Creative Teaching & Learning

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Of Edtech

For those of you who are not aficionados of Edtech, this surf along the breaking waves of Virtual and Augmented Reality will orientate you to the extraordinary possibilities for schools. Joe Smith is your guide.

We are on the verge of an explosion of virtual reality technology and innovation. The quality of affordable commercial headsets has seen a Great Leap Forward in the past four years thanks to companies like Oculus and Valve.

As classrooms have advanced greatly in the past twenty years from blackboard to interactive whiteboards to personal tablets, we can expect to see huge advancements into the virtual world over the next twenty. Virtual and augmented reality technology represent an untapped goldmine of creative learning experiences for children of the Internet Age.

These are some of the way’s VR technology can assist in school and I have included links to other articles from and around the web to provide a comprehensive picture of current technology, applications and implementation of VR tech that can enhance curriculum delivery.

Art – no longer constrained by the limitations of pen, paper and the school’s resources

When I first brought my Oculus Quest, I was able to visit the Guggenheim in New York and the Louvre in Paris in a single afternoon. I explored their unique architecture, both inside and out and saw a wide variety of paintings and exhibits using a completely free app called ‘Wander’. (Then I took a gentle stroll around Machu Pichu via the Grand Canyon but that’s incidental).

Many students across the country are never given the opportunity to visit these places courtesy of a school trip. If they do, they may be at the back of a large crowd and miss many of the finer details.

Now they can visit them totally free of charge. Believe me this is so much more than simply viewing these places on a computer screen. The exhibits retain their true scale in virtual reality and they retain that striking sense of presence that normally one only gets from viewing them in person.

But art is not just for spectators. For the doers and makers, there already exists a plethora of apps designed to help in the creation of paintings and sculptures in a virtual 3D environment.

Apps such as Sculpt0r VR and Tilt Brush by Google represent the first generation of commercially available 3D sculpting apps. They offer a huge selection of tools for an artist to create whatever they want, from portraits, to marble busts, to video game characters to detailed landscapes and environments.

Much of what would be considered impossible before, is now perfectly doable in VR. For example, it is now quite possible to create a free-standing replica of the solar system that can be fully explored, all within the confines of the classroom and with absolutely no mess to be cleaned up.

Try these for more art experiences:

VR can now bring challenging science concepts to life

Instead of students reading words and trying to visualise what is happening, they can inhabit a virtual world, hypothesise, test and push the boundaries to see science in action.

We have already seen real world doctors using VR to give medical students access to clinical experience on demand and making surgery safer by generating 3D models of tumours from MRI scans.

Now in the classroom it is clear that VR technology enables students to grasp the anatomy and functions of cells and organs which are not visible to the human eye.

High School biology teacher, Rebecca Girard from Belmont California, has been using apps such as Cyber Science and the Human Anatomy Atlas. These demonstrate functions of the heart and blood flowing through the arteries, so students witness the opening and closing of the valves in real time using augmented reality, which projects the 3D models from a flat computer screen.

Her view is that: ‘students never understood the structures, relationships, and orientations of the organs with the same clarity as when they used virtual reality.’ By comparison, real organs used in dissection are ‘preserved and inflexible and the valves and muscle no longer pump’. There is no comparison.

As a former chemistry student, I now often think that it would have been hugely beneficial to explore and experiment with models of atoms and molecules without the need for real world chemicals and lab tests.

There already exists an app called MEL chemistry VR. This lets you take a familiar object such as a pencil and zoom in on it. You can fly between the molecules of graphite and disassemble an atom so that the subatomic particles can be counted. It is as if you shrink down and witness at first hand the inner workings of the real world.

Physics based VR games are already proving to be one of the most naturally synergetic VR experiences. It would be a small step for a developer to take the complex physics engine from a game like Bone-works and apply it so that concepts such as centrifugal force and conservation of momentum could be explained, demonstrated and most importantly experimented and interacted with, without the need for any lab set up.

Hannes Kaufman and Bernd Meyer from the Vienna University of Technology took a physics engine developed for the PC games market and created PhysicsPlayground, an educational virtual reality world , where teachers and students could create and test out physical experiments that could be replicated in real time.

The software tools let them analyse forces, mass and paths etc. before, during and after the experiment.

The authors noted: ‘We consider the analyzing functionality an important strength of a virtual laboratory like PhysicsPlayground. It offers possibilities that are far superior to what can be done in a real physics lab.’

For other science experiences take a look at:

Autism, disabilities and virtual reality

Some of the most interesting examples of VR lie in the field of special education.

A recent noteworthy example is V.O.I.S.S (Virtual Reality Opportunities to Implement Social Skills) headed by researchers at the University of Kansas. This has attracted multimillion-dollar investment from the United States Department of Education. It aims to help students with high functioning autism and low incidence disabilities to improve recognition of social cues and emotions that often they do not understand or pick up on at the same rate as their peers.

There are many projects such as these designed to provide training and supported rehearsal for people who need to develop life skills, communication and other essential skills for life. Some applications have provided training for work in warehouses, factories and supermarkets.

Virtual reality lets people with disabilities, neurodiverse or mental health conditions, learn skills or develop different behaviours in an environment free from pressure and anxiety.

There were some notable early adopters of the technology in the UK. In the mid 1990s, Dr David Brown, currently Professor of Interactive Systems for Social Inclusion at Nottingham University, and David Stewart OBE, then headteacher of Shepherd School in the city, worked together on a project called LIVE (Living in Virtual Environments). This was focused on finding innovative and visual methods to teach basic life, communication, personal and social skills.

Many of the children at Shepherd School had profound disabilities and /or life-limiting conditions. The project set out to offer environments for children to use their Makaton symbols. According to Brown and Stewart, ‘…some students are so disabled they may only ever learn the meaning of ten symbols in their entire school life. Even if it were proven that the VE method didn’t encourage the students to learn the meaning of more symbols or at a faster rate, they still provided a stimulating and alternative teaching method, especially important for both teachers and pupils.’

Subsequently, they developed a range of virtual environments – city, house, supermarket and, most memorably and with the help of engineers, skiing. The purpose was to provide real world experiences, for students who could not take part, because of ‘physical disability, logistical constraints and well-meaning but overprotecting parents and teachers’.

See An emergent methodology for the design, development and implementation of virtual learning environments for a full account of their ground breaking early work as presented at the European Conference on Disability, Virtual Reality and Associated Technology 1996.

For more on the impact of VR on the education and lives of people with disabilities or mental health issues, see:

Implementing a functional VR classroom

The major drawback is obviously the high price point associated with VR headsets and computers. There is no standardised headset for use in schools. Prices range from:

  • About £30 for a headset designed to incorporate a smartphone
  • To £400 for the Oculus Rift S considered to be the best all-around affordable headset for use with a PC
  • Around £500 for the standalone Oculus Quest, which does not need a pc at all
  • About £1000+ for a top of the range ultra-high quality headset such as the Valve index

However, workarounds do exist and Google has already started a free program that donates its simple cardboard headsets, which can incorporate almost any smartphone to function, to schools along with a free piece of software called ‘Expeditions’. This offers over 100 simulated school trips, from the streets of Verona to help better connect with the characters from Shakespeare, to the offices of the Lehman Brothers to give a ‘crash course’ in financial crisis management.

For more guides on implementing VR, have a look at:

The apps and the research studies I have mentioned only represent the tip of the iceberg, it is only a matter of time before we see another explosion of innovation in technology as it becomes more affordable for the general public. As we saw Apps for smartphones multiply to fill every imaginable niche so too is this likely to happen with VR software.

Teachers are keen. From the research I gathered for this article the response from teachers was almost universally positive. They found that using these VR experiences generated more questions and more engagement in their students. It takes time for a child to create a mental model of what they are learning, and VR represents a significant leap forward so they are no longer reliant on just words and diagrams on a page.

It is clear that what is required is a coordinated partnership between the government and schools and universities to facilitate the implementation of this technology when the time is right.

Many schools in the US are already trying to get a step ahead of the curve so that when this revolution in tech happens, they will be in a position to take full advantage of it.

We need to make sure that we are not left behind.

Joe Smith is a freelance writer on technology