The alleged “Year of Virtual Reality” is drawing to a close. Did it already bring VR to the classrooms?

In late 2016, learning in virtual reality has become reality: Teachers take their classes on virtual field trips. Students create interactive 360° images or design immersive VR worlds.

Of course, VR headsets are far from belonging to any classrooms standard repertoire. They are still pretty exotic – and exactly therefore exciting to students. “If I have a View-Master sitting on my desk: Instant curiosity,” says Technology Integration Specialist Jon Smith. “Once the headset is on, everyone’s curious inner child comes out.“

“Engagement was off the charts”

Curiosity quite neatly translates to motivation – and that’s one of VR’s superpowers. If you ask teachers why they like to use virtual reality, they all agree on one thing: VR grasps students’ attention. “The first difference was with student engagement,” says Gifted Resource Teacher Brian Schumann about his first VR project where students created immersive book interpretations. Instructional Technology Teacher Benjamin Lloyd made very similar experiences with his virtual reality vocabulary project: “Engagement was off the charts,” he says. “We are seeing an excitement that we haven’t seen towards vocabulary in a while.”

Curiosity, excitement. When it comes to VR, these are emotions you can find on both sides: with students and with teachers. Of course, there are lots of educators who don’t (yet) care about virtual reality or are skeptical. But the ones who use VR tend to be very passionate about it. And it’s exactly the excitement of these tech-savvy educators – eagerly exchanging over blogs, social media, edchats and edcamps – that make VR a reality in the classroom.

Teachers face very different problems than most people in the VR community

The questions and problems these teachers face, differ a lot from most discussions in the virtual reality community: Is the school Wi-Fi too slow for Google Expeditions? Will I collect enough money on to buy my class a few more cardboard headsets? How do these kids constantly manage to splinter all their smartphone screens? And if I let them use my phone instead, will the students keep their fingers off my private messages?

Virtual reality in the classroom might sound a lot like science fiction. In reality, however, it often has the improvised charm that comes quite naturally with a technical device made from actual cardboard. Despite all this: For teachers and students, what happens inside these cardboard headsets is magic.

It’s a way for educators to bring their students to places that would be out of reach otherwise. Google Expeditions, the VR mode of Google Street View and Nearpod’s virtual field trips are among the most popular experiences teachers explore with their students. “Some of our students have never really left the bubbles of their own town,” says Jaime Donally, creator of the #ARVRinEDU chat on Twitter. “Virtual reality is a relatively inexpensive way to show them the world.”

Connecting to the world and creating new ones using virtual reality

VR cannot only be a way to see the world but also to connect with it. Rachel Smith, a teacher from the small Isle of Man, created 360° photos with her students to share what it looks like on their home island with a class from Muscat, Oman. You don’t even have to look very closely at these images to see that they are not made with a 360° camera but patched together from normal photos (using Google Street View app and Storyspheres in this case). However, in the school context, this often doesn’t matter. Even without expensive equipment and fine graphics: “It can still provide those wow moments for students,” Rachel Smith says.

Especially if students have made something themselves, it doesn’t have to be perfect. “Seeing their spaces in virtual reality — they just thought that was the coolest thing ever,” says Tiffany Capers who let her students recreate settings of the novel they were reading in class with the VR tool CoSpaces. Literature is a popular playground for VR creation: It offers an extremely vivid medium for texts to come to life. Other educators let their students build virtual exhibitions, stories or design cities of the future that they can later dive into with a headset.

VR in education is still in its infancy – and there is much to be done until it will find its place in our education systems. However, the “Year of Virtual Reality” has been a good start. And 2017 is likely to bring exciting news.

Susanne Krause

Susanne Krause is a guest contributor to AR/VR Magazine, former journalist and now working for the VR startup Delightex. Her childhood dream was a job on a starship with a holodeck; an office full of VR gadgets is a good first step.