By Troy Lambert
Recently, I wrote about the obvious benefits of BYOD in the classroom. While BYOD offers benefits—the school can save money and increases productivity—there are also potential drawbacks, such as security dangers and easy student access to digital properties. (You can read more about protecting your school from these issues in the educator’s guide to digital security.)
While these are legitimate concerns, BYOD opens up another possibility: the use of Virtual Reality.
Like many innovations, some think of virtual reality as just another technological distraction without much educational value, but quite the opposite is true. There are inexpensive ways to get virtual reality into the hands of students, using apps designed with education in mind.
So what are the possibilities?
Google Cardboard is the least expensive “headset” for virtual reality, because it is just what it says: cardboard. For libraries and schools who have access to 3D printing labs, there are also several templates online that instruct users on how to make their own Google Cardboard-like devices. There are also several consumer-grade headsets that mimic Cardboard’s simplicity, and are also quite affordable.
Many apps are available for Google Cardboard on the Android and Apple stores. Even older phones are compatible with most apps, meaning this technology can benefit students of all abilities and economic standing.
Since Google Cardboard works with any smartphone, it makes sense that students would bring their own devices. Inexpensive phones could be provided for those who do not have their own, similar to one-to-one programs already in place.
Note: Many apps run on tablets as well, however, that the experience is not as immersive when not using a headset.
Another virtual reality software and app distributor is Oculus, which was purchased by Facebook in July of 2014. Not only does this indicate the direction social media is headed, but the company offers apps and software designed with education and learning in mind.
These apps are not widely available on the Apple or Google Play stores, but devices like the Samsung Gear VR run Oculus software. While these headsets are pricier than the Google Cardboard units, they do offer a better quality experience for students.
These units are only compatible with Samsung devices, so a program similar to the one to one iPad and Chromebook programs might be necessary.
However, more and more consumer level units such as the Zeiss VR One (compatible with Samsung and Apple devices) are becoming more widely available and affordable. It’s only a matter of time before these companies offer grants and programs designed to get their product in the hands of students around the country and the world.
What Can We Teach?
So what’s the point of virtual reality in the classroom? What exactly do students learn through this interactive software?
1. Coloring and Imagination
The app Quiver allows students to bring their art to life. Using their own coloring pages, they become animated, making the app the equivalent of a very simple video game.
This app is a great way to introduce students to the world of virtual reality, and can even be experienced using an iPad or other tablet without the need for a headset at all—which is, again, less immersive.
National Geographic Earth Explorers is a stunning use of virtual reality in a museum environment. This traveling exhibition is just one example of the way virtual reality can allow students to explore areas well beyond their reach in reality.
Many museums are beginning to look at similar exhibits that provide interactive and hands-on ways for students to explore without exposing valuable photos and artifacts to the dangers and potential damage that come from public display.
You can also find interactive documentaries such as PBS’ Masterpieces and Cosmos with Neil Simon Degrasse.
3. Virtual Field Trips
Earth Explorers, the online program offered by the U.S. Government, is inspiring virtual field trips, and of course one of the top innovators is Google. With Google Expeditions, schools or teachers can sign up, and wait for exhibitions to visit their school or classroom. Soon, Google plans to make the program more widely available.
Google is offering these and other Cardboard apps to schools at little to no cost, describing them as “not just apps, but experiences.”
4. Bringing Words to Life
Imagine reading a book or newspaper, and as your eyes focus on certain words on the page or a picture, suddenly it comes to life. That’s the power of apps like Layar. Apps like this bring infographics, photos and text to life using virtual reality technology.
The company’s mission statement reminds us of the power of technology like this in the classroom: “We believe augmented reality has the power to effect change in the way people discover and interact with useful and educational information.” Some believe technology like this will soon render print textbooks and less interactive material obsolete, as it enables learning to become more interactive and individualized.
5. Virtual Laboratory
In more practical applications, 4D Anatomy is a fantastic app that allows students to perform dissections without any actual specimens. This program is cloud-based, and comes pre-loaded with quizzes and tests, easing the burden on teachers.
Augmented reality is also being built in to microscopes and other instruments, not only benefitting students, but practicing medical professionals as well.
From the youngest students to those in high school and college, augmented reality is sure to make education more engaging and immersive. It’s almost certain that this will soon become the norm in classrooms across the country.
Personal devices will likely play a huge role in these future programs. What are your concerns about virtual reality in the classroom? How do you think it would benefit your students, if at all? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.