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Virtual Reality in Education: Benefits, Tools, and Resources

A young male student uses a VR headset at school, enjoying the benefits of virtual reality in education.

In the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, a submarine and its crew shrink to the size of a human cell to ride through the bloodstream of a scientist and remove a blood clot in his brain. An imaginative tale of science fiction, the movie speaks to humanity’s desire to explore realms considered impossible to reach due to our physical limitations. But thanks to technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), students in elementary schools are now doing just that. Today, students go on virtual field trips to places ranging from the Roman Colosseum in ancient times to outer space to cellular-level passageways inside the human body.

The benefits of virtual reality in education are embraced by many educators, but some are still reluctant to use it in their classrooms. Reasons range from high costs to pushback from school administrators. Others see the value of both VR and AR as entertainment, but not as effective teaching tools in the classroom. Additional educator concerns, as reported in a recent EdTech report, include the bulkiness of the equipment, glitches, and the quality and availability of content. Despite these challenges, demand for AR and VR in education is expected to grow in the coming years. This means that current and aspiring teachers should take steps to learn about the benefits of virtual reality in the classroom.

Innovative teacher education programs like American University’s Master of Arts in Teaching help graduates become forward-thinking educators who can inspire students through technology. The program’s focus on preparing graduates with the skills to deliver education using a multidisciplinary approach is especially helpful.

The program prepares graduates with real-world technical skills using advanced virtual platform technologies. “The use of Mursion [VR] technology has provided American University’s teacher candidates the opportunity to practice science instruction before they work with ‘real’ students, enhancing our teacher candidates’ confidence and skill,” says Carolyn Parker, director of the Master of Arts in Teaching program in American University’s School of Education.

What Are the Benefits of AR and VR in Education?

Before looking into some of the benefits of virtual reality in education, let’s define what virtual reality is and how it differs from augmented reality. AR is used on a smart device to project a layer of educational text and lesson-appropriate content on top of a user’s actual surroundings, providing students with interactive and meaningful learning experiences. VR creates an entire digital environment, a 360-degree, immersive user experience that feels real. In a VR setting, students can interact with what they see as if they were really there.

In addition to providing students with immersive learning experiences, other benefits of virtual reality in education include the ability to inspire students’ creativity and spark their imaginations. And this can motivate them to explore new academic interests. AR and VR in education also helps students struggling to understand difficult academic concepts. For example, through AR, geometry students can check out 3D geometric forms from multiple perspectives; they can rotate a shape to see it from different angles and even view it from the inside. The benefits of virtual reality in education go beyond academics as well to include cultural competence, the ability to understand another person’s culture and values—an important skill in today’s interconnected, global society. For example, a virtual reality field trip to other parts of the world, whether it be Peru or China, exposes students to cultures other than their own.

Growing evidence suggests that AR and VR in education, as well as the combination of both technologies known as mixed reality, can improve student outcomes, too. For example, in a March 2019 report, EdTech cites a study showing that students in a mixed reality biology classroom received higher scores than other students. And AR and VR can help with memory retention and recall, as well—EdTech reports on a recent study that shows an increase in retention of almost 9 percent for students who learned in an immersive environment such as VR.

AR and VR in Education: Resources and Tips

Bringing AR and VR tools into the classroom doesn’t have to be expensive. Available resources, ranging from low-priced viewers like Google Cardboard to cost-effective equipment that can connect to smartphones, can be acquired without breaking the bank. Resources for teachers include affordable or even free apps, such as 360Cities, which allows students to visit places like Rome and Tokyo. Another app, TimeLooper, allows students to visit locations through a historical lens, such as London in medieval times or World War II. Platforms like Immersive VR Education and Nearpod allow teachers to develop lesson plans with VR and AR technology.

These, and other resources, are key to incorporating immersive education into classrooms. But how can teachers set up their classrooms to maximize the benefits of VR in education? Here are a few tips.

Ensure Ample Physical Space

To reap the benefits of virtual reality in education, it is important for students to use VR equipment safely. VR users often spin around or stride blindly, ignoring their physical surroundings. A misstep could lead to injury. Educators should ensure their classrooms’ physical environments are spacious and safe for VR explorers. Students should be at least an arm’s length away from each other and from objects in the classroom. When possible, use VR content that can be accessed by students sitting at their desks.

Supervise and Moderate VR Use in Classrooms

Research into the psychological impact of VR on students suggests that VR should be used moderately and under close supervision in school settings. The findings of the research as reported in a recent CNN.com article recounts that children who overused VR had false memories of having physically visited a place they actually never visited. Limiting VR education sessions to a couple of minutes as part of a longer lesson plan can address this issue.

Know When to Use VR in the Classroom

VR can bring academic subjects to life, offering students new insights and refreshing perspectives. But VR can’t replace human interaction. Learning is fundamentally a social experience, so VR is best used as a supplemental learning tool.

How can teachers use VR in the classroom? It depends on the subject. Using VR to teach grammar in classrooms may not make much sense because grammar is a relatively abstract topic. On the other hand, VR may work well for topics that are visual and tactile, for example, allowing students to learn “firsthand” about a historical event or famous monument.

As a case in point, because the Parthenon in Greece is a physical structure, students can virtually walk inside it to see its architectural details, thanks to VR equipment and software. Many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics also lend themselves well to VR. When it comes down to it, what child wouldn’t enjoy “visiting” the planets of the solar system?

Develop a Plan for VR Learning

Among the most noteworthy benefits of virtual reality in the classroom is its ability to spark curiosity and interest in students. But left to their own devices, students may veer off topic. This is why educators should develop a structured plan to maximize the use of VR within lesson plans and then guide their students along the path. As part of the plan, it is important for teachers to determine goals and expectations for students and set guidelines for students to follow to ensure optimal learning experiences.

Teach Empathy and Cultural Competence

The magic of VR is that it brings different places throughout the world right into the classroom. These new perspectives can result in fostering empathy and cultural competence because they take students outside of their normal daily experience. The use of VR and AR helps students understand people’s unique situations across the world. For example, teachers can use VR applications to enhance language teaching by exposing students to the cultures of the people who speak the language. Using technology to build culturally responsive environments helps students respect cultures different from their own.

Become an Innovative Education Leader

Innovative educational technologies such as VR and AR continue to emerge. And according to an April 2019 EdWeek report, 15 percent of US schools will have classroom access to virtual reality by 2021. How can teachers prepare to leverage the benefits of VR in education to improve learning outcomes?

With a focus on offering future teachers the essential tools needed to transform the education system and educate all students equally, American University’s Master of Arts in Teaching program equips graduates to become innovative education leaders. Advances in neurodevelopment, social-emotional interventions, and a multidisciplinary approach to teaching STEM education are central to the program’s curriculum so that students develop skills to succeed in an education field driven by new technologies such as VR and AR.

If you are looking to advance your education career by leveraging technology, learn how American University’s Master of Arts in Teaching program can help put you at the forefront of the educational innovations that are transforming schools and lives.

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