Virtual Reality and Education in 2016

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish this guest post on virtual reality and education as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Daphne Stanford 

I recently came across an especially heated op-ed piece by Joshua Kim in Inside Higher Ed about the recent hoopla over virtual reality in education and was struck by its especially sour and weary tone. However, I can’t say I blame him. Like many educators before him—I remember because I, too, used to be a weary educator—here was another gadget or technological trend that was being said to change education unalterably, and for the better! But when it comes to virtual reality and education, I’m trying to be open minded.

Let us, rather, explore what virtual reality can do. One of the most common uses is virtual travel around the globe or to places not ordinarily feasible, in terms of a physical visit—via, for example, Google Expeditions. Recently, students at University of Maryland were immersed in a virtual classroom experience in order to test out a potential distance platform that simulates what it’s like to be in an actual college classroom, potentially allowing online students to have a more immersive, authentic-feeling experience. “You want the instructor to feel as if they’re right in front of you,” said Ramani Duraiswami, a computer-science professor and co-founder of the startup company VisiSonics. They showcased the technology recently at the university’s virtual-reality lab, called The Augmentarium. There’s a similar set up at Rutgers University with the use of Second Life to immerse students into a virtual reality with their classmates that is potentially more motivating than typical online interaction using instant messaging platforms.

In addition to business and marketing-based user-created experiences, there are also applications in simulating heart surgery. The medical field, in particular, is one of the frontiers that is being particularly well-explored. For example, at George Washington University, the nursing school uses a full-blown simulation lab for training future surgeons. Their lab utilizes mannequins that have a pulse; they also can speak, blink their eyes, and spurt blood! I suppose, strictly speaking the latter scenario more akin to theatre or an elaborate staging scenario, as opposed to virtual reality.

Apparently, “there has been an explosion in the use of simulation medicine to help physicians gain preparation for performing lifesaving procedures as well as approaching delicate or difficult situations related to patient care.” We can see this with programs that utilize virtual reality simulations, in the computerized sense: for example, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.   Virtual reality is being successfully used as an educational tool at institutions like Brown University to elucidate subjects such as anatomy and archeology in an interactive, 3D space. Similarly, a tool called Microsoft Hololens is being implemented into medical training classes at Case Western Reserve University in order to help teach anatomy.

Other smart uses of Virtual Reality and Education

One other exciting realm where Virtual Reality and education is being successfully utilized is physical rehabilitation. For example, a Spanish-based company, Neurodigital, is in the process of developing a device called Gloveone, which allows users to feel texture—for example, a recently returned combat veteran with brain damage is temporarily able to feel their dog’s fur coat. The glove uses ten different sensors and motors that vibrate when its user “touches” something in the virtual realm. Because of the potential for personal connection between the user and his or her personal, home-based environment, there’s an increased level of motivation to continue with therapy—more so than there would be without the virtual reality component.

There’s another way to look at all this virtual reality and education —returning, perhaps, to a perspective more similar to that of Mr. Kim in the Inside Higher Ed opinion piece I cited, at the beginning of the article. Jorge Suarez of Arizona State University writes about the potential dark side of virtual reality with the impending release of Oculus Rift VR goggles and the growing interpersonal detachment that the widespread use of virtual reality could further exacerbate: “Ironically,” Ramos writes, “because of social media, many people have become disconnected from the world around them, and have instead become so attached to their phones, that they have not been able to put them down and have decent face to face conversations.” He offers as an extreme example a 32-year-old man who died after a three-day gaming binge at an Internet café in Taiwan.

Although I don’t foresee a student dying anytime soon from the use of virtual reality  and education in the classroom, it is wise to be aware of the pitfalls of over-reliance on technology and virtual realms. This caution can also be applied directly to education: we must remember that education is inherently relational; that, as Kim stresses in his op-ed, a higher quality education begins with deeper investment in our teachers, rather than throwing money at quick technological fixes and instructional gadgets. However, there is also a great deal of potential in much of this new technology. It is up to us to balance our use of quality instructional time and technology that we judiciously implement into our class time. I don’t know about you, but I know I’d much rather examine a human body in virtual form than in the form of a cadaver! But, then again, that’s why I didn’t go into medicine!

What uses can you think of for virtual reality in your classroom? Comment in the space below!

Bio: Daphne Stanford grew up near the ocean, and she loves taking pictures of the mountains and rivers in Idaho, where she now lives. She believes in the power of writing, education, and community radio to change the world. She hosts “The Poetry Show!” Sundays on Radio Boise.  Find her on Twitter​ @daphne_stanford.

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