Learning lessons – VR technology in the education sector

One of the most important challenges posed by the current pandemic is the effect that it is having on our children’s education. After schools were forced to close most were able to put into place some form of remote learning. However, educating children from a distance is uniquely challenging. They are used to learning in a classroom setting, where there is structure. Teachers are not trained to educate remotely with little or no feedback from the pupils. Above all, though, children are easily distracted – for the most part they would rather be doing something else – so maintaining their engagement is particularly troublesome and even more difficult to police.

The UK’s national focus on this issue has tended to revolve around the plight of kids from poorer backgrounds and the need to find a way to for all pupils to “catch up”. The Government response has been to promise lots of free laptops to students in deprived circumstances and to try to get children back to school as fast as possible but free computers don’t solve the practical problems of remote learning and whilst schools are returning what will happen if/when we are struck by a second wave of infections?

As we start to learn to deal with the new normal, could virtual reality provide some of the answers to these problems? There are some strong indicators that it could.

There is evidence that learning through VR is significantly more effective than traditional methods of education. An old Chinese proverb goes: “I listen and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”. It appears that the uniquely immersive experience of VR has the power to engage learners in “doing” (and therefore understanding) much more effectively than traditional teaching. In one recent example, the UK’s NHS conducted a study to compare the effectiveness of using VR, as against traditional training methods, to teach basic clinical skills. Once trained, the participants in the study were graded on their ability to perform tasks. Those trained with VR successfully performed 92% of the required tasks, compared with a 16% success rate by those who trained traditionally. Statistics as extreme as this are difficult to ignore. Could this be a game-changing way to learn in the future and if so, could this provide the much needed “catch up” that our children will need?

Added to this, VR enables a level of virtual engagement with the world that we are currently struggling to make available to students at all levels. An example of this is Leeds University’s ‘Virtual Landscapes’ program, a VR simulation that allows geology students to train in geological survey techniques, something they would currently struggle do “in the field”, given social distancing constraints. Could this be a way to provide pupils with the field trips required by their subject syllabuses that schools would otherwise struggle to fulfil?

Finally, because VR provides such an immersive experience it is extremely powerful in dealing with the issue of student distraction. As US technology analyst, Rob Enderle points out, a VR headset with excellent content can isolate pupils from their remote learning environment, create virtual classrooms for them and provide them with the ability to work with others in a way that current remote learning cannot. And, of course, a VR headset incorporates a ‘screen’ and all parents understand the magnetic attraction between screens and young people. Could VR be a way to guarantee pupil engagement?

Time will tell if the learning potential offered by VR will be fulfilled. In the meantime, perhaps policy-makers should be considering investment in VR headsets instead of just laptops.