In the blockbuster movie, “Ready Player One,” 18-year-old Wade Watts needs only to don a virtual reality headset to save the world. Watts embarks on a fantastical treasure hunt in the year 2045—all conducted in virtual reality. It’s escapist fantasy, and (spoiler alert) the good guys win. Yet, virtual reality—or VR, as it’s known—is not futuristic whimsy for hard-core video gamers or the sole domain of Hollywood imaginations. It is a legitimate tool that can enhance engagement and turn an ordinary classroom into a place of adventure and excitement. And it is surprisingly easy to implement, even for the tech-challenged.
In VR, users look through a special device (similar to the old View Master toy) to see 360-degree images. These images can be computer-generated, such as those in a video game world, or they can be real 360-degree photographs or videos of actual places, such as the Great Pyramids. Viewers can see up, down, behind, and around them, and feel as if they are in a new location. With the aid of the VR device, students can take virtual field trips to destinations they may have only read about–from the bottom of the sea to the top of the dunes in the Sahara.
Here are five reasons why VR belongs in every classroom.
1. VR players are cheap and easy to use.
Back in the early days of VR, an effective VR player cost hundreds of dollars and tethered its user to a laptop or gaming device. No longer. VR players are available now for $5 each and work with a Smartphone. Cardboard VR players are especially popular with educators because they are made of cardboard, are lightweight, and are virtually indestructible. An entire class set of Google Cardboards can be had for about $150. They also require very little technological know-how. Even first-graders can insert a Smartphone into a VR player, put in headphones, and magically travel to the top of Mount Everest, complete with wind noise, blinding vistas, and scary heights.
2) VR promotes student engagement.
Research on VR in the classroom is still emerging, but initial results show that it has great promise for hooking students into topics they initially rejected. A virtual trip to the Globe Theatre in London or a simulated exploration into the human body provides the impetus and encouragement students need to pursue information further. In one recent study, students explored Roman ruins through VR and were far more interested in the material than if they had simply read about it. Using VR allows students to independently explore places and ideas and leads to an increase in student-constructed knowledge.
3) VR enhances writing.
Imagine asking students to write an essay about life in the Great Depression. Likely they would struggle, even if they had just read The Grapes of Wrath or seen photographs of the Dust Bowl and migrant workers. Hand them a VR device, though, and they can actually step into the time period and tour a shanty house or walk down a dusty road in the 1930s. This immersive experience translates into writing that is filled with details and students who are more excited to put what they’ve seen in VR into words on a page.
4) VR encourages reading.
Educators typically provide some background information or context for students before asking them to read. Frequently this is done through a PowerPoint presentation or lecture and results in bored students who tune out. But using VR to enhance background knowledge allows students to independently explore new settings and gain an understanding before they read. Research shows that the pairing of a print text with a 21st Century technology tool promotes deeper comprehension. This is especially true when VR and novels or short stories are used in conjunction with each other.
5) VR allows for cross-curricular exploration.
Sir Ken Robinson has lamented that we treat children like widgets when we box them into finite subject areas and expect them to churn out facts. Cross-pollination of subject areas is a much more natural way to learn and results in critical thinking and analysis. VR allows students to marry the worlds of science and literature, for example, when they view images of the lunar phases and then write poems or short stories about the moon. Scientific trips to the bottom of the ocean can be paired with artist’s renderings of oceanic life, and historical visits to a Civil War battlefield can inspire first-person narratives about life as a soldier. The connections are endless.
About 75 years ago, television burst onto the scene and forever changed the way we viewed the world. Virtual reality is no less ground-breaking. Filmmakers, tech firms, universities, and artists already are tapping into VR’s potential. VR has the unique ability to shatter the fourth wall and allow viewers to walk through the screen and join the characters in their setting. Students are no longer passive observers; they are part of the story. This transformative experience promises to change everything in our society—from medicine and psychology to entertainment and school. VR is here, and now it’s our job to make sure students are ready to use it effectively.