November 15th, 2018 Business

Does virtual reality have applications for online education, or is it just another gimmick?

Virtual reality isn’t so much a new buzz word in the world of online education as a long-held science fiction dream that is rapidly coming to life. There is something unquestionably exciting about the prospect of an immersive, interactive environment that you can experience without leaving the comfort of your living room. And while current technology has yet to become mainstream, the headway augmented reality has made indicates that full VR won’t be far behind.

For online educators, the possibilities are tantalizing. It seems very clear that early adaptors who are able to find a creative effective means of employing this technology in education have an opportunity to move ahead of—and stand out from—the competition.

However, it’s just as easy to envision ways in which this technology could be applied needlessly in ways where it either doesn’t enhance the educational environment at all, or does so only marginally.

It is therefore up to educators to understand the technology, the hurdles learners would need to cross to use it in a course, and ways it could benefit the eLearning environment. It’s clear that this is a rapidly developing field, and any number of breakthroughs could completely transform its applications within a few years. But for those interested in the technology, here’s what we know so far.

What do we mean when we talk about virtual reality?

To start, let’s clarify what virtual reality means in the real-world (non-science-fiction) context.

VR refers to an experience wherein a user is immersed in an interactive computer-generated environment. Currently, these experiences are primarily visual, with some audio support. There can also be some limited sensory feedback, in some cases.

“Interaction” also tends to be somewhat limited. Given the practical difficulties that arise from allowing a user to walk around a room with a VR headset on, most non-head movement requires some sort of controller. This is also useful for selecting responses to options that pop up in the VR environment. In its most basic form, interactivity may just mean being able to turn one’s head to view one’s surroundings.

However, VR does not refer to just any simulation. For instance, you may have a highly interactive and very detailed virtual world, but so long as the user engages with that world through a screen, it’s not the immersive experience provided by VR.

Similarly, augmented reality refers to a mixture of real world data with technology, such as using your smartphone’s camera and location data to play a game.

That said, while both VR and augmented reality are becoming more popular, the former still has some hurdles to overcome before it sees widespread adaption.

How accessible is VR technology?

Virtual headsets are becoming a more accessible technology, and there are certainly some applications. For instance, Google Cardboard is a simple, affordable construction made of, well cardboard, that works with smartphones to view images or play games. It’s not fancy, but at $20 it’s also highly accessible for most learners. After that, most VR headsets start at about the $100 price point, and only go up from there.

This is clearly a big problem for anyone hoping to sell a VR course to the average consumer. Very few learners are going to put forward an investment at that level for an online course, and not enough of them already own VR headsets for it to be a helpful marketing tactic.

On the other hand, corporations who are willing to invest in VR headsets for internal training program stand to see huge results from adapting this technology. While it would mean a higher development budget, the payoffs include a better retention rate for information, and much better preparation for training scenarios.

How could VR be used in an immersive training program?

Now for some practical applications. Most of the suggestions I’ve seen fall into a few main categories:

1. Virtual classrooms.

This is perhaps the most prosaic application, it still has merit. The thinking goes like this: online learners often feel disconnected from their teachers and fellow classmates. A virtual classroom would bring the benefits of a traditional classroom to their living room, by providing opportunities to engage their classmates and attract the attention of their instructor. Obviously, this can be combined with any of the following options for a heightened experience.

2. Virtual field trips.

Why not bring your class to the top of Mount Everest, or have them walk the streets of ancient Rome? I find these suggestions to be the most exciting, but creating highly-detailed virtual environments takes a lot of work. I hope to see such detailed environments expand over time. The more learners can explore and engage with this environment, the greater the benefits.

3. Scenarios and practical education.

To my mind, the biggest benefits of immersion come with detailed simulations of real-life scenarios. From public speaking to emergency response training, such VR courses could provide life-changing—or even life-saving—preparation for learners.

How close are we to seeing VR enter the eLearning mainstream?

I’ve used Google Cardboard once or twice to view vacation photos of places I’ve traveled, and it certainly was a surreal experience. Standing in my kitchen and holding Google Cardboard to my face, I could turn in a full circle and see the lawn in front of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History all around me.

However, it is not obvious how one might apply this technology to a course in a meaningful, pedagogical way. For instance, if you were teaching a course on geography, you could share a photosphere of the Iguazu Falls for your learners to view. But, as undeniably cool the experience is, it’s really only adding some slightly advanced visuals to supplement content. You could just as easily share a short video clip, and doing so wouldn’t require your learners to buy external gear or download an app.

In fact, one of the biggest downsides of this technology is that there isn’t yet a way to include it without pulling the learner from the course environment. As such, this current application of VR technology to online education can only be considered a supplementary teaching tool, not a primary teaching platform.

However, all this could change in a heartbeat. One industry publication estimates that 13% of US households currently own a VR headset, and estimates that number could rise to 30% by 2020. This means that the tipping point between niche market and mainstream might be just around the corner.

The conclusion? Early adaption is still a big risk, at least for online instructors catering to a home audience. However, it’s still an important market to keep an eye on.

And for big corporations that can afford to invest in high-end technology? The opportunity has already arrived.

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