Virtual Reality Is Unlocking Learning Potential Like Never Before


Virtual reality doesn’t just have the capacity to transport us to new worlds, it has the ability to help us more fully understand our very existence. The futuristic medium is compelling, visceral, and deeply immersive. And while these are all words to describe VR, they’re also words we wish got used more often to describe education. Bringing lessons to life — that’s the dream for most teachers. But taking words on a page or in a lecture and helping students really feel them can be a challenge. Which is why incorporating Virtual Reality in schools has become a huge priority for many educators. VR allows learning to cross over into the emotional cores of students in new and exciting ways. It’s a groundbreaking time for education, where what is possible is constantly shifting.

Imagine students attending lectures with experts from across the world while still feeling like they’re in the first row — able to ask questions and interact fully. Or traveling to places that a school could never afford to visit as a field trip. Spanish language students could spend the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, or a history class could attend court during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Art students could go to the Louvre without leaving the classroom. That’s all on the table. It’s like the Magic School Bus come to life. Classes really could ride down the esophagus to see how the body works or zoom through the solar system effortlessly.

“Virtual reality allows students to step inside of their textbooks and bring otherwise abstract concepts to life,” Director Eliza McNitt says. Her own project, the Darren Aronofsky produced trilogy, SPHERES, takes viewers on a journey across the universe to explore black holes — blending real science with innovative story-telling.

McNitt didn’t just want viewers to understand black holes, but to live them.

“In SPHERES, we explore relativity and visualize gravitational waves. You feel what it might be like to fall inside of a black hole,” she says. “Virtual Reality truly pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in education.”

As virtual reality headsets become more affordable and mainstream, school districts around the world are starting to incorporate VR in their lesson plans. This month, the Department of Education in Nova Scotia announced that they’d be buying over 500 pairs of VR headsets for the school system. They envision the tech being helpful across nearly every discipline. Currently, they have a pilot program in progress with the National Film Board of Canada to incorporate virtual and augmented reality into guiding students through ocean exploration. It’s in 17 schools now, but the plan is for it to become an integral part of the curriculum.

Learning companies are also jumping into the potential of VR. Last week, Pearson, one of the world’s largest suppliers of curriculum and learning materials revealed a new immersive history program. Called Project Imagine, they say it will use Virtual Reality to help students experience history through role play, interacting with real people in history, and examining source materials. Rather than just learn about a historic election, young people will be able to vote in it after watching speeches and reading fliers. Or attend civil rights protests and march side by side with great leaders. The interactive nature and abilty to provide multiple perspectives, the team explains, will help students, “better understand how the past influences the present and engage them to participate in shaping the future.”

VR doesn’t just help students learn about traditional subjects, in Singapore students will soon use Virtual Reality to gain more empathy for mental illness. The program will have teens put on headsets and then take on the thoughts of a character who suffers from depression. Afterward, they’ll get to process and talk about the experience — hopefully destigmatizing the further discussion of mental illness. Similar tech is being used to show students what having Autism feels like through images and sound.

By putting kids and teens in the shoes of others, VR has the potential to bridge gaps across many boundaries and experiences — leading to a more compassionate, less divided Earth. And it’s not just about experiencing how they feel. Kids will soon be able to be in a classroom talking (digitally) face to face with other students across the globe. The potential exists for a classroom in Chicago to combine with one in Berlin for a history class say, on World War II. It brings about fascinating possibilities of connection and gained perspectives.

Virtual reality also allows users to share in emotional experiences that would be difficult if not impossible to experience in a classroom. For high-stress professions like doctors and EMTs, it’s difficult to teach how to react to patients who are under duress or trauma without having the stakes of an actual person who needs care. With VR, we can train students through the emotional components of the job, which gives them a better chance to stay clear-headed during the real deal.

Probably the biggest value that virtual reality can provide in education is in offering an experience that connects what we know intellectually to our emotional centers — pushing beyond the page through our other senses. For Eliza McNitt, telling stories about space in VR feels like the next wave of immersive storytelling and learning, allowing her to push the boundaries of what’s possible. She didn’t just want people to discover space in theater, schools, and museums, she wanted them to feel it through an immersive sensory journey. For SPHERES (which will be available to the general public through Oculus Rift this fall) Virtual Reality was the perfect tool to truly reimagine how we experience art and education — and fully immerse the viewer in learning.

“I wanted to create an experience where you traversed space and time. From the songs of planets to the heart of black holes,” McNitt says. “Virtual Reality was the only way to make people feel as if they were truly floating in the cosmos.”