When you hear the words virtual reality, you might think of Sci Fi movies or computer gaming, but have you considered the impact this technology could have on learning? Virtual reality(VR) replicates a physical environment, whether it be a real or imagined world, and allows the user to interact in that world by creating a sensory experience. Unlike books or movies a VR environment allows the user to explore using sight, touch, sound and smell. Currently VR technology is limited to being displayed on a computer screen or special stereoscopic displays. Although some advanced haptic systems exist, few offer additional sensory information. although some big companies such as Samsung, Sony, Google and Oculus, are promising big things to come in the near future. Although, compared to the entertainment sector, there is little investment into educational VR it is already being used for learning in medical and military applications.
So what’s the big deal about Virtual Reality when it comes to learning?
So far virtual learning has provided some awesome progress in terms of learning accessibility. By learning virtually we can study when we want, where we want. However, anyone who has been a virtual student will agree – sometimes you just want to be able to put your hand up and ask a question, or have a quick chat with another student or teacher to make sure you are on the right track. The asynchronous nature of the relationship between teach and learner in a virtual classroom makes this really tricky. Tools such as Online Forums try to combat this by creating an online community, but how far they really go in replacing the real classroom environment is debatable. Group work and peer to peer learning is tough to achieve in current virtual classrooms. No one doubts the value they bring to learning. Today you can achieve these things in the virtual learning using collaboration sites and video conferencing, but they are difficult to coordinate and often don’t provide the same level of engagement you would expect in the physical classroom.
Virtual Reality worlds might be the first real time we can combine the benefits of online virtual classes with the physical classroom. For the first time learners can become immersed in a ‘real’ classroom environment, anywhere in the world, without leaving their home. Learners will be able to have greater exposure to the real world as virtual reality becomes more accessible. Remember the scene in Goodwill Hunting? Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) counsels genius-level Will Hunting (Matt Damon);
“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. “
Virtual reality will let you look up at that ceiling without having to pay the airfare. What’s more virtual reality will be able to go beyond the real experience. Why not travel through time to watch the Sistine Chapel be built? Or fly over it to get a birds eye view? Engaging students will definitely be easier with a tool like this. Especially if we consider going beyond just visiting and provide opportunities for students to create and build their own VR.
Virtual reality has huge potential training people for dangerous situations. Some industries already use simulators as training aids. Imagine the potential of fire
fighters being able to experience a serious blaze in training before they are needed at the real thing, surgeons operating on VR patients, or defence personnel practicing emergency building evacuations before real lives are on the line.
The opportunities for Virtual Reality in the classroom are endless and we are on the exciting precipice of a whole new world. A virtual world that can be anything you want to make it.