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World without walls: Virtual reality’s role in the classroom

It’s a world without walls. Students can explore the vast expanse of the Great Barrier Reef or the microscopic intricacies of the human cell — all within the confines of the classroom. Virtual reality experiences take students “to where they cannot be” because of physical, financial, or other constraints, says Helen Crompton, an international expert on mobile learning and professor of instructional technology at Old Dominion University.  “Textbooks can describe,” says Crompton. “VR puts it in context.”    

Is VR the next big idea in education technology integration? Market enthusiasm is sky-high. UK-based Futuresource Consulting, which forecasts global technology trends, projects the number of students accessing VR or similar technologies on headsets at schools worldwide will explode from 2.1 million in 2016 to 82.7 million in 2021. Oh, the places they’ll go!   

What’s VR like? Some VR experiences work with phones; others require computers. I downloaded an app on my smartphone, strapped on a headset, and embarked on a VR adventure with great white sharks. I found VR immersive, disorienting, and undeniably cool. I’m still thinking about the shark that swam over my head. 

What limits widespread integration? Cost and scalability, for starters. Most VR content is in “short form, ‘snackable’ experiences,” Futuresource analyst Ben Davis says in a press release. “Issues concerning equality of access and the management and safety of student devices [are] likely to prevent ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) models, meaning schools must make sizeable hardware investments to introduce VR to the classroom at scale.”  

There’s also scant research assessing VR’s impact on children. “When it comes to VR and kids, we just don’t know all that much,” Jeremy Bailenson, founder of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, writes in a new report on VR he co-authored for Common Sense Media. 

More research is coming. Crompton is launching a study evaluating knowledge retention, growth, and historical empathy among middle schoolers learning about Pearl Harbor in a VR environment. Numerous institutions are investigating VR and learning outcomes, or VR simulations and skills training.   

As research evolves, experts emphasize thoughtful use. In the classroom, Crompton says, “Don’t be blinded by bright, shiny things. Focus on content.” Bailenson advocates moderation and underscores for parents the power of VR: “If you wouldn’t want your children to live with the memory of the event in the real world, then don’t have them do it in VR.”    

Parents and educators are wrestling with balancing pros and cons. In the Stanford report, 62 percent of parents surveyed expressed optimism about VR’s educational potential — but 60 percent were concerned about negative health effects for children. More broadly, in a new Education Week survey of principals, 57 percent said digital technologies were an “important supplemental resource” for personalizing student learning. Yet 85 percent expressed some degree of concern that devices used to personalize learning would contribute to excess screen time; 95 percent believed screens occupied too much student time outside school. 

What to do? VR holds real promise for lively, personalized learning. Yet for young children, use should proceed with care in classrooms and caution at home. VR’s long-term impact on children’s sensory systems, vision, and aggression are unknown, as the Stanford report notes. And the implications of extensive VR gaming or entertainment with immersive violent content are worrisome for children of any age. 

Technology dismantles walls. That’s a good thing. Except sometimes it isn’t.  Walls and boundaries limit children, but they also protect, enforcing time and space for other good things. Knowing when to build a wall or knock one down? That’s a critical challenge for parents and educators — in any reality. 

Editor’s note: This article was first published by the Carolina Journal. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Kristen Blair

Kristen Blair is a communications consultant and Chapel Hill-based education writer. She serves as the communications director for the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools.