Virtual Reality (VR): a technology which, at first glance, makes you rather think about the next science-fiction blockbuster than about a part of your future daily routine. If this is your current state of thoughts about VR, you may soon be proven wrong. Not only is Virtual Reality about to revolutionize the video games industry, but its potential goes far beyond the sole scope of entertainment and may drastically alter the way we get to learn new concepts.
What do we mean exactly by VR? And what is its potential?
In short, Virtual Reality is an artificial computer-generated simulation made to fool your senses into believing that you are somewhere else, immersed in an alternative world. While the technologies around VR are primarily being developed for video games, there are many other real-life applications for which VR will be useful in the future. For example, it is becoming usual for pilots to be formed and trained with flight simulators in VR-immersion. Moreover, VR modules start to be used in various fields of psychology: multiples tests have shown that VR can be efficient for the treatment of psychosis such as phantom limb pain or for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). However, the field which VR could disrupt the most is Education.
Education? How could Education be disrupted?
Firstly, let us take a step back and realize a simple fact: Education, by which we mean academic upbringing, is the sector of our daily life which has changed the less. At school, students sit in class, listen and interact with their teachers and copy out the notes that are written on the board. At university, students attend lectures, which often resemble monotonous monologues, to be introduced to new concepts before studying those concepts by themselves. This description, which we will call the Status Quo of the pedagogic process, could be an accurate depiction of the daily routine of most students, and has not varied much since decades. Certainly, new technologies and ideas such as the use of computers and interactive white blackboards for the most modern schools and Massive Open-Online Courses (MOOC’s) at university level have improved access to education and modernized our learning atmosphere, but they have not drastically impacted our way of acquiring new knowledge and learning new concepts. This Status Quo could be utterly challenged by new VR technologies.
How would VR impact the education sector? And what are its advantages?
By having access to VR modules and being equipped with the necessary VR set, you could easily be immersed in an artificial world where learning is much more interesting and self-taught. One could imagine being immersed in a virtual lab, proceeding autonomously with scientific experiments and helped by punctual information appearing at the right time. One could also think of VR immersions in the fields of biology or medicine, for learning and practicing languages with an “intelligent” linguistic recognition and comprehension software or rhetorical public speaking training in VR with a virtual audience. Indeed, the list is endless and there are as many possible uses of VR as your imagination allows.
VR could finally make you understand maths: being immersed in an interactive 3D-world makes you develop a visual intuition and facilitates understanding theoretical concepts for students known to struggle in classic maths due to weak abstraction skills. VR immersions could therefore ease the acquisition of knowledge and the understanding of concepts for students, both because it would allow students to learn whenever they want and because fully understanding a topic would be easier than with a two-dimensional syllabus.
Moreover, VR could democratize education since “VR rooms”, which would only require an initial investment, would be easier and cheaper to implement than, for example, a real-life laboratory with all its expensive materials. Ideally, free-accessible VR modules could be used by anybody in the world in possession of a VR Set, which means that even people without access to standard education could learn autonomously with such VR courses, in a guided autodidact way. If we forecast a VR revolution, the associated technology would get increasingly cheaper and the democratization of the technology would inevitably lead to the democratization of such pedagogic content.
Are there already companies proposing pedagogic content in VR?
Since we are only witnessing the beginning of the rise of those technologies, there is no “big fish” on the market proposing VR modules for pedagogic purposed. However, there are start-ups proposing pedagogic content in VR, going from biology labs to industrial safety. One example of a highly promising VR-Start-Up is Altheria Solutions. This Brussels-based Start-up realized there was a huge discrepancy between the goal of acquiring a visual intuition and a perfect understanding of abstract subjects and the way these concepts are taught. Altheria Solutions now develops virtual assistants in VR aimed for students to facilitate their understanding and memorisation of complex subject matters. Their first VR-module, an introduction to the scalar and cross product, was already presented to students of the Free University of Brussels (ULB) and the start-up aims to establish itself in various European universities and in the private sector.
Would VR increase efficiency in the pedagogic process?
A priori, nothing would make us doubt that learning through VR would be an efficiency boost. Indeed, one hour of active learning spent in immersion would almost always be more efficient than one hour spent listening to someone else. However, implementing VR in our daily lives would be a further source of distraction from our working routine. We could make an analogy with the introduction of tablets. When the first iPad was presented to the big public, it has been marketed and sold as THE ultimate productivity and efficiency boost. The popularity of “tablet games” such as Angry Birds make us seriously doubt whether Tablets improved society’s productivity. Now, imagine the distraction potential of a technology which literally allows you to be immersed in a virtual world…
Could VR education replace actual teachers?
You could ask yourself whether, on the long term, the autonomous pedagogic method developed with VR modules would lead to a complete replacement of teachers and therefore put an end to the most characteristic human relation in education: the hierarchical relation between the teacher and his/her students. However, considering the consequences of such an impersonal teaching method on the development of social skills and of emotional intelligence of children, it seems inconceivable to think of a purely individual learning process without human interactions.
Is it not a paradox that new technologies, which were meant to connect distant individuals and bring friends together, led to isolation and disconnection of some individuals from society and substantially worsened our mutual interactions and mutual understanding? If virtual technologies were to replace “human” teachers, we could reach a tipping point where most teenagers would lack the basics of social fellowship.
Going to school certainly represents a process of cognitive and intellectual development, but also of social and moral upbringing and even the most convinced computer engineers would agree that the understanding of morality is far beyond the competencies of machines and artificial intelligence. Consequently, although sitting in a class of heterogeneous students may not always be perfect in terms of individual learning efficiency, students grow together and develop their own understanding of society through experiencing social interactions in their own microcosm. Equally, the same could be said for universities and the whole diversity of student projects and social events which allow students to take a step back from their academic routine and develop their social skills.
Therefore, as apps for learning languages have not replaced language courses and freely accessible Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) have not substituted but rather complemented “standard” courses, Virtual Reality is unlikely to replace “real” human contact in the pedagogic process. It is therefore more appropriate to think of these technologies as a complementary tool to “standard education”, helping struggling students, making the learning process more entertaining and boosting learning-effectiveness.
Will Virtual Reality turn out to be one of the major pillars of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” or will its popularity rise only be momentary? Will VR modules replace teachers, complement standard education or have no impact at all on the education sector?
The future will tell us whether revolutionary visions will come true. Independently from such higher-order question, it is highly advisable to inform yourself on matters regarding VR if you do not want to be blindsided by a sudden apparition of VR in your daily lives.