“Honey, don’t forget your virtual reality goggles! And your lunch! We’re gonna be late for school!”
As a technology reporter for Education Week and the mom of a 2-year-old, I’ve imagined saying that sentence to my son, at some indeterminate point in the future.
Whenever an expert says VR will inevitably get less expensive and more ubiquitous, I’ve wondered: Will my son learn about the constitutional convention by actually “attending” it in some immersive VR forum? Will his high school biology class “dissect” a human cadaver with their virtual reality goggles on, no cleanup necessary? Will his first experience with immersive, interactive VR in school be five years from now, when he’s in 2nd grade? Or even earlier?
After my first interactive, immersive VR experience last month, I’m not holding my breath. But I may be surprised by how fast the tech evolves, experts told me.
Educators—and reporters—had the opportunity to try immersive, interactive virtual reality at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in New Orleans last month.
The experience, which used an Oculus Quest headset that retails for about $300, was pretty uneven, at least for me. Even after getting about double the amount of time everyone else did to check out the hardware, I barely had made it through the “orientation” before I had to give the goggles back.
First, the very kind and patient volunteer helping out with the experience had trouble helping me figure out if my regular eyeglasses could go under the goggles. (Yes, they could. But then we couldn’t figure out how to make them fit. I ended up deciding to shed the glasses and hope my slight nearsightedness didn’t compromise my experience too much.)
Then, I had to stand in a patch of carpet and digitally contour the perimeter, which was marked with yellow tape, for the goggles to work. This was harder than it sounds. I finally made it to an introductory screen, complete with 3D images of hot-air balloons, rockets, and music.
At that point, I thought I was on my way to the ultimate VR experience, but when I tried to move forward, I kept getting kicked back to that same introduction, ultimately watching it several times. I tried to explain to the volunteer what I was seeing, and she could only help me by putting on the goggles herself, which meant restarting the whole process over again.
At last, I made it to an orientation screen, which walked me through how to use a laser to choose from among different options, and how to use the controls to pick up objects. The directions were confusing and the learning process took what felt like a long time, maybe 10 minutes or longer. I finally got the hang of it—kinda sorta—using hand controls to toss a virtual paper airplane and put a virtual disk in a virtual slot. (That part was very cool and felt fantastically futuristic).
Once participants completed this first experience, there were a couple of other options with more of an educational angle—including a chance to tour the International Space Station in virtual reality—but I had to head to another event before I had an opportunity to test them out.
Later, I had a headache, something a couple of educators told me also has happened to them after using VR. (In my case, it’s tough to say if the tech was the cause. I was also low on caffeine that morning.)
I wondered if my own struggles with this emerging technology simply stemmed from my own ineptitude.
‘There’s definitely room for improvement’
But some of the educators who tested the goggles had a similar take.
The VR experience initially failed to load for Kyra Walker, the instructional technology coordinator at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, Va. And, like me, she found the orientation process cumbersome.
“There’s definitely room for improvement,” said Walker, whose district is exploring the idea of VR labs. “When you have 25 students, and you have to recalibrate every single time a student picks up a device, that can slow you down. And that can also take away from the actual immersive experience that you’re trying to give students.”
Still, Walker’s not giving up on VR. She loves the idea of students putting on the goggles and finding themselves inside the human respiratory system, for instance. “I am looking forward to it expanding and becoming more user friendly in the near future,” she said.
The issues we had with the VR may have stemmed not from the goggles themselves, said Andy Mann, an instructional technology consultant for the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District in Michigan who helped with the experience. (Mann and the district he works with have no financial relationship with Meta, the company that owns Facebook and made the goggles we used.)
To make sure participants could get a taste of VR in a limited time frame, the experience used a mobile device manager, which essentially blocked off certain features. That likely caused the glitches, he said.
Plenty of educators had a smooth experience.
While it took Mary Teren, a high school science teacher in Cobb County, Ga., a moment to get used to the goggles—they gave her a bit of motion sickness at first—she thinks her students would probably figure the tech out quickly, especially since many of them already play VR games at home.
Teren teaches oceanography and astronomy, both of which don’t offer much in the way of hands-on experience, she said. This would be a game-changer, giving kids a tactile sense of space or the depths of the sea.
What’s more, fields as diverse as robotics and medicine are beginning to use VR as a training device. Teren wants her students to have experience with it before they get into the workforce. “The technology is changing and we need to try as much as we can to keep up with it,” said Teren, who is exploring grant funding to expand VR at her school.
Students in the schools Mann works with have used the goggles to tour the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, or stand on the cliffs of Machu Pichu, an ancient Inca site in Peru. Mann’s teenage daughter—a budding chef—is a big fan of a program that transports her a few millenniums back to a kitchen in Greece or China where can she make a typical, virtual meal for that time and place.
More students will have those sorts of opportunities as the goggles become more sophisticated, lighter, less expensive, and geared toward the K-12 marketplace, Mann expects.
So will my toddler son use interactive, immersive VR during his K-12 experience? I asked Mann. He reminded me of Oregon Trail, the history-based computer game that was a mainstay of school computer labs in the early 1990s, when I was in middle school.
My son might play a version of that game too, he said. But the work he does will be much more sophisticated than creating a gravestone when the head of your party dies of dysentery.
“His teacher is going to say to the students, ‘all right, pull out your VR or AR (Augmented Reality) goggles, put them on, we’re all going to do Oregon Trail right now. And as a class, they’re going to go into the Oregon Trail and be able to work collaboratively and see each other,” Mann said. “We’re on the cusp of something just revolutionary.”