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Virtual Reality in Education: a term that’s still a relatively new concept to many. But we can’t escape the fact that it’s becoming part of our everyday lives. You’ll be travelling quite far to find people who haven’t heard of or used some form of Virtual Reality.

It comes as no surprise to me then that Virtual Reality is making its way into classrooms around the world. And yes, I know what you’re thinking, ‘kids are just going to be watching rollercoaster videos and messing around – how on earth can it be educational’. To be honest, you’d be forgiven for thinking this. It’s a general worry that children are having their education time wasted by playing around with modern technologies that could often be mistaken for offering little to no educational value.

In terms of Virtual Reality though, I can most happily say that this not the case. Teachers and students alike are beginning to realise the wide array of educational benefits that VR has to offer.

With Virtual Reality though, it’s not just about what you can teach with it, or how students learn from it – it’s also about how you use it to achieve these outcomes. So, what might that entail? Let’s take a closer look at some of the more interesting and innovative uses of VR in education that you just might not expect:

Virtual Field Trips

Imagine sending students home with them saying that today they’ve been to school and swam with sharks. I’m pretty sure you’d have a pretty large mob of parents outside the gates trying find out what on earth was going on. But, alas – this is not the case because this is just one of the ways that Virtual Reality can transport children into situations that they otherwise may have never been able to experience (not that many would necessarily want to experience swimming with sharks – but you catch my drift!).

Now that you’re resting easy with the knowledge that the future won’t be schools feeding children to packs of hungry sharks, let’s have a look at some of the benefits behind these ‘virtual tours and field trips’.

As a starting point, the engagement of children is perhaps the main area in which Virtual Reality comes into its own. Rather than having to look at a series of boring pictures of how the human body works in a textbook (that has quite possibly accumulated a series of suspect looking graffiti on every page!), why not embark on a virtual tour through the body?

After watching that video, I don’t think many would argue with me that a student would be more engaged going on this ‘virtual tour’ than reading through a traditional textbook.

But what about taking children outside of the classroom? I’m pretty sure if you asked the class if they would like to go up to space and discover the solar system or travel back in time to watch the Egyptians build the pyramids the answer would be yes! But I’m guessing your budget doesn’t quite allow for a rocket ship or time machine big enough for a class of kids.

This is where the ‘virtual field trip’ is an invaluable resource. Want to take a group students into space without a rocket? No problem! Want to float above the Egyptians working on the pyramids? You guessed it, no problem again. With Virtual Reality, you can experience things many thought impossible, right from the comfort of the classroom!

But now here’s the big one, what do the experts think? If I’d have posed this question to you a few years ago the answer may have been wildly different – with many figures in both education and the tech industry still wary of the potential that VR held within education. In today’s technology driven society, and with the rapid acceleration and development of Virtual Reality, the consensus appears to be rather more positive.

Shailey Minocha, Professor of Learning Technologies and Social Computing at The Open University has been researching virtual worlds. What Minocha found was that students who were using the virtual worlds as well as traditional methods, were asking many more analytical questions than those who weren’t.

This was true of both classroom learning and out on field trips, with Minocha saying this is “Because if they’ve used these (virtual worlds) to prepare for a field trip, students are more likely to ask more inquisitive questions.” The study also found that children with special educational needs (SEN) were much more vocal and willing to participate in the class when using these technologies too.

So, there you have it, virtual field trips and tours are one of the great ways that Virtual Reality can be used to harbour positive results in education. Students are gaining experiences and learning new skills without having to actually leave the classroom – be it to look more into the human anatomy, learn about planets or even swim with sharks!

Experience history in a whole new way

We’ve already seen how virtual field trips can make the more traditional ‘school outing’ more exciting. But in the realm of Virtual Reality does it have the capabilities to make a subject such as history, that’s more renowned for sending students to sleep, more engaging?

Fortunately, the answer seems to be yes! Whilst some already find the subject of history interesting, the simple fact is that many students don’t engage with the subject in ways in which teachers would necessarily like them to. In fact, a recent Gallup investigation found that less than 50% of students were actively engaged within lessons.

So how can we combat this? Virtual Reality seems to be a recurring answer! Adam Blumenthal of Brown University claims that, “Virtual reality is a very engaging medium, it’s a great way to deliver an experience as compelling as a video game and, at the same time, deliver learning outcomes for school students.”

This is something that couldn’t be more true in terms of history. Virtual Reality can transport students into another realm where they can truly discover the ins and outs of the world – past and present. From experiencing what it was like on the Shores of Dunkirk to sailing through the streets of Bruges all the way back in the 15th century, Virtual Reality has the capabilities to bring history to life.

It can be hard for students to picture just how it was for people during different eras in time, so a virtual experience that drops them directly into the action can only be something that will help students engage with the subject.

Projects into Virtual Reality like the ones I have mentioned are helping students visualise events through time, providing those who prefer learning through visualisation with an invaluable resource. With continued development and integration with other methods, students of the future will have all the resources available for them to prosper through education.

Teacher Training

The capabilities of VR in education don’t just to stop at the student. Both teachers and trainee teachers alike can learn an array of skills through the Virtual Reality platform.

From experiencing a scene where a class is out of control, learning the do’s and don’ts of controlling the situation, to training of what to do in the event of a potential attack on the school – Virtual Reality offers an experience where teachers can learn how to handle and manage sensitive events without the real-life dangers.

Whilst teachers are given many experiences throughout their training, some events aren’t always possible to cover outside of the theory. Virtual Reality gives educators the opportunity to train for these situations, meaning that a teacher can be as prepared as possible for every eventuality that may occur in school or trips out.

These trips certainly aren’t without their potential dangers. And with Virtual Reality, teachers can be trained in advance on all eventualities that may occur on a field trip, giving their students the best possible protection available.

The theme behind training teachers with Virtual Reality may only seem like it’s targeting certain experiences and situations. However, there is good reason. These experiences can be the difference between a teacher understanding the threats and a teacher being fully capable and confident of dealing with these threats. On the most extreme, Virtual Reality training could be the difference between a student being kept safe, or not.

Training doesn’t just stop at that though. You’ll find that most suppliers of Virtual Reality equipment will offer training sessions to teachers and supporting staff on how to use the technology and how they can teach lessons using the headsets. As Virtual Reality is still an emerging and developing technology, many teachers won’t have had the chance to use some of the technology before. Being able to receive training before they use the technology in the classroom means that teachers can deliver the best possible education and learning experience to their students.

Learning a new language

Learning a new language can be a very daunting task for students right from the first steps at primary school all the way up to university. Any resource that makes this less daunting and more engaging is surely something that we should all be jumping on.

Well it appears that Virtual Reality could very well be that resource!

In a recent study by Michael Ullman, two groups of students were asked to learn a language, with one group using more traditional methods as you would experience in a standard classroom, whilst the second group were taught through immersion with Virtual Reality.

After 5 months, the study found that the ‘immersion’ group who had been using Virtual Reality to learn the language were displaying the full brain patterns of a native speaker. That’s impressive!

Whilst there are some existing technologies that give students an immersive experience in language such as animated videos, where characters will speak to you in the native tongue, Virtual Reality is able to take this to the next level.

Rather than watching someone or something on a screen act as a teacher figure, students can have a completely personalised experience through communicating one to one with an actual foreign speaker. This itself is something that in real life would be extremely daunting for many students. However, as it’s entirely ‘virtual’ – the pressure is taken away from the student, leaving more room to learn and practice.

Alex Iliescu, the pioneer behind one of the first Virtual reality language apps, believes that VR is the future of language learning. He claims that “the biggest things that keep people from actually speaking and using new languages are fear and lack of life-like practice. VR overcomes these barriers and quickly gets learners comfortable and speaking in real life situations.”

Could experiences such as this be the future of learning a new language? Again, we come across that word ‘engagement’. Engagement appears to be that red-hot word when it comes to Virtual Reality in education, but for good reason. In a society where students are becoming harder and harder to keep focused and motivated, Virtual Reality is here to bridge the gap that has started to form.

So, there we have it, some of the newest and most innovative ways that Virtual Reality is being used in the classroom. Whilst some may be more developed than others, it seems clear to me that this is one trend that’s set to take the educational spectrum by storm.

Students are more in tune with technology now than ever before, so new and innovative ways of teaching these students seems the only logical way forward. It remains to be seen just how much Virtual Reality can transform the education, but if these early developments are anything to go by, I think that a classroom full of students wearing headsets is something we may well get used to seeing.

I guess the next question to ponder is – what do you go for? Check out our latest post that looks at a range of headsets available for education that might just help sway your decision.

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