6 Uses for Virtual & Agumented Reality in Education: Promising Practices & the Need for Small Experiments

Look at the many lists of predictions about important trends in education over the last couple of years, and both augmented and virtual reality show up on most of those lists. In fact, they made it on my “top 15” list for 2017. With growing media attention about Microsoft’s Work in this area, Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, and the many other developments, it is easy to see why we are all thinking about it. I had a chance to chat with a leading expert in this area recently, Steve Aukstakalnis. Steve is the author of the 2017 released book, Practical Augmented Reality, and he was a wealth of insight on the subject. Look for the podcast release on the MoonshotEduShow in the upcoming month or two, but following are some of my initial reflections from that conversation.

There is a danger here when it comes to education and new technology. The field of education does not have an amazing record of significant educational improvements by simply throwing more technology in the classroom and seeing what happens. This is going to be true for augmented and virtual reality as well. We return to a persistent problem of thinking that adding the technology is the goal, and just assuming that it will magically (or technologically) create something amazing. It does not work that way.

To improve things, we have to start with our philosophy, values, and goals. Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we value? What do we want to accomplish? How will we measure how we are doing in these areas? However, we can certainly explore the technologies that arise, experimenting with their potential application. It is just that we need to actually set up experiments as Michael Scrhage illustrates in one of my favorite innovation books, The Innovator’s Hypothesis. In my interview with Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools, he suggested something similar. We need to pilot, test, and experiment. Gather insights and then we can decide where to go from there. This is true when it comes to augmented and virtual reality, especially in these earlier days of the educational applications.

While the technologies themselves have been around for decades, the educational applications are newer and growing all the time. If you are an innovator or early adopter, now is the time to shine. Now is your chance to experiment, but in ways that help you add new and important insights for your own work in education, and in ways that might offer insight for the field at large. I offer a few themes for us to consider.

Abstract to Concrete

Can augmented reality make more abstract concepts taught in school easier to understand and master by making them more concrete? We have research about visualizations as teaching and learning tools. Knowledge and data visualization are ever-growing fields of study. Now we need to extend that research to more virtual and augmented reality settings. How can we create small tests and experiments with augmented and virtual reality lessons to determine their impact on student learning and engagement?

New Experiences

Another potential accordance of virtual reality is that it gives us access to places that might not be possible for learners to visit in person. This might be a journey into the past, a present distant location, or even various potential future destinations. As such, we can benefit from tests to determine the extent to which there are indeed benefits for such experiences compared to traditional classroom activities as well as the “real thing.”

New Perspectives

Another possibility is using augmented and virtual reality to explore very familiar environments, only with alerts and other elements that help us to look at the familiar in new ways, to see and understand that which we overlook on a typical day. Again, we need more research and simple experiments to test the benefits and limitations of such practices. How might this work for building numeracy, scientific literacy, social studies, fitness and wellness, and other areas?

Safe Experiments and Experiences

Still another possibility has to do with creating virtual simulations and experiments that help prepare us for real-world situations with risk factors associated with them. We practice and develop skills in these environments before stepping into the higher risk, real-world context. We already know about research in this area for someone like a fighter pilot, but how might this also be used for teaching social skills, math, literacy, and other areas? Now is the time to begin designing experiments focused upon such possibilities.

Skill Acquisition

Others are using virtual and augmented reality to help people practice and develop new skills. It might be to manage risks, but sometimes this is a chance to practice a skill when other resources are limited, or there are factors that make it difficult to practice in the real world. With augmented reality, the supplemental data serves as a real-time tutor, giving constant and immediate feedback to guide your practice. Yet again, we need to engage in lots of small experiences about the efficacy of such possibilities.

Augmentation and the Extension of Human Capabilities

In some cases, the virtual and augmented reality environments are preparing people to live with and amid a growing world of such contexts. If future work demands that we be able to think, interact, and work with such tools, then one purpose of using these technologies is to develop proficiency with them. In this instance, the technology proficiency itself is part of the curriculum.

The Future

I am sure that there are many other potential applications as well, but now is the time for us to dive into this realm of experimentation for education. The technology is finding its way in work and the world of gaming. Hardware and software is increasingly and readily available. However, it would be wonderful if we could do what we often failed to do in the past, to take a more experimental approach to the many potential educational applications.

Real Learning is No Replacement for Virtual Learning

Real learning is no replacement for virtual learning, not as we begin to consider the affordances of virtual reality. That opening statement is a direct contrast to a 2008 video explaining that “virtual learning is no replacement for real learning” from the National Institute on Media and Family (which closed in 2009). Please consider watching the first 35-40 seconds before proceeding.

Did you notice anything interesting about the opening illustration? The speaker held up an orange and asked the viewers what it can tell us about virtual versus what he called “real” learning. He continued by holding up a photograph of an orange, explaining how you can’t peel, smell or taste the picture; but you can with the other orange. The irony is that you, as the viewer of the video, can’t smell, taste, feel or peel either orange. They are both mediated. Yes, this is a lesson about the importance of the “real world” that is being taught to us in the “virtual world.”

The video explicitly teaches that it is important to consider the benefits and limitations of virtual environments, not to assume that a virtual learning experience is always an equal to a physical experience. Of course, I’ve not run into many (or honestly any) people who do not recognize this fact. Perhaps they/we do not always choose wisely between virtual and physical options, but most of us generally get the idea that there are benefits and limitations to both.

There is something natural that drives many of us to keep our fascination with virtual learning in check by arguing for the value of the physical, or what the video called, the “real world.” Yet, we are nearing a time in education when virtual learning experiences are going to give learners far more realistic experiences than they had in traditional physical classes of the past. I am referring specifically to the emerging developments around virtual reality and its implications for teaching and learning. This is an area that has immense promise. It can turn lessons that were previously taught as abstractions into rich and immersive multi-sensory experiences for learners.

Consider the possibilities. Imagine traveling through a human’s blood stream as if you were in some microscopic submarine. How about virtual journeys through distant galaxies? Virtual reality will give each learner an immersive experience of archeological sites, distance lands (from past or present), oceans, or complex machinery (from almost any perspective). Many of these were learned as abstractions in the past, but virtual reality has the potential to ground those abstractions in a multi-sensory and largely immersive experience.

These point us to examples of how what the video referred to as “real learning” will not be an adequate substitute for the virtual. It will not be as real. It will not be as vivid. It will not engage the senses or be as easy to comprehend, solve problems or make connections. We are finding ourselves in an age where the real is sometimes not a viable substitute for the virtual.

These are exciting times in education, times that allow us to deepen our understanding of blended learning. We continually return to reflections about how to leverage both the physical and virtual for learning. We can’t content ourselves with answers from a decade ago about what is best in a virtual versus a physical environment because the affordances of the virtual are in flux.

Marshall McLuhan’s classic on Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, continues to have relevance. Technological developments are not just distinct tools. They are sometimes extensions, expanding our natural senses, our ability to understand concepts, and our capacity to solve complex problems. Just as the microscope and telescope allowed us to experience what was previously invisible to the human eye, virtual reality can sometimes extend our vision of the world in new ways. It is not just a rich learning environment. It provides completely new experiences that will change our comprehension of the natural world. As such, we are entering a time when real learning will not be a replacement for the virtual world.