Deductions and Recommendations for the Use of VR in the Education Sector

In order to investigate the current state of the art in the working field of VR, and regarding the implementation of virtual technologies into the educational field, interviews with VR experts in every European partner country have been conducted. The aim of the qualitative survey was to get profound and useful information about the status quo of VR in general and its application in the adult education area. To guarantee comparability of the data and in being able to deduce core statements, an interview guideline (cf. Annex II, Interview Guidelines) was compiled, pretested and applied. The interviews were separated into three main topics (VR technology, educational field, future of VR). During the first research period in February and March 2019, each partner country conducted three interviews (18 in total) with experts, possessing distinguished knowledge in the technical field of VR, VR systems, related VR applications and software solutions, as well as VR prototyping or industry project work.

The interview data and reports from six European countries have been collected and evaluated deploying a qualitative content analysis by Mayring & Fenzl (2019)[1]. The analysis method allowed to reduce the data in such a way that essential content and core statements remain preserved. In several steps, the interview transcripts were systematically shortened, sorted and summarized in a way that the key messages are reflected.

Based on the findings several important key statements were extracted and will be outlined within the following sections.

 

Status Quo of VR in the educational field

The interview data reflects that VR technologies are already in use in various contexts by the experts in their respective companies or institutions. Most of the interviewed experts from the participating European partner countries certify huge developments in VR systems, VR applications and VR software as well as graphical solutions during the last five years. Further, a common understanding exists, that the VR sector must continuously evolve in being able to provide useful mainstream solutions for the educational sector: Currently, VR is behind its full potential and possibilities.

General agreement exists among the external experts that VR technologies will play an even greater role in delivering high quality educational content and professional and effective learning experiences. Some experts already describe it as mainstream with large organizations (e.g., Volkswagen, Walmart) making huge investments in VR for training. By simplifying and providing a more intuitive way of using, it is expected that VR technology will gain further reputation. Especially, with respect to European experts, VR is already gaining more interest within the educational sector. Future educators, that are currently and soon entering the educational market, will ultimately demand these new technologies and software solutions.

 

1) VR in Classroom: interactive and entertaining teaching methods

Experts agree, that some solutions are already applicable for educational purposes, although, it isn`t technically matured. Currently, VR solutions cannot always be fully integrated into the educational sector.
The main arguments for an integration of VR solutions are that

  • the new technology allows educators to teach in a more exciting manner;
  • VR allows to visualize content and information that are not available in claasrooms;
  • VR is particularly strong in training for situations that are too expensive, too dangerous or too disruptive to train for in person.

As an example, one expert from Ireland further states, that “these situations are prevalent in health and safety scenarios but also other lessons that involve a physical choreography, interaction with machinery or with other people. Actively role playing these scenarios, such as hospitality or retail training, in VR can be dramatically more effective than passively watching training videos.”  Further, it is stated that “the tools of Virtual Reality with the greatest ROI for adult learners, are probably those in the drawing, sketching, animation and design prototyping categories”. Notwithstanding that VR technologies and software applications need further developments, experts are optimistic, that, on a broader level, VR can successfully be used for educating students in areas such as architecture and civil engineering, design, chemistry, business training, machine engineering, medicine and biology or physics.

The experts reported to have a variety of experiences in different settings, such as:

  • in combination with motion-based technologies for embodied learning in math education and in science education;
  • teaching language and print;
  • work with students who developed and tested many VR applications with different educational content;
  • development of virtual tours for teaching about different locations;
  • experiencing own educational worlds as fully immersive VR;
  • or economy-based games for university courses.

In most cases experts report that the integration of VR was a successful experiment.

The reported main positive experiences from VR implementation are:

  • possibility to combine VR with embodied technologies to combine two attributes – immersion and embodiment;
  • possibility to build an immersive art workshop using mixed reality devices and immersive classrooms with the aid of an interactive monitor to allow to create a mix between a traditional and an extremely innovative teaching method;
  • better trainee engagement and better visualization /engagement with real-life scenarios;
  • students enjoyed the VR experience.

 

2) Controversies regarding the use of VR in Classroom

While the benefits of using VR in various contexts of application dominate, some concerns were mentioned by the experts. On the one hand the experts emphasize that the implementation of VR technologies into business or educational scenarios fosters engagement, motivation, excitement, creativity and positive attitudes towards the various topics. Besides these, clear advantages are suggested to be VR’s ability to allow ‘safe’ experimentation and to do and see things that you normally cannot experience in real life

On the contrary, in cases of misapplication or too extensive usage of VR technologies, physical concerns, such as dizziness and motion sickness may occur. Also, a lack of students’ prior experiences in using these technologies, and a lack of digital ICT skills in using these technologies, may affect a fully immersive experience. Comments from interviewed experts suggest that advantages and disadvantages can be discussed detached but also related to each other.

For example, one expert from Italy illustrated that students can interact with the material without budget limit, or eventually as a group of students, that can collaborate on the same digital asset using VR. Yet, as a single player, experiences can eventually, if the VR system is used too extensively, decrease social interactions between students. Further, students are more involved in activities and can learn faster and easier. However, single use needs to find a way for involving the entire classroom to the activity, meaning, the teacher is responsible for developing a clear and logical pedagogical strategy.

In an experimental manner, VR solutions are perceived by the experts as being more realistic and efficient in delivering immersive experiences that entertain, motivate and foster positive attitudes of low-skilled and low-qualified learners towards the learning material.

Yet, in a more rational and technical manner, the price for hard- and software, little experience in setting up the hard- and software, which can be become tedious and time consuming if the necessary skills are missing, might be disadvantageous.

 

3) Learners and Teachers using VR technologies

Having considered the various statements of all experts, it can be concluded, that, although currently limits to usability and applicability in educational settings exist, people and learners are very interested in new and upcoming VR technologies. Teachers, educators and professional trainers are enthusiastic about new VR technologies and feel confident that they are becoming a powerful work and educating tool. Although, in exceptional cases, side effects, such as dizziness and motion sickness occur, experts report, that users are still interested if the software allows high personal involvement. Here, 6DoF (Six degrees of freedom), describing the freedom of movement of a rigid body in three-dimensional space, is regarded as essential for delivering a superior immersive experience.

Degrees of freedom (DoF) refer to the number of basic ways a rigid object can move through 3D space. There are six total degrees of freedom. Three correspond to rotational movement around the x, y, and z axes, commonly termed pitch, yaw, and roll. The other three correspond to translational movement along those axes, which can be thought of as moving forward or backward, moving left or right, and moving up or down. Besides an extensive educational training and the necessary technical instructions, the interview experts emphasise that trainers and learners should be creative in nature and generally be interested in evolving technologies.’[3]

 

In an educational context, experts suggest that

  • single user VR experiences are important but that multi-user scenarios gives VR an even more effective experience. Therefore, use cases must be carefully evaluated regarding costs, effectiveness and endurance;
  • teacher’s training and professional development on how to use and integrate new VR technologies into their educational training is essential;
  • VR applications must be aligned and fit to the educational curriculum and its goals.

 

However, besides the teacher’s (active) role while structuring lessons efficiently and integrating VR smartly into the classroom, it is important that learners are making their own experience with VR and immersive environments to minimise (possible) deficits in understanding. That means, applications must be continuously realigned towards the development and learning level of learners.

The experts report that most content is currently mainly used for visualizations in education and for game-style applications. In most cases, VR environments are related to STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). However, some content is also produced and applied in design, architecture, anatomy and natural sciences. In general, experts pinpoint that educational content for VR is fast becoming as wide and varied as educational content for computing in general. VR can visualize what every other medium does but offers a more realistic and immersive experience. Already, there is a considerable selection of apps available in their dedicated educational sections. Two prominent examples are Google Expeditions or Waterford based Immersive VR Education, examples of companies developing high quality learning content. Experts are optimistic that there will be a huge future for educational subjects, where it is possible to learn with a machine, or with tools, while you haven`t seen either or (in real environments) before.

Although several applications for VR educational purposes do exists, some experts claim, that these are either limited in quality or their real immersive experience; in addition, they are expensive if a full version of the application is needed. Nevertheless, it is also mentioned that especially the educational sector is a very strong area of application for VR, where there is a vast, and ever-growing number of educational VR apps put into the market.

 

4) Different types of hard- and software regarding VR (systems)

One industry expert from Germany notes that 360° videos are decreasing because it is not possible to directly interact with objects and elements, which is considered very important in fully immersing into the virtual world. While developments of hard- and software were therefore intensified - mainly headed by industry giants such as Google with the Cardboard solution - technology and VR systems are now further evolving - especially since Facebook bought Oculus. Interviewed experts assume that the focus in providing mainstream solutions is on developing accessibility (e.g. Oculus Quest, all in one solutions) and affordability, while increasing hardware and graphical quality.

Regarding software, experts divide between engines needed for running a device, and applications, that are available for open use for various VR systems as well as software for programming VR apps (like for example unreal engine, Unity 3D, 3DS Max, Maya and Blender).

In respect to the VR applications, experts differentiate between those for deployment in the educational sector, the gaming sector or meeting places. While some educational solutions such as Google Expeditions, Google Class VR, Showtime VR Google, various offerings by museums (e.g. being in a rocket and flying to the moon) are experienced rather passive (e.g. moving around, looking at things, exploring), others let users and learners be more (inter-) active (e.g. software to learn technical skills for the automotive industry or software to learn how the perfect presentation is working).

a) Different VR hardware solutions

VR systems and applications differ immensely regarding the range of their possible application in various settings. Feedback given by the experts includes:

  • Oculus Quest and HTC Vive Pro are the highly developed solutions. Due to their extensive positional tracking opportunities (Six Degrees of Freedom) both are convenient for ambitious VR experience projects. However, Oculus Quest’s major disadvantage seems to be, that data security issues exist with respects to the information flow back to Facebook.
  • Oculus Go and Lenovo Mirage are, in comparison to the above solutions, less expensive. Yet, for this reason, they have less functionality and less movement radius (Three Degrees of Freedom). Instead, the graphical quality and wearability is currently considered to be excellent.

The currently mostly used VR systems are the HTC VIVE and the Oculus systems. But other systems, such as the Lenovo Mirage, have also been implemented and tested in various settings. Examples for usage are mostly within automotive settings, in manufacturing training settings or for construction education and training.

Generally, the experts recommend to first ask the question: “Which functions are needed for the purpose?” and then answer oneself while asking “Which glass provides these functions?”[4] This can be a higher level of immersion, a better graphic quality or a more sophisticated positional tracking, that allows users better physical movement in virtual areas (Six Degrees of Freedom).

b) Common platforms for downloading VR software

Regarding platforms for up- and downloading VR software general agreement exists upon experts that the Steam-VR-Marketplace is the dominating and most advanced provider; reasons are coverage and offering range. Further, the HTC Vive Port and the Oculus Store offer a wide range of VR applications. Other relevant providers – although they are still in development - are: Origin, Up Play and “App Stores” on Android or iOS driven smartphones.

Steam VR | HTC Vive Port |Oculus Store | Origin Store | Up Play

 

c) Common platforms for developing VR software

Regarding the most prominent development software solutions, general agreement exists, that the unity software solution, the unreal engine and three.js are the most advanced platforms for VR software development.

Unity | Unreal Engine | Three.js

 

5) Lack of resources within the educational sector: VR-Industry is still in an establishment phase

As pinpointed in the previous section, VR development is a complicated process for which it is reasonably challenging to get advanced VR developers able to program software solutions that are applicable across various platforms and adaptable to various software engines. For example, experts mention, that status quo, most mobile applications are incompatible with the Oculus and the HTC VIVE systems.

Here, a key recommendation, given by the experts is to use the unity software solution or three.js for developing a software application for creating a multi device application.

According to the experts, VR technologies, platforms and software development currently face challenges regarding the educational sector.  First, recruiting VR developers is difficult due to the lack of necessary skills. Further, prototyping costs, expensive hardware, e.g. for PC’s, and comparatively high costs for testing facilities are additional major challenges in creating mainstream applications. Moreover, experts suggest that issues in functionality, simplicity, handling and usability may affect the development and implementation process of programs for the business and educational sector.

Experts conclude that these issues need to be solved when aiming for

  1. a reasonable portability of systems,
  2. a more advanced technical state of motion tracking and graphic display,
  3. a comfortable fit of headsets and other devices (e.g. weight, form, comfort)
  4. and power efficiency for stand-alone devices.

 

6) Further development and accessibility of VR technologies

As outlined in previous sections, criteria such as costs, accessibility, performance, usability, easy set up or reliability, the system itself and its purpose are to be considered when implementing VR systems for education. But, beside these criteria, experts suggest that the pedagogical strategy behind a first idea must be stringent, logical and well planned. Teachers, wishing to apply VR technologies, must be technically and pedagogically trained to be able to design VR suited content for their students.

Depending on the educational purpose and the goals, the content and therefore technical requirements towards the implementation of VR can vary.

For example, for simple cardboard expeditions (e.g. Google expeditions) a minimum requirement is that all students/participants are provided with a decent mobile phone which can fluently display VR contents to facilitate a reasonable immersive experience. In general, these solutions are very power consuming and rechargeable batteries are very expensive. Therefore, schools and other educating institutions need to backup with a good Wi-Fi and telescopic USB chargers or further needed VR equipment.

For other VR systems, such as the Lenovo Mirage or the HTC VIVE solutions, high performance PC’s are needed to cope with the mass of information and graphical data. When wanting to provide a fully immersive learning environment it is further necessary to provide students with dedicated spaces inside the schools and assistance and maintenance support.[5]

The various experts regard VR as important for future education as well as other sectors. They anticipate that its relevance will even more continue to grow as future educators are on the bridge of following into the footsteps of retiring teaching staff; further pinpointing a future student demand for new technologies. While, as noted by some of the experts, elements of VR technology will emerge and disappear again, VR is seen as a sustainable educational instrument as it is highly motivating.

 

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Sources:

[1] Mayring, P. (2015), Qualitative Inhaltsanalyse: Grundlagen und Techniken, Beltz Pädagogik, Weinheim.

[2] Further details on setting up an own VR studio are provided here: Link to “How to set up your own VR studio”

[3] Google (2019), Degrees of Freedom, Google Developers, Google LLC, Retrieved: 2019-06-12, URL: https://developers.google.com/vr/discover/degrees-of-freedom

[4] Further details on setting up an own VR studio are provided here: Link to “How to set up your own VR studio”

[5] Further details on setting up an own VR studio are provided here: Link to “How to set up your own VR studio”