, depending on their learning preferences – something which has already been tested in schools in Denmark.

Of course, all of this raises big questions; how will this be implemented? How much is it healthy for students to live inside a virtual world entirely tailored to their needs? Are we compromising on our students’ social needs? How will teachers be trained to work well with this technology? But it does look like there is potential for VR to be educationally effectively beyond the immediate ‘wow’ of the field trip.

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