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Tech and Effect: Education’s first steps into virtual reality

Do you ever wish you could go on cool, fun field trips instead of boring nature walks in the local park? Well, now you can… kind of.

Do you ever wish you could go on cool, fun field trips instead of boring nature walks in the local park? Well, now you can… kind of. Steps towards fully experiencing the Wonders of the World, famous landmarks, and attractions from a smart device are now taking place with the help of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Developments are being made a rapid pace. These developers can help create a variety of practical uses for VR and AR. One use being VR and AR provide ways to help students see from different points of view (quite literally) and visualize certain scenes or objects. Guided by a teacher, students engage in an amplified learning experience. VR and AR are being introduced to many schools across Canada and the US. The technology isn’t the most widespread in Canada but has potential to become common given time. Schools in the UK are the first to moderately integrate this into their curriculum with over one million students already participating.

One of the more popular applications is Google Expeditions, downloadable on smartphones or on VR headsets. A teacher can take students to select places such as museums, mountains, even floating several hundred meters above the ground. With AR, a teacher can create a volcano on a table or show a chemical reaction without any clean up or preparation. Shailey Minocha, a professor in Learning Technologies and Social Computing at the Open University and her research team, have found that VR helps bring out more analytic or enquiry questions from students.

I’ve had the privilege of trying out a Google Cardboard product. Cardboards are small headsets made of actual cardboard that allow people to use the Expeditions app on their smartphones. It was exciting trying these out because the technology is new and most of my classmates hadn’t experienced virtual reality before. The Cardboards are effective and relatively easy to assemble. Using Expeditions was also quite easy, clicking two large icons “Student” and “Join” allowed us to access the app’s content. After, our teacher took us to a space station, underwater, a museum, mountains and other fascinating places. This was just a “test run” because it was the first in our school. None of the virtual content related to class work, but still holds potential for future classrooms. The teacher can highlight certain parts of the area and explain them to students. This was a new and exciting way to teach that shies away from the regular paper-based workflow.

The virtual experience definitely does its job nicely to transition the user into the virtual world. At the same time, it isn’t perfect. For starters, a major problem is that students participating must own a smartphone and it must be compatible with Google Expeditions. Another problem was with the cardboards themselves. Of course the headsets are easy to assemble (labels, instruction manuals, visuals), but being cardboard means that they are delicate. Lenses, velcro, or glue could come off if not handled with care. More general problems of VR include: nausea, dizziness, and trouble with spatial mapping–meaning your brain struggles to gather information about where you are, even though you might feel normal in the virtual world. Mayank Mehta, a brain researcher from UCLA concluded that the brain’s differing activity in VR and the real world means “We need to fully understand how virtual reality affects the brain.” Mehta’s team is continuing to uncover the effects of virtual reality on the brain. Being in the earlier stages of development, VR still has problems that can only be solved given enough time.

VR is a new and exciting technology. It may not be the most popular item the “Average Joe” buys for recreation, but it is certainly an intriguing one. Furthermore, VR’s versatility can prove useful in areas such as education. VR helps teachers provide fun, interactive ways of learning in class. This can even guide students to ask more meaningful questions about class material. However, VR has its downsides too. People can experience headaches, nausea or motion sickness. More problems are still to be revealed.

That being said, more uses are to be discovered as well. For example, in one of China’s poorer provinces called Guizhou, the implementation of a virtual reality theme park could help give life to their economy once more. The park is named Oriental Science Fiction Valley and is located in the province’s capital, Guiyang. It is expected to open in February 2018. The CEO of this project says “I believe that after our attraction opens, it will change the entire tourism structure of Guizhou province as well as China’s southwest,” giving us some insight to what the impact of this might be.

VR being a newer technology means there is much to expect still and we must be patient. Given to the right people, VR could change our world.

Tech and Effect is a regular column in which OneSizeFitsAllShirt discusses the influence of technology on society. Got a story for Tech and Effect? Email us at 8fortymagazine@gmail.com.

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