Over the last couple of years, many educators have told me that they really want to start integrating VR in their schools and institutions but have found it difficult. Often this is due to management and school leaders vetoing project proposals. I‘ve spoken and written about the “Why” of VR in education many times, highlighting the benefits that virtual reality offers in the modern classroom, but for a presentation at GESS Dubai last month, I decided to flip my focus and try to address the stickier question - “Why Not?” This built on some ideas I’ve been pulling together for about six months and crystallised into a breakdown of the barriers to VR integration in education.
I personally think that there are five key barriers to VR integration in schools. Five walls that are usually built from misconception, lack of understanding or fear of the unknown. These are the five common things that school leaders, governors, parents and other key stakeholders will want answers to. They are also the five core areas that an educator looking to embed VR must be prepared to address. As such I hope that I can provide those educators with a little theoretical ammunition to help them bring this transformative technology into their classrooms and start using it to make an impact on learning.
I think there are two groups of people that can struggle to get past this barrier -
People who don’t understand what virtual reality actually is nor what it can do.
People who have experienced 360° images or videos and have the misconception that this is what VR is (and is limited to.)
Whichever group you are dealing with, the single most important thing you can do to help them understand the power of VR is have them try it for themselves. You can describe the majesty of Tilt Brush with the most eloquent prose in the world but until a person has put on a headset and actually watched as they paint with light, they won’t be able to comprehend. They need that penny-drop moment – which totally makes sense since this is a brand new medium for which they have no frame of reference! Another example I’d offer here is the number of people that I’ve shown the Plank Experience to who clearly don’t realise how much it will affect them once they’re in it even if they are stood watching someone else do it! I’ve had people laughing in disbelief as colleagues struggle with their footing on the virtual plank only to step inside themselves and not even be able to take one step on it. (Sidenote: I’ve recently re-read Jeremy Bailenson’s Experience on Demand and in the opening chapter Bailenson actually shares the same experience.)
True VR has to be experienced to be understood. It’s that simple. So when I got my first Vive, one of the first people I had try it was our Director Mark Steed (on the plank no-less) as I knew that he would be integral in supporting me driving the VR integration at JESS Dubai. The photo above actually shows Mark during this session. Flash forward two years and Mark still talks about that experience and even referenced it in his recent article for the TES about the power of VR – which you can read here. This hands-on approach has been essential to me over the last few years. I knew Tilt Brush could offer a whole new medium to our artists so I had the Art Department staff try it themselves so they understood what it could offer.
Again – flash forward to 2019 and we have students creating art in VR and submitting it as a part of BTEC and IB coursework under the guidance of my colleague Sidra Iqbal who is now totally self-sufficient in the setting up and use of the hardware because she wanted to use it more often than I could be there to support her. That would never have happened if I had never let Sid try it for herself. She even joined me at GESS Dubai to speak about the power and potential of VR in Art Education. This was actually her first time speaking at a conference but she is now so passionate about VR Art that she stepped out of her comfort zone to share her experience.
So ultimately the solution to the problem of people not understanding VR is simply put - VR. The experiential power of VR as a learning medium is simultaneously your answer to anyone that needs to develop or redefine their understanding of virtual reality. Have them try it. Let them walk The Plank. Have them write their name in light using Tilt Brush. Let them fly around Google Earth VR like Superman or walk on Mars - I'm yet to meet ANYONE who does not have an emotive reaction to these types of experiences. I think Confucius said it best: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
Teach them about it from the inside. They will not forget.
Schools are broadly cash-poor entities. Budgets are tight and have many pulls. As such it can be seen as quite the risk to invest in a new form of technology and schools will be hesitant. I was integral to the initial deployment of iPads at JESS Dubai back in 2011 (making us one of the earliest adopters of mobile technology in the region and worldwide) and dealt with the same concerns back then too. Of course the issue is exacerbated by the fact that VR represents such a monumental shift in the way that we access and interact with digital content. The iPad was new and different, yet broadly familiar in that it was essentially a small computer with touch-screen functionality. VR is a much less familiar beast as it totally changes the hardware interface as well as the very nature of the content it offers.
It’s seen a potentially expensive gambit by many school leaders who don’t understand what it can do (see point one). The cost of a single Vive or Rift as well as a PC capable of running it IS high – there’s no sidestepping that. You’d be looking at around $2000 all-in if you got a good deal. Stack that up against an iPad (the education-tailored 2018 model is $329) then you can see why schools may write off the VR option on the basis of simple math. What you need to bear in mind though is that VR and spatial computing as a whole is not just some hot new educational fad; it is the future of how we will interact with all digital content across every industry. The clock is ticking for the 2D screen and it’s time will soon come to an end. The graphic below was shared by HTC Vive President Alvin Wang Graylin during his keynote speech at my #CPDinVR first anniversary event and I think it perfectly highlights the direction hardware is moving:
Now let’s say that this shift takes place ten years from now. Wouldn’t that make it essential for us to start preparing our youth for this shift now? It reminds me of when I first stepped into my former role as Head of Computing at JESS back in 2014. For the first time I was teaching FS2 students (3-4 year olds) and part of the curriculum was teaching them mouse skills. If they can find a mouse anywhere but a museum by the time they reach the workforce I’ll be shocked. We hear a lot about preparing students for “jobs of the future that don’t exist yet.” This is something I think is essential and I’d wager that a high percentage of these jobs will involve the use of immersive technologies. An investment in VR is an investment in your institution as a future-ready organisation.
I think part of the issue for schools is the fear that if they can only afford a single VR rig right now (or a small handful) then we’ll end up back in that 1980’s style paradigm of the school that can only afford a single PC, which is then wheeled around on a cart and brought into the classroom, like a special treat, for each student to queue up and have a go. Naturally this is not something we would want to see happen in 2019 but nor is it something that should happen in 2019. Pedagogy has taken huge strides since the 1980’s and in particular, digital pedagogy and the effective integration of technology has taken massive strides in the last decade. There are many ways that educators can integrate limited amounts of VR hardware within a classroom. To dive deeper into some of them, I’d direct you to the article I wrote for VR Focus last year on this theme which you can read here. The image below shows n example of a lesson where we opted to use molbile headsets with Yr6 students in pairs as a part of the learning process. We could have done this 1:1 but the task was designed specifically to harness collaboration and communication skills.
Last year I was peripherally involved with a research project in the UK coordinated by The Independent School’s Council’s Digital Strategy Group and researched/authored by Dr James Mannion. The Growth Mindset report (November 2018) sought to identify the true potential or VR in education. You can read the full report here but I want to highlight one of key conclusions:
“One thing is clear: in 2018, the time has come for more schools to start experimenting with VR/AR, conducting research and gathering evidence to help us understand how to develop the pedagogy to make the best use the technology.”
Before I wrap up this section, I’d like to throw one last idea into the mix. In 1981 the cost of an IBM PC was around $1500 which, when adjusted for inflation, would be over $4000 dollars today – more than double what you’d pay for a VR headset and VR-ready laptop. Schools back then which took the initiative (or what many would have seen as a risk) to integrate PCs into their learning spaces will have no doubt inspired some of the key thinkers shaping the current world of computing. So if someone talks about return on investment, remember that you are ultimately talking about empowering students to succeed in the future.
Which is priceless.
Imagine it’s March 1999 and you are thinking of buying your first mobile phone. The Nokia 3210 phone has just released boasting state of the art display and features. Do you:
Purchase the Nokia (and proudly show it off to everyone who'll listen)
Decide to wait until one comes out with a colour screen, GPS , internet connectivity and a wide range of applications. Oh and you can unlock it with your face. And pay for stuff with it.
No-one decided to skip the Nokia because they thought that it would be worth waiting for something like the iPhone X. We all knew that this device represented a single point on a timeline and that the next version would be better. Even if you dreamt of a smartphone with the power and functionality of an iPhone X in 1999, you would have had no idea how long it would take for it to come out. (In fact there are 18 years between the launches of these two phones.)
Technology is constantly evolving and there will always be a newer/bigger/smaller/faster/quieter/more powerful version coming next. It wouldn’t really make sense if there wasn’t would it? This fear of “jumping too soon” coupled with the aforementioned concerns about budgets and ROI can be deadly for the innovation in a company and potentially more harmful than many realise. Let’s take a look at Martec’s Law:
I first saw this during a presentation by Chris Long and it instantly struck me as one of those theories that just makes perfect sense. Simply put, Martec’s Law (Scott Brinker, 2013) states that technology changes exponentially but organizations change much more slowly (logarithmic ally.) What this means is the gap between where a company is at with its use of technology and where technology is at in general widens rapidly. Companies that do not plan to integrate newer forms of technology at a steady rate can find themselves so far out of touch that they need a “reset” – which could mean closure, restructure or the deployment of even more funds. It’s IT Strategy at its core and something that schools really need to consider since the lion’s share of our IT users are students who are generally more tech-savvy than staff anyway and who are growing up along that upwards curve of technology change.
Again I must highlight the core fact: Immersive technologies/Spatial Computing/AR/VR/XR or whatever it’s being called this week is the future of human interaction with technology. We live in a 3D world so experiencing content in 3D makes far more sense to our brains than it does on a 2D screen.
So guess what? There will be new VR headsets this year.
And next year.
And the year after that.
The technology will constantly evolve but if your school doesn’t begin to dabble, to begin to understand, to begin to embrace the overall shift towards spatial computing, you will find that it is even harder to adapt the longer you wait. Of course you’re not going to go and buy a whole class set of HTC Vives or Oculus Rifts right now but invest in 1 or 2 or 5 and explore the medium. Develop your understanding of what it can do and how it can be leveraged for learning. Upskill staff and management so that they are prepared.
Be future ready rather than regret what’s already passed.
Probably the most contentious addition to this list is Health and Safety. It’s often the proverbial elephant in the room so let’s address it. People want to know:
- Is VR safe for kids?
- How long should a child use VR for?
- Won’t it hurt their eyes?
- What age should kids start interacting with VR?
A lot more attention was brought upon these concerns after last year’s Virtual Reality 101 report from Common Sense Media. The report, produced in association with Jeremy Bailenson lead to headlines like
“Parents Have Concerns About Kids Using VR”
Of course they do! Parents have concerns about millions of things when it comes to their kids and rightly so. What bothered me most was that as with many digital safety-related news items, press coverage of the report focused on click-bait titles and infographics rather than really exploring the data in any detail. If the recent Momo debacle has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be just as careful with how digital information is presented to parents as it is to kids - if not more so. Otherwise we risk doing more harm than good.
Let’s take a look at just some of the data from the report that was most widely shared by the media:
So the top concerns are…
Sexual content/porn/violent content – I hate to be the one to tell you this folks but there’s infinitely more of this on YouTube than you’ll find in VR right now and guess who has YouTube on their iPads?
Too Much Time with VR – Too much of pretty much anything isn’t good for you whether that’s watching TV, eating cake or even reading books! Naturally this is a concern and do you know what the best way to deal with it is in the home? Parenting.
Social Isolation – kind of related to the previous point but also worth highlighting that VR will become so much more social in the next few years. If you’ve ever experienced any form of multi-user VR, you’ll understand why.
And the health concerns...
13% have bumped into something - OF COURSE THEY HAVE! If you don’t moderate them, kids could have accidents using VR – the headset covers their eyes after all. I broke a TV playing the gladiator game Gorn one evening last year. Why? Because I was alone, tired and didn’t pay attention to the chaperone (the digital boundary lines that you use to mark out your space in the real world.) I would never, ever suggest leaving a young child alone using VR. The only students I ever leave alone using a Vive at JESS are Sixth Form students (17-18 year olds) and only then if they have used it before and are well aware of the physical boundaries.
11% dizziness – I’ve only ever seen this with Google Earth VR and even I used to get sea-legs with that one (it’s like having too much power!)
10% Headaches – I have used VR in various forms with more than a thousand students over the last five years. I’m yet to have one tell me they got a headache from it. (Devil’s advocate - I wonder what percentage of children would say that they ever got headaches from reading a book?)
8% Eyestrain – Whilst I could throw the same book analogy at you here, let’s instead look at some data. This comes from the Beijing Institute of Technology (another great share by Alvin Wang Graylin during his #CPDinVR keynote)
That’s right - many people who used VR as a part of this trial actually found it IMPROVED their eyesight. Chris Long recounted an amazing story to me recently from the launch event of the 1943 Berlin Blitz app that he was involved with. An elderly gentleman who had been in WW2 was invited to try the experience. As he sat down, he repeatedly warned Chris that his eyesight was so poor that he could not look at screen for a long time so he would only be able to take a quick go with the headset. Nine minutes later, when the experience was over, Chris took the headset off him and the man remarked that he could not believe how clearly he could see everything!
So let’s return to those four common questions you may well be asked by parents and school leaders alike and I will give you my definite answer on each. You are most welcome to quote me.
Is VR safe for kids?
Yes. As long as it is well-moderated and students have clear guidelines for using VR. (e.g. stay sitting down when using a mobile VR headsets, don’t break the chaperone lines if using a room-scale HMD)
How long should a child use VR for?
I believe that this is age-dependent like all forms of technology. Personally I think that students under that age of 6 should only interact with experiences that are 2-3 minutes long. They should also be given the freedom to choose not to take part and I would suggest using headsets with no headstrap so that they do not feel trapped in any way. As students get older the length of the experiences can be lengthened but I would still only recommend using experiences that are a maximum of 10-15 minutes long with students under the age of 13. Segmenting experiences or using VR within a range of learning activities are other ways that longer experiences can be safely integrated into lessons.
Won’t it hurt their eyes? This is unlikely, especially if the length of the experiences is moderated carefully.
What age should kids start interacting with VR? I have used simple 360° videos with 4 year old students in FS1. They used Viewmaster headsets, they had the option to sit out (or even watch others do it first) and they sat on cushions the whole time. They were also in small groups with myself and another adult present. They loved it and there were no negative effects at all. Would I stick those kids in an Oculus Rift? Of course not. Do I think that room-scale VR can be used safely with Primary/Elementary-aged students? Definitely - but only if it the hardware is suitable and the experiences are moderated and limited in length.
What’s the key word that comes up again and again in my responses above? Moderated.
The great news for educators is that you can multi-task (let's face it, teaching is built on multi-tasking!). Moderating the logistics of VR experiences avails you a great chance to facilitate learning. You can literally be the infamous “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” as you provide prompts, context or even assess understanding. I’ve watched a PE teacher guide a BTEC Sports Science student through the human heart, helping them revise the key terminology. I’ve stood with a DT teacher as they assess a student’s SketchUp design by letting the student step inside it using Kubity. Numerous times I’ve watched as Sidra has guided art students in their choice of tools, strokes and overall approach to a piece in Tilt Brush. All of these educators were able to do this whilst simultaneously moderating the student’s safety.
I’ll wrap up this section with one final quote that I think is quite telling in more ways than one. In the foreword to the same Common Sense Media report on VR, Jeremy Bailenson states:
“Jakki Bailey, a colleague at Stanford who has dedicated her career to this topic and has run hundreds of 3- to 6-year-olds through high-end VR systems. Nobody got sick, nobody got hurt, and to date no parents have reported any ill effects.”
It's funny how none of the press coverage mentioned that.
This to me is the big one. Any form of technology that is to be integrated in classrooms must benefit learning. A couple of years ago, the party line here was, “There still hasn’t been enough research into the benefits of learning with VR.” The thing is that although research into the benefits of learning through VR is still quite nascent, the results are starting to trickle in from across the globe and the picture being painted is pretty clear – VR raises engagement, it fosters concentration and ultimately it can increase the retention of information.
Some studies include:
Beijing University – found that VR significantly improved knowledge retention rates and academic performance.
Warwick University – found that VR learning fostered positive emotions in students and improved learning outcomes.
Cornell University – found that VR was the preferred learning medium by a majority of students tested.
Tom Furness refers to VR as a tool for leading students into the Flow State - a focused state of concentration where deeper learning is possible. Literally just this morning, Alvin Wang Graylin shared a new set of results around this concept from Saga University in Japan:
More and more data is coming out all the time and I think it's important to highlight the fact that it is coming from academics and well-respected institutions across the globe (not just China or the USA).
If data doesn’t do it for you, how about we look at some common educational models. If you’ve been to any kind of education conference in the last five years, you’re bound to have had Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR Model thrust in front of you at some point.
The highest level in the SAMR model is Redefinition – the creation of new tasks and learning experiences. By it’s very nature, true VR offers nothing but new learning experiences. Students can travel inside the human body and learn anatomy from the inside out. They can step back in time and witness historical events take place first hand. They can paint with fire and smoke and build entire 3D worlds. Some of our Year 4 students were learning about fossils recently so we let them use Hold The World to interact with fossils inside The Natural History Museum with the world’s leading palaeontologist Sir David Attenborough.
How about Edgar Dale’s Cones of Learning? Well look at the highest level of retention rate and read what leads to this -
It’s doing the real thing or simulating the real thing. Again, this is the realm of VR learning and where virtual reality literally trumps every other form of edtech (including AR.) No other medium can allow students to step into realistic learning experiences and actually develop skills first-hand. The opportunities are limitless. Of course doing the real thing is even better but it’s not always possible for logistical or financial reasons. Think about it - how does a pilot learn to fly a plane?
Hint - It’s not by making a PowerPoint presentation about it.
VR is a powerful new medium for education because it hijacks the senses, creating visceral, tangible experiences that embed learning far deeper than with other forms of media. It can break down classroom walls and allow learners to engage with a world of content that they have never had access to before. It frames learning in meaningful ways that cement understanding and foster long-term retention of knowledge.
And we’re just getting started.
A couple of thank yous
I’d like to thank my regular collaborators Chris Long and Chris Madsen for their input and feedback on the presentation I delivered at GESS Dubai 2019 from which much of the content of this article has been extracted. I’d also like to thank Alvin Wang Graylin for sharing some of the best data on VR in Education currently available. Finally I’d like to thank “The Grandfather of VR” Tom Furness who batted some of these ideas around with me over Skype last month and really helped me crystallise my approach to this topic.