The headlines for Pokémon GO were initially shocking, but by now they’re familiar: as many as 21 million active daily users, 700,000 downloads per day, $5.7 million in-app purchases per day, $200 million earned as of August. Analysts anticipate the game will garner several billion dollars in ad revenue over the next year. By almost any measure, Pokémon GO is huge.
The technologies behind the game, augmented and virtual reality (AVR), are huge too. Many financial analysts expect the technology to generate $150 billion over the next three years, outpacing even smartphones with unprecedented growth, much of it in entertainment. ButAVR is not only about entertainment. In August 2015, Teegan Lexcen was born in Florida with only half a heart and needed surgery. With current cardiac imaging software insufficient to assist with such a delicate operation on an infant, surgeons at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami turned to 3D imaging software and a $20 Google Cardboard VR set. They used a cellphone to peer into the baby’s heart, saw exactly how to improve her situation and performed the successful surgery in December 2015.
“I could see the whole heart. I could see the chest wall,” Dr. Redmond Burke told Today. “I could see all the things I was worried about in creating an operation.”
VR’s applications are impacting almost every aspect of our lives. Caregivers are using VR to treat dementia, helping patients to regain memories and enriching elderly lives in other ways. Churches are using VR to help shut-ins connect with social groups. VR is letting people virtually scale Mount Everest, tour museums and attend concerts, athletic events and Broadway. VR has been used to solve crimes and influence juries. Training exercises for pilots, soldiers, astronauts, teen drivers, and factory and construction workers utilize VR to permit training without unnecessary risk. The New York Times and other media have released special VR news stories. Google notes that global searches for the term “VR” are up 400 percent since last year.
In many of the ways that VR will enhance other human experiences, so too will VR enhance education. By making remarkable experiences available to students, this new era of affordable VR technology can transform education.
For some time, educators have known that out-of-classroom experiences can have a profound impact on students, improving both learning and retention. George D. Kuh’s 2008 book discussed high-impact educational practices such as learning communities, internships, service learning, undergraduate research and study abroad. Kuh found that these experiences extend beyond the classroom and consistently provide benefits for students of all backgrounds.
Such programs require a great deal of time, personnel and money, which are significant barriers to institutional usage, Kuh notes. Further, not all students have access to such programming, even if it is available on campus.
The ubiquity and affordability of VR technology will make high-impact educational experiences more available to all students. Although not all students can travel abroad, anyone could go to the library, strap on a VR headset such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, and take a short virtual trip.
An anthropology student might observe a group of people in a Mongolian yurt. A language or cultural studies student might take a guided tour of the Great Wall of China or other heritage sites. A marine biology student might familiarize herself with the Great Barrier Reef, seeing evidence of bleaching up close. A museum studies student might examine the collections of the Uffizi Gallery, including pieces not available to the public. And contemporary tours are not the limit; indeed, with VR, a history student could walk through ancient Rome, or an astronomy student might visit Mars.
We call these “micro-experiences” because they are far more limited in time and scope than, say, the above-mentioned study abroad experiences. Indeed, Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab notes that a 20-minute experience is a good time limit, given how jarring and visceral VR can be. And yet, those 20 minutes can be transformative, as demonstrated by the body of research coming out of Bailenson’s lab.
Such micro-experiences need not be limited to travel. VR also supports training experiences. Virtual labs are already available for chemistry, engineering, biology and biotechnology students. Although these do not replace working alongside a researcher, they nevertheless permit early and safe access to lab equipment and encourage curiosity.
A host of VR programs are already in place for entertainment (video games, sports, movies and other media), journalism, storytelling, maker spaces, lectures, speeches and other performances. With VR, high-impact micro-experiences will become the norm and certainly an attractive feature for prospective students.
VR pushes the central concept of high-impact educational practices to its furthest potential. The implication here is nothing short of a transformation, a revolution, a paradigmatic recentering in which education does not just include impactful experiences, but it becomes about experience itself. This we call “meta-experience.”
As this new instructional landscape opens up, we will need to create and refine a set of best practices that are couched in this new medium and its meta-experiential potential. Such practices, and the research we’ll use to build them, will likely address the following:
The world of VR in the experience of education points the way to this — an unfolding future in which the viscerality, the “liveness,” the embeddedness in the world of the stuff we’re teaching does not get a special name. Instead, it is interwoven throughout everything we teach, such that no longer is the classroom over here while “real life” is somewhere over there. The two are of a piece and, as such, are taught — and transformed — together.