Classrooms Without Walls: VR Comes to BGS

This week, Mrs Hudson-Findley (Director of Digital Learning, Enterprise and Sustainability) guest writes on the Headmistress blog about the endless possibilities of VR inside and outside of the classroom.

One of my guilty pleasures is to watch old science fiction films and marvel at the projections they would make about what the future would look like for us. As a little person, I was delighted by hovering skateboards, robot butlers and frequent trips to the past. While the hoverboards are still woefully lacking, some of the innovative technology from those films is feeling closer than ever.

What has always fascinated me is the capacity for the technology in those films to take us out of the real world and transport us to a place full of imagination. While some of those simulated realities were decidedly dystopian in their portrayal, they did all have one great thing in common – personal possibilities. Quite often main characters would become immersed in an alternative world where they overcame challenges and journeyed through self-discovery. This was part of the appeal for watching and where I think BGS can take a cue. Enter VR.

There have been several studies which have looked at the possible benefits of VR within the classroom from around the late 90s onwards. While the hardware hadn’t quite caught up with educator’s expectations, the desire to offer students an interactive and immersive learning experience was certainly the key motivating factor in those early classroom experimentations. David Passig from the University of Israel has been writing about VR and the benefits of “self-discovery and immersion in the learning process” since 2001. They argue it has been proven to “increase attainment” in students who have participated in using headsets in lessons (Passig, 2001: 5). An interesting study by the University of Warwick found that VR can positively affect performance and engagement, and students were able to remember virtual materials far more than books or videos (Allcoat, 2018). I’m reminded of the old Chinese Proverb “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”.

Speaking of understanding; what is VR exactly? Dictionary-swallowing experts would have us believe it’s all about offering the user a three-dimensional, participatory, multi-sensory, computer-based simulated environment, occurring in real time. Yes, absolutely. That incredibly wordy definition is correct, but I think it is much more. I think it offers people, and students in particular, the opportunity to fail. You may have read that last sentence twice and thought, “surely this is not a good educational motivator”. Let me change your mind.

Firstly, let’s think about the bigger picture. Many of us have had several career changes before we felt like we found the right one. Some of us are still in the process of career discovery now. Imagine how much easier that process could have been if we had been able to live or experience different aspects of different industries first. Enabling students to experience life on an oil rig, an operating theatre, nuclear power plant or an archaeological dig for example has the power to spark the curiosity of the workforce of the future. The ability to form and shape career decisions within the virtual space sounds like a pastoral dream. One that can be achieved from the comfort of our classrooms.

Within the classroom environment, there are the abstract learning opportunities VR offers. This enables students to build mental models and representations of subject matter, failing and re-evaluating as they go. The interactive problem-solving opportunities this offers could allow students to feel they can take risks in their learning within their own personalised learning space, only they and their teacher can see.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that the current generation who are in education and training now are the most digital native individuals society has seen so far. They do not have fond memories of the modem dial up tone or phones that were not smart. For them that has all been replaced by hashtags and high speed internet. So there is the very real benefit of providing education on their terms. I’m not suggesting that we should do away with books or other more traditional ways of learning, but offering very digital people learning material in a way that feels inherently natural for them feels like a win. Future Learn conducted a recent study where young participants were asked which technological innovations in education they would like to see by 2030. One in three of the respondents selected VR (Future Learn, 2022).

I’m confident that if we surveyed our students we would see higher figures. Our students are inquisitive, curious and hungry for what is next. So here’s to giving them just that. A classroom without walls and a world full of possibilities. I look forward to seeing where it takes us.

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