Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have long been said to completely revolutionize our lives. The ability of these technologies to transport us to a different world and enhance what we have in sight has enormous potential to change the way we relate to each other, consume content and even live new experiences.
One of the areas where you hear the most about the potential of VR and AR is in education. By transporting us to new contexts and situations, these technologies take the idea of learning by doing to a completely new level. This is especially relevant in higher education, where there is a growing gap between the content that is taught and the skills that are required in the labor market.
However, we have been waiting for a long time for the transformational results that these technologies promise for the training of professionals to become widespread. Will they truly be able to revolutionize the way we learn, or are they just another fad that fails to live up to its hype?
We do not have a definitive answer about what will happen to education in the coming decades. What we can say for sure is that virtual reality and augmented reality are already used in higher education institutions with proven positive effects on learning.
If you are looking to innovate in the classrooms of your institution, these technologies may be the tool you need. Contrary to what many people think, its implementation does not require a huge expenditure on resources, nor technology-savvy personnel. Companies like You make virtual and augmented reality available to any institution in a very simple way.
So that you can see how virtual and augmented reality can transform learning in your classrooms, in this article we will explain what exactly these technologies are and how they are used today in other institutions. Let’s start with virtual reality.
Virtual reality is the immersion of a person in a digitally simulated experience. The most common way to generate this immersion is through virtual reality goggles or a headset: devices that project an image over the user’s field of vision and makes them experience a digitally created scenario.
The image projected by these devices – known in English as HMD (head-mounted display) – adapts in real time to the user’s movements. In this way, this technology deceives our brain generating a sensation of total immersion that produces very real sensations, including amazement, emotion and fright.
The ability to make us live an experience is what makes virtual reality a very important technology for education. There is no doubt that when we can experiment with what is being studied, our learning is much more effective than when we passively receive concepts from a book or video.
Some recent studies have already shown that this is more than speculation: it is proven that virtual reality can improve learning outcomes. For example, an experiment conducted at the University of Maryland and published in 2018 in the scientific journal Virtual Reality showed that using a virtual reality environment, it was possible to improve the memory of a group of students by 9%, compared to a group that only used a computer screen.
Making learning more effective is not the only advantage of this technology. Using virtual reality also allows students to experience contexts that would be impossible or too expensive to recreate in a classroom. For example, we can use virtual reality to simulate the operation of heavy machinery, allowing learners to bridge the knowledge gap between the classroom and the time a person will operate these machines for the first time.
Another very illustrative example of this advantage is the use of virtual reality to teach people how to use fire extinguishers. Unless you can conduct a small test fire in your premises, virtual reality is a much more effective option than typical training to teach how to use this tool correctly.
Virtual reality is not only useful for teaching operational tasks, it can also be used to help students visualize complex concepts that are at the forefront of knowledge. A very interesting example is the Qubit Arcade application, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most technologically advanced universities on the planet. This virtual reality simulation allows students to explore fundamental concepts of quantum computing – the field that investigates how to apply the principles of quantum physics to the development of supercomputers.
And at MIT they don’t stop there, in 2020, this university inaugurated the MIT.nano Immersion Lab, an open laboratory focused on virtual reality and augmented reality. The objective of this laboratory is to make these technologies available to all students and teachers to support their own areas of teaching, learning and research. Since its creation, several interdisciplinary projects have already been carried out that put these technologies at the service of different areas such as manufacturing, health, cinematography and architecture, among others. We will certainly continue to hear about this initiative in the future.
To finish this introduction to virtual reality, we want to tell you about five other uses that this technology is being given in classrooms around the world:
- Experience relevant historical events in the first person, such as wars or crises.
- Explore heritage and cultural places, such as archaeological sites or museums.
- Allow medical students to practice performing high-risk surgeries.
- Investigate from within the functioning of the human body.
- Live a cultural immersion in another city, interacting with people in another language to learn a new language.
Augmented reality is about adding information to the observable world using technology to deliver an interactive experience. As when using virtual reality, the objective is to immerse people in the experience, but in this case, the aim is only to complement the perceived reality and not completely replace it with a simulation.
This technology can be implemented with different devices. However, there is one that is the most popular due to its ubiquity: the smartphone. At present, there are already countless applications that use your phone’s camera and spatial recognition algorithms to complement the world we see with new objects and information in real time. This is what apps like Pokemon Go or Instagram filters do.
Pokemon Go is the most popular augmented reality app. With it, the map of a city becomes a new adventure.
There are also augmented reality glasses, which project images on a transparent lens that overlaps your field of vision.
By allowing us to connect the virtual world with the real world, augmented reality opens up a huge universe of possibilities for education. This technology enables new dimensions to be added to study materials typically used in a classroom, making learning more interactive and effective. Best of all, it can be used with the same phones and tablets as students.
The impact of augmented reality on learning outcomes is also endorsed by education experts. In 2019, a systematic analysis of more than 60 quantitative studies of the impact of this technology on learning was published in the prestigious Educational Research Review. This study concluded that the effect of augmented reality was positive, and that it is more effective in students who are in their first years of higher education.
One of the main uses of this technology in education is to generate virtual 3D projections with which students can interact. These visualizations allow the class to observe objects or spatial relationships that are difficult to show on a book page or traditional screen. Examples of this are three-dimensional graphics, some inaccessible objects such as galaxies or chemical structures, or invisible phenomena such as airflow or magnetic fields. All of these can be displayed interactively with augmented reality.
As in the case of virtual reality, we find real examples of the use of augmented reality in universities that lead the rankings of technological innovation worldwide. This is the case of ETH Zürich, a leading Swiss university in research and innovation in Europe. In this institution, they developed Essential Vision, an augmented reality application that uses the HoloLens glasses, created by Microsoft, to visualize anatomical structures in an interactive and shared way. This means that multiple users can view the same structure in real time, and manipulate it with manual gestures, to zoom or change perspective.
Of course, this is not the only augmented reality project being carried out at this university. On the contrary, at ETH Zürich they are developing several lines of work to take advantage of the potential of this technology in different areas. Some of the most recent projects are: an application to visualize your events of the day as information added to a wall clock, a system to see news displayed on a globe, according to its location of origin; a minimally distracting audio guidance system for cyclists; and “augmented paper” – a system that displays digital information on a sheet of paper to give you the feeling that you are reading in physical form.
Other advantages of augmented reality is the possibility of turning any context into a multimedia environment. For example, a traditional lesson book can be enhanced by using QR codes that students scan on their phone to view interactive content in real time. Another interesting case is the projection of works of art on the walls of a room, which you can do with applications such as Arts & Culture, from Google. Without a doubt, the applications of augmented reality in education are endless and we are just beginning to see its potential.
Technology is already within your reach
In this article we have made a tour explaining what virtual reality and augmented reality are, what are the advantages of each one and their possible uses in education. With this review, we have made it clear that these technologies are already available and their benefits for learning are proven.
It is difficult to imagine what a future in which these technologies become widespread will be like, but everything indicates that it will. According to the results of a survey carried out in 2019 among different technology company leaders, in 2025 these tools will be as common as smartphones. In this same survey, nearly half of the participants stated that education is one of the sectors with the greatest potential for the use of these technologies, along with video games and medicine.
In terms of market size, the estimated economic valuation for the future of these technologies reaches astronomical figures. According to a report by PwC – one of the largest and most reputable consultancies in the world – virtual and augmented reality could add 1 million million dollars to the global economy by 2030. In this same report, it is highlighted that one of the main contributions of these technologies is their ability to improve the effectiveness of professional training and education.
If you are looking to enhance teaching in your classrooms, both virtual and augmented reality are accessible options that will put your institution at the forefront of pedagogical innovation.
To start with them, the first thing you should do is identify what the main challenges are for teaching in your institution. Is there any content that is always difficult for students to understand correctly? Are there any subjects where there is a perceived gap between what is taught and what students need to know? Is there an experience that students need to have but cannot because of its high cost or because it is physically impossible?
Once you identify these challenges, the opportunities for the application of these technologies will be clear. If you are looking for advice on how to implement them in your institution, in you will find a partner capable of making tools tailored to your needs.
Now it is only up to you to begin this process of transformation in the way you teach.