VR Could Bring a New Era of Immersive Learning. But Ethical and Technical Challenges Remain.
Some educators tout the immersive power of VR technology, pointing to examples like an app that simulates what it was like to walk on either side of Germany’s Berlin Wall in the 1980s.
But what does it mean to teach in an immersive format? What can this technology do that couldn’t be done before? And how might it change a professor’s approach to teaching, or should it?
Last week we sat down with two guests—Maya Georgieva, director of digital learning at The New School in New York City, and Rob Kadel, assistant director of research at Georgia Tech Center for 21st Century Universities—for a live video townhall, streamed from the SXSW EDU conference in Austin. It was part of our video town hall series called EdSurge LIVE. More than 100 people tuned in, with questions such as how to make VR accessible for students with disabilities and how to avoid motion sickness when using the technology.
Watch the complete conversation, or read highlights from below. The transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Maya, you gave a talk here at the SXSW EDU conference yesterday about the future of VR in education. In a nutshell, what is your take on where things are going with VR these days?
Georgieva: The main theme of my talk was, “Welcome to the Age of Experiences.” I think everything with technology thus far has been moderated on some screen, whether it’s the big screen the desktop screen or the mobile screen. But now we have this new medium, which is immersive—it’s mixed reality and augmented reality and virtual reality. It’s no longer thinking about typing something, it’s about actually entering the space, and experiencing it, similar to the way you experience the physical world.
We’ve been talking about how to get [VR tools] into education, but they haven’t made their way to education. I think this is now an opportunity for us to [give students] a front row seat to s a historic event or a scientific phenomenon, observe it up close, and experience what it is to connect and see something from somebody else’s shoes.
Could you quickly share one example you mentioned yesterday, involving the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Georgieva: I was born in Bulgaria on the other side of the Berlin Wall. I was in my early teens when this event took place. And I wouldn’t be here if that event didn’t take place. It has had a huge impact on my life.
That said, for a long time I’ve been trying to tell that story in various different ways—whether it’s to my young niece or my colleagues. And we now how a whole generation of students for whom this is just kind of like an event in the past—It’s abstract. So now through this VR experience the Berlin Wall, you can [put on a headset] and walk the wall, with a kind of searchlight. You can kind of try to search for those who are trespassing, which of course you know that so many people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall to freedom.
You’re not multitasking in front of a screen, you’re actually walking the steps. It’s impactful, not just for me, I have some kind of obviously connection to it, but we just did it actually at The New School with students, and I’ve done it with some faculty. It is incredibly powerful, especially to this new generation who didn’t partake in that.
Rob, can you point to some examples at Georgia Tech where you’re already seeing people experiment with VR devices in a classroom setting?
Kadel: One of the things that we’re working on in a very broad way at Georgia Tech is blended learning. We want to see people using video or some other kind of technology to deliver content and instruction [in advance], then use class time for project-based learning and so forth.
I’ve been talking with one of our civil and environmental engineering professors about putting together a blended VR class. He currently does a flipped model where he has videos that are kind of canned, and they’re up on the web. Students watch him demonstrate equations and things like that, then they come back into class and to solve these equations themselves.
I said “What if we could actually put students into a virtual scenario where they are working with the machine that you are describing, and they’re able to take it apart into its component pieces. Then when they get into the classroom they can actually use some of the pieces of the machine.” So it’s training, but it’s giving an opportunity in the classroom to combine both the virtual experience and the in-person experience.
One of the reasons that this has been on my mind is simply because VR is expensive; you know Vibes and the Oculus Rift, they’re all expensive systems. One of the challenges is the logistical concerns about using VR. If you’ve got a class of 30 students and you’ve only got three headsets, what are the other 27 people doing?
So maybe there’s an opportunity for them to work on some kind of project, that they have perhaps learned about before class. I’m really looking forward to finding ways that we can incorporate that immersive experience with the face-to-face experience.
[Audience question from Ben Loeffler] I’m a creative technologist at 160over90. We work with a lot of higher education clients, mostly from a branding capacity but we’re looking to expand what kind of things that we do for our clients. Something that we face a lot is accessibility. I’m curious what you all are doing to provide accessible experiences for those with disabilities in a VR context?
Georgieva: This is a very important question, and it often comes up in this conversation. Obviously we’re very early on, and a lot of the projects are in a very experimental space on campuses, including ours. I think that the good part for me is that this year I see a lot more conversation about this. I see that conversation in spaces where Google and Samsung are participating. This is very important.
Obviously at this point, there are different types of disabilities for some students. I’ve had students who are completely unable to move and we were able to actually put the headset on them, and for them it was like a world of new opportunities because they’re completely locked into a chair. This is one way where it’s great—but of course there are all these other disabilities where we don’t have even the road map, how to [make VR accessible].
How do we design these experiences so that they can be translated in different modes for different peoples and different disabilities?
Ten years ago, there was tremendous hype about virtual worlds like Second Life, and colleges were spending a lot of money building virtual versions of their campuses. A lot of that energy has faded, though. What’s different about this round of virtual reality in education compared to previous ones?
Georgieva: Everybody who’s brought this conversation to faculty has often faced that question about Second Life. There was a hype—and today there is a hype—and the hype doesn’t help. But I think what happened with Second Life is it ended up being a direct translation of our world. So many campuses ended up recreating their campus in that Second Life and that was the pride that you got an island, in Second Life and you created a campus.
I think where we are today, with social VR, these experiences are in full body, it’s something very transformational. However, this is not just any experience, this is an experience that is well thought of and designed, and you’re entering it with a purpose. So it’s not just like walking into Second Life and roaming around. It’s something we really need to spend more energy on in academia and in education of all levels, to think about what would make the best immersive experience as the technology is giving us more and more affordances.
I think it will take a fair amount of prototyping. You actually have to go there open minded, you have to bring people from different perspectives, people who understand narrative and people who understand film and people who understand design, and then just really prototype, and try again, and you end up in a place that is different.
Rob, our advertised question for today’s session was, What is the future of VR in education? How big might this get? And when is it coming? Is it five years? is it next week?
Kadel: Well I think VR is subject to Moore’s Law, like everything else. So it’s going to continue to come down in price while the processing power doubles. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say within the next three to five years, VR will become more ubiquitous. Everyone will have an opportunity to use some kind of VR setup that can be very immersive—and what that gives us is empathy. Empathy for other people’s experiences.
[Audience question] My question is about VR motion sickness. I have friends who have used the VR goggles and I’ve used one myself and I found that after 15 to 20 minutes I start feeling nauseous. When I talk to other people it seems to be a pretty common experience. So my question is, do you think that VR motion sickness is a major obstacle to widespread adoption and what are some of the ways that that might be address?
Georgieva: There are people who are incredibly sensitive—me too. Different people have different tolerance to it. Obviously there’s a virtual reality experiences that is very professionally done and then there are ones that are put together pretty fast. When VR experiences are badly designed, this happens more.
On the other hand I think there might be a small actual percentage of the population that might be hypersensitive, and we don’t know yet because it’s just too early.