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Real Applications of Virtual Reality in Education

Jan 15, 2016, by Ben Fineman
Tags: 2015 Technology Exchange, Frontpage News, Internet2 NET+

It has already been an exciting year for virtual and augmented reality, with preorders opening for the Oculus Rift, the reveal of a built in camera for the HTC Vive, and the announcement that Google has formalized a virtual reality division (likely to support not only Google Cardboard, but also the secretive Magic Leap investment). While the buzz around any new technology is exciting, many people in education are asking themselves – isn’t this all for entertainment? How could this possibly be relevant to serious education and research activities? In a recent presentation I gave with co-presenter Chris Collins, University of Cincinnati Center for Simulations & Virtual Environment Research, we explored the implications of virtual reality in education. In researching this topic, we were surprised to discover the variations and depth of current activities in this space. Here are a few of my favorite ways that our community is using this technology:

Field Trips. This one is perhaps the most obvious – these technologies enable students to virtually visit locations that they aren’t able to physically visit – ranging from an Amazon rain forest, to the surface of Mars. While our community has long conducted virtual field trips using video technology (remember the Bob Ballard diving explorations streamed live to students?) virtual reality promises to enhance student engagement and outcomes through increased immersion.

Training. It’s well known that many people learn more effectively by doing as opposed to just seeing or hearing. Virtual reality gives students the opportunity to experience the activities they are learning about, whether that is working an archeological dig site, guiding airplane landings on an aircraft carrier, or conducting surgical procedures.

Recruiting. When choosing which college to attend students like to do campus visits to get a better feel for the institution. Some schools are making this easier on students by offering virtual campus visits. Taking the concept a step further, other institutions are using virtual reality as a way to entice college athletes – one example is the University of Michigan Football program, that gives potential recruits a chance to feel what it’s like to play at the Big House in front of 100,000+ screaming fans.

Design. Perhaps one of the best early uses of virtual reality is in architecture – being able to visit and explore a building before any construction actually begins is a huge step forward for this field. Drury University is one of many architecture programs beginning to take advantage of this technology. But this design application isn’t limited to the architecture field – in one of my favorite examples, primary school students in Ireland are using VR to recreate and visit Irish historical sites.

Distance Learning. After years of working with video conferencing, I’m very excited to see how virtual reality technology is going to enhance distance learning. A professor a the University of British Columbia has already delivered lectures in VR, complete with full body motion capture mapped to an avatar. The Stanford School of business is offering a certificate program delivered entirely via VR. Students and faculty at Penn State has shown how implementing VR can improve learning outcomes via traditional online methods.

Collaboration. This is perhaps the most important way VR is being used, because it has implications not only for research and education, but for all of us. Virtual reality is going to change the way we collaborate over distance. The University College of London’s Immersive Virtual Environment demonstrated how interactive virtual avatars can be mapping onto local physical spaces using augmented reality, as has UC Davis. Case Western has been working with Microsoft to prototype collaborative medical applications for the Hololens augmented reality platform. All of the pieces are coming together to see the collaborative promise of virtual reality realized.

Virtual and augmented reality are important topics within the Internet2 community. Member universities are interested in understanding how to best leverage these emerging technologies to enhance current activities, and also, learning how to promote standards and interoperability between distributed virtual environments. To facilitate discussion on these topics, the Metaverse Working Group has been formed, and we are extending an invitation for participation to members of any Internet2 university – join here. I’m incredibly excited to see what the aggregate power of the Internet2 community will generate in this space over the coming months and years.