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Engaging education: How to harness Virtual Reality (VR) in schools

By Claire Stead, Online Safety Expert at Smoothwall


In 2016, UK schools saw a disappointing decline in A*-C grades at GCSE level, with the proportion of pupils who gained a C grade or above dropping by 2.1 percentage points from the previous year. Furthermore, results from primary schools in 2015 suggest that almost half of all students were failing to achieve adequate levels of understanding and ability in Maths, English and Science. Clearly, this is a huge concern and something very much on the agenda to solve for educational organisations across the country. Moreover, it highlights a major issue, that current teaching methods may no longer be the best and most effective approach for the young people of today.

The most successful educational experiences are ones that engage with students’ behaviour. Today’s students are the most technologically engaged and savvy generation there’s ever been, with two thirds of 8-12 year olds now owning a smartphone, and teaching methods need to reflect that. One of the latest pieces of technology does just that, Virtual Reality (VR). It uses a headset to immerse users into an environment or place that they otherwise would be unable to go to. VR enables the user to be contained within the environment, rather than outside looking as with Augmented Reality. Even though the commercial applications of VR are in the realm of gaming, there is certainly the appetite for VR to be used within education to improve the learning experience.

Initially you’d expect VR to be only relevant within primary and secondary schools, however it can provide vital training practice within higher education institutions as well. For instance:

  • Design – architecture is one of the best early uses of VR. It allows students to visit and explore a building before any construction actually begins.
  • Coaching talent – it’s widely known that many people learn more effectively by ‘doing’ as opposed to just ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’. VR gives students the opportunity to experience the activities they are learning about, whether that is conducting surgical procedures, guiding airplane landings or providing simulations of dangerous situations in police/ army training.
  • School trips – VR can enable students to virtually visit locations that they aren’t able to physically, ranging from the Himalayan Mountains to the surface of the moon. Moreover, it can bring to life history lessons, for instance, students can be transported to Ancient Egypt to see how they lived and learn about the early Egyptian civilisation.
  • Attracting students – VR can provide students with the opportunity to attend campus visits who are unable to physically be there, and give them a better feel for the institution. There are already some schools that are already offering virtual campus visits, but this takes the concept a step further by being able to experience the atmosphere.virtualreality1

VR however isn’t all about creating an experience. It is also a terrific way to enrich and complement existing teaching methods by helping students visualise, and in turn understand complex subjects and theories. For example, a biology teacher could use the technology to transport students down the path of food through the digestive system.

As with all technology, there are road bumps, with price and accessibility being the main concerns. It was recently announced that schools in England are to face real-time funding cuts for the first time in 20 years, and as a result will unlikely have budget available to invest in new technologies. Even if schools do manage to purchase new technologies, it is a lengthy process to train teachers and students how to use the new equipment.

VR also presents teachers with a number of hurdles. Firstly, it’s essential that teachers are mindful of the session’s learning objectives and ensure these are effectively communicated to the pupils so they get the most out of the session. If not planned accordingly, it could cause disruption within the lesson as it will be difficult to get the students’ attention when everyone’s wearing the headsets. Also, working in groups can be difficult because the VR experience is something the user undergoes on their own, and even evaluating the experience with the whole group afterwards can be challenging. 

Other issues include whether the school is capable of sustaining the technology. For instance, do they have a strong enough Wi-Fi connection and bandwidth to support it, is there space where students can use VR without tripping on desks and is the network security still able to protect against threats? These concerns raise the question whether UK schools are equipped for the 21st century and should prompt school leaders to revisit their long-term plans. virtualreality

Nonetheless, the positives of adopting this immersive, collaborative and engaging technology far outweigh the negatives. And moreover, the challenges are more teething problems than long-term major concerns. In short, Virtual Reality has the capability to be an invaluable piece of technology to enhance the learning experience. Where possible, schools should be looking to embrace such innovations in the classroom to reengage their pupils.


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