Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Education

We keep claiming that technology will transform education. We said it when computers hit the market in a real way in the 1980s. We said it when artificial intelligence began reaching Siri levels. And we’re saying it now, when spatial computing is taking its strongest steps forward since we began seriously working on it in the 80s. But while those early technologies have certainly impacted schooling, they haven’t transformed it the way we hoped they might.

Take computers. Many schools now require all assignments to be typed instead of handwritten — they’re easier on the eyes, after all, and no more demerit points for sloppy cursive. But the vision of 30 students sitting in a class for eight hours a day in front of a computer learning lessons from programs never materialized. Whether that’s a positive or a negative can be debated ad nauseum, but the fact is that adoption was hampered by cost. Most schools have a single computer lab where students take turns studying computers specifically — they aren’t using data modeling in their stats class, or testing components for chemistry. Computers have been relegated to something you learn about rather than something you learn from, and there are a lot of opportunities we’ve missed because of that.

The failure to launch artificial intelligence in education is directly linked to the failure to adopt widespread computers. A virtual tutor can’t help students figure out their unique learning style if seventy five students are all sharing time on one computer. These technologies are finding traction in alternative education and tutoring, however, where assessment tests help students learn about their own learning styles. There’s much further for AI to go, course, and hopefully in the future we’ll see it being used even more.

So now we begin to wonder how virtual and augmented reality will fare when up against the same legislative hurdles that have hampered past technologies. Virtual reality has been getting a lot of well-deserved ink for its potential to transform education, but the infrastructure necessary to bring in a program that every kid can engage with is a stopper even more significant than it was with computers. After all, VR not only requires a computer for each student — it requires a top of the line computer. Given that most schools are still running computers that are ten years old or more, that’s a hurdle.

But there are some people doing amazing things with VR and education. We’re not going to waste much time on Google Expeditions, because you’re probably all familiar with them, but if you aren’t, in a nutshell: Google lets students explore the world using cell phones and a piece of cardboard. It’s great because it doesn’t need an expensive computer, but it still requires a lot of funding from Google to make it happen. They rent out the phones, provide the cardboards for free, and even give training for teachers on how to lead the expedition. It’s a fun learning tool, but likely to be used by teachers the way they used to use crappy British documentaries — give the teacher a break from the classroom, let the students have some fun, and then get back to the real learning.

We’ve seen VR take off as a form of job training, the advantage there being the budgets necessary to pull it off. But the boost up that students get from learning first-hand is incredibly important in schools, too. A lot of students learn better by doing than listening, and virtual reality gives them the opportunity to learn hands on in a way that classic education simply can’t. Training is becoming huge in industry, and hopefully as that matures it will trickle down to high school level students as well (right now we’re mostly seeing it in college and on the job). Of course, hands-on training in school is about more than just learning how to do a job. It also means letting them explore how physics works instead of just telling them, or watching a famous battle to learn history.

If virtual reality is being hampered by cost, augmented reality might have a leg-up on its more resource intensive cousin. With AR, teachers can get started with nothing but a cell phone. Granted, one phone for an entire classroom isn’t an ideal scenario — so AR is pressing forward using other avenues.

Take the augmented reality sandbox, which is being used around the world to help students learn about topography and geography. All it requires is a projector, a single computer, and a few sensors. With that students can leap into a fully responsive experience that reacts to their input. Following that line has the potential to get a whole classroom involved in AR with realistic resource requirements.

Of course, we’re also entering the age of ARKit and ARCore, which means that in a few years, every cell phone will have the ability to be used as an educational tool. While lots of students don’t have their own phones, buying cheap mobile devices for a whole classroom is a lot easier than buying computers for a whole classroom. And even in these early days, we’re seeing exciting concepts like the Atom Visualizer, which lets you place models of atomic structures around the room and then examine them in 3 dimensions.

How soon we’re likely to see this take off remains the key question. While the technology is here, the point at which it becomes cheap enough for mass adoption is still at least a few years away. AR will probably beat its cousin to the finish line, but VR may take the final prize of being the first technology to truly change education. Only time will tell for sure.

Written by Wren Handman for