As I’ve gotten older, the mental distinction between being informed and educated has only become more and more apparent. Struggling through a final exam season full of lecture review, textbook reading, and caffeine-induced focus feels academic at heart. Facts are dutifully memorized for tomorrow’s test; being informed is being prepared. It’s only three semesters down the line that a daunting reflection creeps in.
After all, fact recall isn’t a measure of education. Students chase the aha moments: beautiful points in time where high-level connections between the gears of complex academic systems are finally understood. This often requires a degree of dynamic interaction. My best learning happens by conversing with teachers, debating with other students, or getting my hands dirty while learning by doing.
At the Heart of Virtual Realities
It’s tempting to associate Virtual Reality (VR) only with its applications to video game experiences: soaring past bright laser beams in the room-scale spaceships of Elite: Dangerous or firing up Job Simulator to rummage through larger-than-life kitchens under time pressure. At the core, however, a single golden concept shines through—immersion.
A Whole New World
The ability of VR to immerse humans in new spaces—environments so real they fool the brain, worlds just parallel of real reality—is what bears the most exciting fruit for academia. Given three-dimensional space, the simplest facts come alive and dance. I realized this for the first time in Google Earth VR, standing on the satellite-rendered geometry of my front driveway in Dallas.
My brain knew many facts about where I was. The highway is just 5 miles to the north, and from there it’s roughly 30 minutes southbound to downtown and my high school. But with one touch of the joystick, suddenly I was somewhere foreign. Fifty feet above ground, looking down with a bird’s eye view. Another press and I was flying. Soaring like Superman across the Texas suburbs, so real I could feel the wind whistle in my ear and tousle my hair.
Faced with spatial awareness and a world so real laid out before me, all the numerical facts I had memorized before suddenly made intuitive sense. Obviously, my GPS had me avoid the east-west intersection by Preston Road; it’s a major connection between the gridded tan residential zones and the splotchy gray Plano business park. The placement of Highway 75 is perfect, right in a dead spot where the major arteries of I-35 and 635 fail to transport travelers. And above it all, the stars—a grand horizon made cooler by the fact it had become within reach.
I could fly to anywhere the light touched: the connections between geography and society had never been so clear.
VR is only taking its first steps into education, but from a student perspective, it’s already so exciting. I believe immersion is the key. It’s the difference between engagement and boredom, interactivity and fact retention, learning by doing and learning by memorizing—educated versus informed.
Leaders in educational VR include companies like California-based Elara Systems, which develops software that enables medical students to gain virtual surgical training. Their offerings include trauma and emergency room simulation, human anatomy explorations, and even empathy development; students can strap on a headset and experience firsthand what patients with vision impairment, hearing loss, and vertigo see, hear, and feel (Elara Systems).
In a different field, ImmerseMe is a VR-based language learning app that touts higher effectiveness due to, well, immersion. Students learn through structured experiences, such as buying baguettes in a French bakery or strolling through a Tokyo park.
Thanks to virtual field trips and “face-to-face” practice involving cultural nuances, ImmerseMe students are well prepared to live in foreign environments and hold dialogue with native speakers far before traveling to their target countries.
VR also holds endless possibilities for relaxation and healthier productivity. Virtual environments are limited only by our imagination, and they’re convincing enough to be equal parts tranquil, breathtaking, or adrenaline-pumping. It’s a wonderful experience to go straight from doing homework to meditating by a mystical koi pond; 20 minutes floating in space or blasting robots can do wonders for taking the mental focus off of problem sets and scholarly essays. Apps like Virtual Desktop can add monitor displays alongside the usual college dorm’s laptop desk setup. Students can effectively multitask while also working in any virtual space they desire: software is as flexible as human moods.
Of course, VR technology is not without serious drawbacks. It’s expensive and unwieldy; teachers will require a lot of additional training to incorporate cutting-edge, non-traditional hardware and software into their classrooms. Already tight school budgets will have trouble shelling out for expensive (yet delicate!) equipment. Low-end headsets retail for $300 off the shelf, and fancy new educational software isn’t free either.
Another picky concern: the technology is not perfect yet. Headset displays have limited pixel density, resulting in occasional blurriness and a faintly visible on-screen grid—the infamous screen door effect. Field of View (FOV) is narrow enough on most headsets to feel like you’re looking through fancy binocular goggles. Full-body motion tracking is costly and space prohibitive, gated behind fancy external sensors. But these points get better and better every year, and the hope is that major tech companies jumping into the industry will greatly grease the gears of technological development.
With our collective imaginations as the only limit, it’s exciting to think that future generations of children may indeed come home with headsets tucked into backpacks, jumping up and down at the prospect of “doing homework.” Until then, let’s strive to be the early adopters and wise shepherds of the tech. Academic communities have both the potential and responsibility to guide the creation of a lively hardware, software, and ethical ecosystem supportive of VR education.
Are you curious about how you could incorporate VR into your own classroom? Schedule a consultation with RITG to discuss the possibilities.
-Austin Zang, Pomona College, ’24
Babich, Nick. 2019, September 19. How VR education will change how we learn and teach. https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/principles/emerging-technology/virtual-reality-will-change-learn-teach/
Elara Systems. (2021, March 19). VR medical training. https://elarasystems.com/medical-training-advances-to-vr/
Ichinin. (2018, December 1). Google Earth VR Sweden [Video]. YouTube.
ImmerseMe Ltd. (n.d.). ImmerseMe: Immersive language learning. https://immerseme.co/#home
VR Essentials. (2019, September 26). Oculus Go guided meditation VR Part 1 – intro review [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP28Q2AZKAs