IT Infrastructure & Management

Virtual Reality for Learning Raises High Hopes and Serious Concerns

By Benjamin Herold — February 08, 2018 | Corrected: February 09, 2018 7 min read
Triston Dunkerson, center, uses a VR viewer to go on a virtual field trip to a rainforest during a class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Indianapolis last spring.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of Lisa Castaneda.

London and Philadelphia

Is virtual reality finally ready to make inroads in K-12?

Technology companies are making a fresh push, and some market dynamics could provide them a tailwind. But there’s plenty of reason to remain skeptical.

That’s the takeaway from Education Week’s reporting from two conferences last month: Bett, a global ed-tech trade show hosted in London, and EduCon, a gathering of progressive educators and technology enthusiasts in Philadelphia.

Reasons to be bullish include new hardware advances, falling prices, and a wave of districts that will soon be looking to replace their existing computers and laptops. As a result, more than 15 percent of U.S. schools will have virtual-reality classroom kits by 2021, predicts Futuresource Consulting, a U.K.-based market-research firm.

“You’re going to see increasing adoption of this immersive technology,” said Ben Davis, a senior analyst for the group.

Other experts, however, say any potential growth will depend on how the field navigates as-yet unanswered questions about virtual reality’s classroom value and long-term impact on children.

In addition, researchers have started to highlight a range of mostly unexplored ethical considerations around VR use with children. Chief among them: Virtual reality can be a powerful trigger for existing emotional and psychological issues, and scientists are only just beginning to understand how exposure to immersive virtual environments affects children’s brains and development.

The net result, said Julie Evans, the CEO of the nonprofit group Project Tomorrow, is that K-12 educators and policymakers would be wise to keep an eye on VR’s potential—but not overestimate the future benefits.

“VR is the most exciting stuff on the showroom floor right now, so some people are getting really jazzed up,” Evans said. “But vendors still aren’t addressing fundamental challenges to effective implementation, and there needs to be a better justification for why schools should invest in these technologies.”

Signs of Movement

Virtual reality typically involves a computer-generated immersive environment that users can interact with in ways that feel real.

The requisite hardware ranges from inexpensive viewers that can be paired with users’ existing smartphones, to $600 immersive headsets that require significant computing power to operate.

So far, the technology industry’s primary focus has been on consumers, where VR is seen as a potential game changer in such fields as entertainment and gaming.

But companies small and large have also begun trying to make inroads in education.

At Bett, for example, no fewer than 18 vendors touted VR products for schools.

With its popular Cardboard and Expeditions products, Google has pushed to make “virtual field trips” an everyday experience for K-12 students.

And Facebook recently announced it would give every high school in Arkansas a virtual-reality package, consisting of computers, cameras, and its Oculus Rift headset.

Such “classroom kits” could be a meaningful part of the next wave of technology adoption in U.S. schools, Davis of Futuresource Consulting said during a presentation at the Bett conference.

One reason: By 2020, Davis said, about half the computers shipped to U.S. schools will be to replace existing devices, especially all the Chromebooks that districts bought in recent years. To help create a market for their VR products, vendors may push to include virtual-reality hardware as part of those refresher packages, even if it means a financial loss in the near term.

“The industry is now looking to vertical markets to find a home” for the technology, Davis said.

Still a Novelty

Still, some analysts remain doubtful that any tipping point is imminent.

For decades, VR in education has been subject to hype cycles, with hyperbolic predictions of a classroom revolution falling flat in the real world.

And even as VR hardware has improved and become more affordable, the field has suffered from a dearth of content that has clear educational value beyond simply engaging students.

As a result, said Trace Urdan, the managing director of market research firm Tyton Partners and a longtime observer of the ed-tech market, the technology industry has yet to make a compelling case that schools should be investing scarce dollars in VR instead of other needs.

“I still think VR is a cool product in search of a market,” Urdan said. “I absolutely believe this is going to be a thing in the future, but I’d be surprised if anything meaningful erupted in the next year or two.”

Evans of Project Tomorrow concurred.

In 2016, just 5 percent of more than 38,000 U.S. teachers surveyed as part of the group’s annual Speak Up project reported having implemented VR or augmented reality (which overlays virtual images on the real world) in their classrooms.

Data from the group’s 2017 survey are still being tabulated, Evans said, but there does not appear to have been any meaningful change in that figure.

For the time being, Evans said, most of the enthusiasm for VR seems confined to the relative handful of “techie” educators who tend to be on the leading edge of figuring out how any new technology may translate in the classroom.

That was the case at the annual EduCon conference in Philadelphia.

Among the small group that took part in a conversation on VR was Rob Muntz, a visual-arts teacher at the private Malvern Preparatory School outside the city.

When his school got an advanced VR headset last year, Muntz said, his mind ran wild with the possibilities, including having students in his sculpture class build virtual-reality sets for the school play.

“It would be like shows on HGTV, when they let [prospective homebuyers] walk around a simulation of what the house will look like after it’s been remodeled,” he said.

Still, much of the conversation focused on ethical concerns about VR use with children.

The session was run by staff members from foundry10, a research group founded with support from Gabe Newell, the CEO of gaming company Valve, the maker of the HTC Vive virtual-reality headset.

Over the past three years, foundry10 has provided a mix of VR kits at no cost to 30 classrooms in the United States and Canada, then conducted interviews, observations, and surveys about how the technology is used.

Foundry10 CEO Lisa Castaneda, a former teacher, said students who try VR typically like it, especially when they are able to interact with a fully-immersive virtual world. There are also signs that VR can in some circumstances move beyond the “wow factor,” becoming a valuable tool for deepening students’ understanding of events and ideas, Castaneda said.

But there’s a growing list of concerns related to even short-term exposure.

About 16 percent of the students that foundry10 surveyed experienced symptoms of physical discomfort when using it, including nausea, dizziness, and headaches.

About 7 percent were psychologically disconcerted by the experience, saying that immersive simulations of swimming underwater with a blue whale or riding a roller coaster were too intense or triggered fears and phobias.

Limited Evidence

And so far, Castaneda said, there’s limited evidence to support one of virtual reality’s central selling points for a K-12 world now obsessed with social-emotional learning: that it’s the “ultimate empathy machine” (a phrase coined by filmmaker Chris Milk, the creator of an immersive virtual-reality experience that puts users inside a Syrian refugee camp.)

Even after using the technology, most students “weren’t sold on the fact that VR was going to help them understand other people better,” Castaneda said.

Then there are the longer-term worries.

Researchers know very little about how moving back and forth between reality and immersive virtual environments affects the brains of children, especially those who may have difficulty distinguishing between the two.

Foundry10 found both students and teachers surprisingly willing to trust the accuracy and truthfulness of VR content, raising questions about what happens when the medium is eventually used for advertising or to spread misinformation and propaganda.

And VR has the potential, at least, to capture information on everything from users’ physiological reactions to their emotional states, raising questions about data-privacy protections.

Some manufacturers of consumer VR technology have quietly begun acknowledging such fears. Samsung, for example, recently recommended that its GearVR viewer not be used by children younger than 13.

Companies such as zSpace are also trying to market VR technology that doesn’t involve headsets and is specifically designed for the K-12 market. The focus is on student collaboration and high-quality educational content that teachers introduce and explain, a spokesman said.

Given the combination of hype and uncertainty in the field, Castaneda said, it’s important that educators be careful and thoughtful when it comes to VR.

“There’s definitely something there,” she said. “But it’s rolling out faster than we understand it, for sure.”

Benjamin Herold reported from Philadelphia and Michele Molnar from London.
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Virtual Reality in K-12 Raising High Hopes and Serious Concerns


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