Virtual Education

“There are as many applications for VR as you can think of, it’s restricted by your imagination.”
John Goddard

Virtual reality is an exciting technology.  For the last several years, there have been numerous articles talking about Virtual Reality (VR) the emerging technology. As a small example:

What makes virtual reality interesting is that for an emerging technology VR is quite old.  While the term virtual reality was coined in 1987 by John Lanier devices and the idea at the core of the technology can be traced back to 1935 (The Very Real History of Virtual Reality (+A Look Ahead).) Therefore, VR is more than 80 years old, though the first working example didn’t appear until 1957.

One of the first custom-built educational VR programs I encountered was the Boise State Universities Virtual Reality Nursing Simulation with Custom Haptic System for Patient Safety at the 2015 WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) conference. This system was designed as a supplement or replacement to nurse training with expensive medical manikins.  Additional studies showed that students that used the VR system had comparable pass rates on practical skills tests compared to students that used the Manikins.

While we have seen a few of these educational VR programs developed over the last couple of years, A recent Chronical of Higher Education article, Virtual Reality Comes to the Classroom, presents a different approach (the article is also available here.)   Nhora Lucía Serrano added VR to her literature course at Hamilton College.  Professor Serrano’s students designed a virtual environment based on the novels they read.  The students used Unity and Tinkercad to build their virtual worlds.

Unity is a game engine which as Unity says, “A game engine is a software that provides game creators with the necessary set of features to build games quickly and efficiently.”  Unity also has a personal version that is free if you make less then 100K a year on your Unity projects.  Tinkercad is a free 3D modeling program. These two tools give students or faculty the ability to create and modify 3D objects and then build a VR environment.

Professor Serrano’s use of VR in the classroom reminds me of video essays.  While most people are probably familiar with the video essay, the idea behind a video essay is to take the analytical structure of an essay and build a video instead of a written essay.  It is probably only a matter of time before we see someone try and create a VR essay.  However, we do need to be careful that we don’t run to VR simply because we are attracted to the shiny new thing.

As the Chronical article says, “But what is the pedagogical value of a virtual or enhanced experience? Just because students may like it, does that mean they will learn more than they would through a simple computer program or a textbook and lecture?” Pedagogy is essential we need to use technology to solve problems.  However, the question “does that mean they will learn more than they would through a simple computer program or a textbook and lecture?” is not really the correct question.

There is nothing wrong with using technology, even if the outcomes are the same as a “simple computer program or a textbook and lecture.”  If that new technology is more accessible more engaging easier to use or more cost-effective, then there is nothing wrong with using it.  Additionally, even if the outcomes are the same, there is value in using a tool that engages the students differently.  There is always something to be said about using different approaches to relieve the monotony and potentially engage a broader audience.

While professor Serrano’s VR project appears to have been engaging and quite successful, it is posable even likely that the learning gains were not from VR as much as they had another way to access and think about the material.  It is quite posable that the pedagogical advantage of VR won’t be strictly speaking derived from the virtual world.  It is more likely that the benefits of VR will be the ability to do things that would otherwise be imposable or prohibitively costly.

As an example, it would be impossible to visit all the locations discussed in a course on the history of western civilization.  Even if it were posable to travel to all the places in the time frame of a single semester, the cost would be prohibitive.  High fidelity VR recreations would give students the ability to see and explore these sites.  Additionally, it would be impossible for every student in an architectural class to build a multimillion-dollar building in real life.  However, in VR, not only could they build the building, other students and faculty could walk around explore their structure.  Another example in an astronomy class VR would make it possible for students to stand on the surface of the Sun or Mars.

While it is possible, we will develop a VR pedagogy.  It is also important to remember that sometimes, a tool is just a tool.  We don’t talk about the pedagogy of the hammer, yet it is an essential tool in building a set for a theater production or collecting a rock sample in geology.  Whether or not we develop “Pedagogy of VR” and whether it’s better than existing technologies, there is always a place for tools that let us do the otherwise imposable.

Thanks for Listing To my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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