Home Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality Headset Virtual Reality — OK at Home, Impractical for Learning?

Headset Virtual Reality — OK at Home, Impractical for Learning?



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Today's post comes from Elizabeth Lytle, who works with zSpace (I've written about zSpace here before – a powerful VR based platform for education). While there is likely a bit of bias in Lytle's perspective, the fact is that she makes some good points. I believe VR is far from ripe for widespread classroom adoption (cost and technical complexity being a factor, in addition to the concerns noted below). Some headsets are finding their way into some university labs (like the Emerging Technologies Studio at SUNY Binghamton, shown above), but larger scale use and adoption in K-12 is going to be slow to mature. – KW

VR Headsets May Find a Place in Education, but There are Obstacles to Overcome

The possibilities for virtual reality (VR) for classrooms seem endless. Imagine what students could learn if they could explore the impossible, like the core of the earth or the inside of a cell.

Right now, most people are familiar with VR headset systems which range from the high-end Oculus Rift to the inexpensive Google Cardboard. It’s not surprising that educators are quickly adopting this technology to learning experiences. They can see the potential, and want to know the impact VR could have on engagement and learning.

However, what many are finding is that headset-based VR systems are too impractical for the classroom, and the way our students learn today.

Learning in Isolation vs. Collaboration

A recent Verizon commercial briefly shows a woman wearing a VR headset, waving her hands in the air exclaiming, “How is this possible?” While she’s having an amazing VR experience, she’s isolated, and her friends are having a laugh watching her flail around. That type of isolated experience doesn’t lead to learning.

The same thing happens in classroom. When students are using headset technology they can’t see and often can’t hear one another. That means they can’t share their thoughts and opinions, read others’ facial expressions, or collaborate much at all.

Collaboration is one of the keys to student engagement, helping students learn in a way that really sticks. They work in groups and solve real-world problems. The National Education Association (NEA) says that while individual and even competitive learning activities can and should be used in the classroom, “cooperation should play the dominant role.”

Educators also know that conversations between students and teachers facilitate deeper learning. When students interact together and can react with others about what they are seeing and doing, learning becomes personal and memorable. To be relevant, classroom VR learning experiences can’t isolate learners.

Safety Concerns

There are always safety concerns when a child’s eyes are covered. A wireless headset, such as Google Cardboard, keeps dangers to a minimum as it at least leaves the ears free. Google Expeditions has been used by millions of students worldwide, and can easily be taken off to  interact with their peers or investigate something going on in classroom.

However, for more complex systems, not only would students not be able to see or hear their teachers, but they could be physically tied down to a computer. Straps and wires connect their heads to equipment and would hinder students’ ability to move, let alone leave. Fire marshals are not going to be big fans.

Bullying or harassment is also a concern. A student who can’t see or hear others is a vulnerable target for those who might want to take advantage, requiring educators to monitor headset activities closely.

Long-term Health Effects

Finally, the amazing field-of-view displays in headset VR are new, and there isn’t yet data on the long-term repercussions to eye or brain development for growing kids. The headset makers themselves have warnings that children under 12 or 13 (depending on the manufacturer) should not use the product at all.

Until lasting effects have been proven safe, not even the bravest technology director is going to give headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive a seat in the classroom.

Delivering on the Promise of VR for Learning

For now, it seems as though the best place for headset technologies is at home where they can be used safely for gaming and entertainment.

The good news is that VR technology already exists today that can be used on a screen in the real world. Right now, students are building virtual models of buildings and circuit boards. They’re experimenting with gravity and learning about biomechanics by manipulating the joints of the fingers in three dimensions. They can pick up and view virtual microscopic elements of cells, or troubleshoot a broken quadcopter.

Best of all, teachers and students collaborate and experiment in this virtual world together, without covering eyes and ears or putting them at any health or safety risks. In a screen-based VR environment, they build collaboration skills while having magical interactive experiences and becoming engaged in learning in new and exciting ways. That is the promise of VR for learning.



  1. Kelly,
    Thanks for your reply. Cost and technological requirements won’t slow down the adoption rate in some school districts. As you know, some may have a little more money than others. However, The costs will go down as the newer tech hits the market. The hololens is expensive, yes, but that is because it is fairly new. Give it another year or two, and the price should drop. The same is the case for the HTC Vive. But Google cardboard is pretty inexpensive in comparison.

    McDonald’s is said to have their version of VR viewers as part of their Happy Meal boxes. Some cereal companies are about to do the same. So, when kids are done eating the food inside the box, they will have another treat. Since so many learners have access to cell phones, VR and AR is already inexpensively accessible. Some apps are free, while others are paid, but still very much affordable.

    I understand your point about cost of the technology being a factor hindering adoption. However, I offer you the following to consider. It might depend on what the educator is trying to do that will determine the cost of the technology they use. I assure you, VR, AR, and MR are very much within grasp of affordability for the masses now. VR, AR, and MR don’t begin and end with the Oculus Rift, Microsoft Hololens, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear, etc. The technology can be smartphone driven as Samsung is leading on that front. Consider, as of mid-2015, over 90% of adults have a mobile phone, 64% of them own a smartphone (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/01/6-facts-about-americans-and-their-smartphones/). Seventy-five percent of U.S. children have access to a smartphone or tablet. This stat has probably increased since 2013 when it was reported. (http://www.marketingprofs.com/charts/2013/12042/75-of-american-children-under-8-have-access-to-a-smartphone-or-tablet). Another report finds that 97% of small children have used a mobile device and most have their own (https://www.rt.com/usa/320541-young-children-mobile-devices/).

    Cost is not necessarily going to be the gatekeeper regarding adoption, so much as the lack of professional development for using the technology might be. Or, perhaps some educators attitudes towards using the technology. Once we all wrap our heads around VR, AR, MR technology being tools for teaching, learning, and workforce development instead of writing them off as toys, or gaming devices, etc., we might convince companies to produce more educational content. Or, we could, as educators, collaborate and create the content ourselves (and save some money).

  2. Fascinating – thanks for this resource and perspective Denise! I still think cost and technical requirements are going to continue to slow the adoption rate, but these are interesting insights into the ‘isolation’ element of VR.

  3. This article is based upon old information and therefore is misleading. A conversation with Dr. Robbie Melton, Associate Vice Chancellor of Emerging Technologies at Tennessee Board of Regents, will set the record straight on the use of VR, Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR). Company reps and organizations the likes of Samsung, Verizon, Dell, Lockheed Martin, even zSpace often contact her for her input on how educators are using these technologies and how the might use these technologies for teaching, learning and workforce development. You will learn from her that VR headset learning is not isolated, that there are apps that allow multiple users to interact with one another in real time. The article is missing what Microsoft Hololens can do, and what Microsoft is working on for the future with the Hololens. Users can see and interact with their immediate environment while in them.
    The HTC Vive has a pass-through mode that lets you do the same. However, the Hololens is full of academic promise, and when educators discover how interactive it can be they are going to want companies to provide more learning apps for the device at a faster pace. This article is also missing research suggesting how VR is helping people of various abilities. And, last, users don’t have to wear earphones to experience VR. So, tuning people out is not necessarily an issue. There are also hearing devices that lay behind the ear and allows users to hear not only what is being played through the earbuds but also to hear what is going on in their immediate surroundings as well (https://www.cnet.com/search/?query=bone+conductive+earphones). All of this to say (and this in a very small portion), the so-called promise being referred to in this article is already a reality for VR. It has been for a while, and it is gaining momentum.


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