Is Virtual Reality For Everyone?

As the cost to install and support enabling technologies continues to fall, VR-based instruction could soon become the norm in higher education.

In late April, a number of high school and college students, in conjunction with the Immersive Education Initiative (iED) and the National Park Service, created a 3D version of Bent's Old Fort along the Santa Fe Trail in Colorado.

The fully immersive, 3D virtual reality environment will be made available to other institutions and clubs throughout the world, allowing more professors and students to experience firsthand interactions with the fort.

The building of the immersive environment was a transformative teaching and learning experience, says Aaron E. Walsh, iED's founding director. "As we used to build dioramas in school, when you're building something like this, you're putting down neural pathways in the brain," he says. "You can remember what you're learning much better."

Overcoming the Diminishing Cost Hurdle

There are a number of reasons why virtual reality finally has begun taking hold in education. The first is purely tactical: Companies such as Caterpillar, General Motors and Ford have used VR technology in the workplace to train their staffs, says Marcus Noel, developer liaison and ConnectED fellow in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology.

"If we are, as educators, preparing students for the real world, it's only likely that the same adoptive measures happen," Noel says.

The costs to install and support VR-enabling technology also are falling, Walsh says. iED provides VR headsets to students that cost about $18 each, he says. Constructed of foam and cardboard, the student-built headsets use a smartphone to run graphics.

VR headsets from companies such as Facebook's Oculus Rift or Sony Electronics can cost anywhere from $300 to $999 each. For some organizations looking to add VR to their arsenal of teaching tools, that's still an affordable price. All are self-contained, which means that IT doesn't have to learn about or support a new technology or operating system. In addition, evolving apps and tools such as Google Cardboard and Microsoft HoloLens mean there are plenty of developers and educational technologists thinking about VR and how to best use the technology — within and outside of the classroom.

The Ease of Student Adoption

But a greater impetus for growing use of VR-based instruction may be coming from students themselves, says Richard L. White, emerging technologies developer at the Southeast Kansas Education Center in Greenbrush, Kan.

Today's students are more tech-savvy than students of just a few years ago, White notes. They grow up using tablets and not only are prepared to use VR but also are already able to think in 3D, White says. "Educational opportunities will literally only be limited by our own imaginations."

Michal Krakowiak/Getty Images
Aug 10 2015

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