The Case for AR and VR in the classroom

By Lucien Parsons, MA, MBA, Director, MAVRIC at UMD

Lucien Parsons, MA, MBA, Director, MAVRIC at UMD

Even as the hype surrounding VR (Virtual Reality) for gaming has waned, the possibilities for the use of VR and AR (Augmented Reality) for educational purposes have expanded.A combination of cheaper and better hardware, the ubiquity of the modern smartphone, commercially available and cheap ‘engines’ of software development for interactive experiences, and a vastly improved understanding of the principles of engagement have created an opportunity to bring AR and VR into the education system for the first time at scale.Thirty years ago, true VR cost tens of millions of dollars per specific use case to develop.Even ten years ago, that cost was in the millions.But, today, it’s possible to create an immersiveexperience, populate it with meaningful educational opportunities, and deliver it to the target population for thousands or 10s of thousands instead.While that’s far from making it the ‘universal answer’ to education, there are specific uses that seem tailor made for these technologies.

In order to understand which uses are appropriate, we first need to understand what each technology does best.VR has two characteristics that make it appropriate for some types of education.First, good VR provides a sense of immersion and presence that is unsurpassed by any other technology.You can show someone something on a screen, but to make them actually ‘feel’ like they are part of the experience, a head mounted display (HMD) provides a completely different level of immersion.

"Already, teachers, companies, and universities are adding educational AR and VR to the arsenal of technologies available in the classroom. However, in order to fully benefit from the opportunity presented by these new technologies, schools need to work on policies to guide how they are used"

This is best illustrated by example. I was demoing the capabilities of the Oculus Go™ using Jurassic World: Apatosaurus™ with one person while another watched.The person who was not wearing the Go asked me, “Why is this different than a TV?” and, just then,the person in the experience ducked his head (the tail of the Apatosaurus had just gone overhead in the experience.)My reply was, “He would never have ducked if we were watching on a screen.”Likewise, you can put someone in a high-wire experience and even though they know they are on a level floor in a building, many will refuse to ‘walk the tightrope’ while wearing the headset. This sense of presence allows us to provide experiences that instill the same reactions as real life, which the military and others have determined to be important to retention and learning, particularly for complex situations and problems.

The second characteristic that VR delivers that is key to its educational potential is the ability to implement direct, ‘natural’ controls. By building in the ability for the experience to react to untethered hand movements (via controllers at the moment, but soon via direct tracking) or a person’s attention (delivered through the simple expediency of knowing where they are looking), HMDs allow the end user to explore their environment without the need for a mouse or controller.This has vast implications for certain types of accessibility as well as providing the designer the opportunity to deliver ‘just in time’ information to the user based off of their actual actions and attention, not their stated intentions.

AR affords a different set of advantages by integrating location awareness, pre-recorded or programmed information, and the ability to maintain connection to the user’s current environment.By overlaying learning objectives and real-time or pre-determined information on the ‘real’ world, we provide the user with the ability to learn in context in a way that is more reminiscent of direct mentoring than most educational methods.This can be done by showing the learner how an expert would approach a given situation or problem, or by providing additional information to the learner ‘just in time’ as they explore a space or device.Imagine being able to show how all the parts of an engine need to be assembled on the actual engine and we are just starting to tap that capability.

So, given that VR is good for immersion and AR is good for providing ‘in situ’ information, where are the opportunities now?

At MAVRIC and the University of Maryland, we have been exploring a number of ways to integrate immersive technologies into the learning process.First, we have started looking at VR and AR for use in the assistance and integration of neurodiverse populations.Our project looks at the use of VR for peers, teachers, and parents of people on the autism spectrum to help them understand differences in visual and auditory perception.In a different context, we are exploring the use of VR to help people with Dyslexia learn to write.Outside of those populations, multiple labs/projects are examining ways to allow learners to practice specific rare and/or dangerous exercises without the risk of harm to self or property.These use cases are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible with immersive learning, but they capitalize on the strengths of VR:immersion, empathy, and natural controls.

Already, teachers, companies, and universities are adding educational AR and VR to the arsenal of technologies available in the classroom.However, in order to fully benefit from the opportunity presented by these new technologies, schools need to work on policies to guide how they are used in the schools both as educational aids and for use by students who will bring them in on their own (BYOD).Since new technology, use, and privacy policies can take a significant time to develop and approve, it is important to begin the process immediately, before the opportunity for use in a specific case arises.

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