Virtual reality has been on the radar since Morton Heilig's Sensorama in the 1950s, and head mounted versions of the technology were even around in the 1960s. But it wasn't until recently that its use has become less of a novelty and more of a commonality. Console games and smartphone adapters have brought the potential of virtual reality into the lives of everyday people. And soon, that technology will enter the classroom.
Now, the big question is how these emerging technologies will transform education as we know it. While that question might not be fully answered for some time, it is easy to see the potential.
The benefits of full immersion are well documented for the learning of foreign languages. Not only does it expose the student to the language in a natural way, but it also helps them ultimately function like a native speaker.
Virtual reality offers the ability to become fully immersed in a subject. Graphical representations are presented in 3-D, and the system is designed to respond to the body movements of the participant. More sophisticated systems allow the student to control a virtual representation of themselves, often referred to as an avatar, and even lets them interact with the virtual world around them.
By being an active participant in the learning environment, students have the opportunity to engage at a new level. And the increased engagement and more natural approach might increase the rate of learning and retention.
When properly programmed, virtual reality environments can mimic real-world conditions. This means new items can be designed and examined for effectiveness or even safety. For example, experiments in physics can be constructed virtually. If a student "builds" something based on an incorrect calculation, faulty assumption, or is simply interested in how an event will play out, the virtual model can be constructed and used without any actual risk to the student involved.
This increases the ability to learn through experimentation, including creating a safe space for experimentation that has potentially dangerous consequences in the real world. It also allows them to see the results of failed experiments in a way that promotes learning.
Virtual reality also allows for deeper explorations of biology and anatomy by using accurate renderings instead of real-life dissection. For younger students, this can bring access to advanced concepts without having to deal with the implications of actual dissections in the classroom.
Experience Different Times and Places
Field trips in schools have helped expose students to new ideas and environments. Historical reenactments at sites like Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg bring visitors into a different time to help them understand, at least superficially, what like was like for original settlers. Often, students are limited to experiences within a manageable range of their home area. But virtual reality could change that.
Virtual reality has the potential to allow students to explore international locations and could be used to simulate different time periods. This expands the concept of the field trip into full immersion experiences that do not have to be limited by time or space.
The same concepts can be used in biology, botany, and other natural sciences. Students can explore sites that would be much too treacherous for an actual journey. Children could explore the Amazon rain forest or take a trip down the Nile without having to worry about unexpected events that could cause harm.
Bring Students Together
As the technology improves, the ability to bring students into a single environment, even if they are from different schools, states, or countries, can help connect students to their larger world. This gives them the opportunity to learn from people they may otherwise never have met. A broader virtual world could expand their horizons and may promote more diverse collaboration in the future.
While we are still only scratching the surface of what virtual reality can do in an educational environment, the potential exists for it to change education as we know it.
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