The Landscape of VR/AR in Education
A dear friend asked for the skinny on up-and-coming companies doing interesting VR or AR work in the education space. I quickly realized this may be helpful for other folks in our space so I’m sharing it here and asking that you please share any edtechs doing VR/AR that I have missed in the comments below.
But first, a caveat…
The first thing to share is that learning games in VR are still largely spectator sports. Students can take some extraordinary field trips and engage in immersive experiences but their ability to meaningfully interact within VR experiences in the space of education is still in its’ nascent stage. This means that while students can manipulate molecules or measure liquids, these rudimentary movements have a ways to go to become the truly immersive learning experience that VR/AR promises to become. Herein lies the opportunity to innovate within this emerging technology.
Reach + Access + Engagement = Holy Grail of Emergent Techs
The companies I’ve included below are those specifically in the VR/AR education space. Some of these experiences allow greater engagement than others. What is important to consider here is their reach into classrooms, their accessibility predicated largely on device (see below), and the level of engagement in each experience. In all they’re an impressive group of companies who are working to ensure this emerging technology is as engaging and exciting as possible, but please know that this is by no means an exhaustive list.
So far the clear leaders using VR/AR across the educational landscape are:
Google: It’s no surprise that with its wide reach and innovative directives, Google is an early leader. Their career expeditions are accessible on any mobile device and easily integrated into classrooms through very low cost cardboard headsets.
Nearpod: One of my favorite platforms for classroom teaching is also doing some really incredible things in the land of VR. By embedding VR field trips within their learning platform, teachers can provide guided instruction and assessment around these immersive experiences.
Cospaces: Cospaces is the VR maker space where kids can easily create their own VR experiences. Teachers can use experiences their students create to determine how well they’ve understood key concepts as well as their ability to tell a cohesive and compelling story.
Public Speaking VR: VirtualSpeech has created an amazing app that is helping people confidently give public talks, prepare for interviews, and possible overcome social anxiety by creating a photo-realistic environment in which to train.
Schell Games: The always engaging team at Schell Games has created a variety of AR and VR games where players can build virtual domino runs (my kiddos fave) to immersive chemistry labs where students can safely interact within a simulated chemistry lab.
Mozaik Education: Taking a 3D trip through a human body or the acropolis is easy with Mozik Education’s 3D VR experiences. Using these apps students get a hands on introduction to some really tricky topics.
Unimersiv: Another early leader in the education space, Unimersiv hosts a variety of field trips inside the human body and to sites worldwide like Stonehenge.
1stPlayable: The innovative artists, creators, and educators at 1stPlayable are making fun and engaging VR games that I honestly cannot tear my children away from! Their game Raaawr has everyone giggling as they destroy a city of block towers before the time is up. Other games like Mr. Q’s teach skills like empathy in a digital world.
zSpace: This is a company not to be missed as they are doing some really innovative VR/AR work. But it’s important to note they stand apart from the others I’ve listed as zSpace requires specialized hardware to be able to interact with their content/learning experiences thus changing the equation of reach, access, and engagement. I’m eager to see where they go from here because they truly are doing things in a different and exciting way.
While not directly marketing themselves as technologies within the pre-K-12 education landscape, many companies (like Level-Ex, Platypus Institute, and QNeuro) are creating VR tools and technologies that can be readily applied to the education market with a simple shift in content or presentation. Whether it’s the ability to hone surgical skills, optimize cognition, or create adaptive gaming, these innovators are disrupting the very nature of this immersive technology.
The promises and pitfalls of VR in education
If we really want to shift the paradigm of technology use in classrooms, the tools we implement must have wide reach, be accessible, and engaging. Here is yet another way in which Google is ensuring that emergent technologies enjoy wide reach (thank you Google store) with devices that make these experiences easily accessible (see: $10 cardboard boxes).
Ensuring these tools are visible and playable is part of the reach component, but the issue of access to these technologies varies wildly. The 2016 Broadband Progress Report indicates that 90% of Americans have access to broadband. The 10% who do not have access represent roughly 34 million people. This is a large swath of the population who will not have access to immersive learning through VR, thus potentially widening the achievement gap between the haves and have nots.
From the innovation perspective it is the last part of the equation, engagement, that will be the most exciting and perhaps trickiest nut to crack. New haptic technologies are allowing for greater immersion by introducing touch and even smell into virtual worlds. The capacity to engage all of your senses while meaningfully interacting within virtual worlds is the epitome of truly immersive learning. It is not enough to take a student on a dive deep into the Indo-Pacific ocean, they must be able to explore, manipulate, and engage within these environments to ensure they demonstrate the competence, autonomy, and relatedness that drive the most inspired and engaged learners.
Towards the future
As a career educator and content creator at Killer Snails, my goal is to create realistic experiences that are engaging to students and allow teachers to see progress in real time. I believe that VR is one of the best tools to ensure our students don’t fall into the 80% trap, only acquiring a partial understanding of the content we teach.
It’s not simply about taking our students outside the walls of our classroom but about giving them the opportunity to engage more deeply within these environments whether that means flexing their creative muscles or getting up close and personal with alien worlds. It is the ability to engage users that will take students into the next realm of learning through the use of virtual and augmented reality.
I hope to add our learning games to this list in the coming months. But for now I am grateful for the shoulders upon which we stand as we work to create immersive learning experiences that will keep students engaged, provide feedback to teachers, and help to close the loop from instruction to assessment by fueling future learning.
Lindsay Portnoy is a cognitive psychologist, co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer at Killer Snails. You can connect with her via LinkedIn, Twitter, or email.