Assertions are dangerous. Concrete statements pin you down like roots, deep and solid, and people can directly see you in your entirety. You know where you stand – but so does everyone else, making comparisons easier. While they hide their cards and play them carefully, you lay yours on the table, lean back and say, “what do you think?” The same is true for VR and education.

I like to be transparent with my arguments, and more importantly, I don’t mind being wrong. Being wrong cuts, but the cuts help to shape something to be smoother, nicer to touch and handle. It’s a healthy outlook to life.

Last May I asserted myself during a talk at VR World, where I spoke on what I called ‘The Immersive Reality Revolution’. To cut straight to the point, I said I had less faith in VR and education than most people. I said VR will not be as impactful as people expect, as important as people want. And afterwards, I was told by many, many people that my views were… misled. Well, that was them putting it kindly.

So I want to clarify myself – of COURSE I see the potential of VR in healthcare, teaching, engineering. It’s revolutionary. But I want to add a caveat to it, regarding re-prioritising where to focus our efforts. That’s all.

VR education
Credit: Medical Futurist

Memory palaces and medical magic

First, I want to make something clear. Yes, virtual reality makes education better. Obviously.

And why wouldn’t I think that? Virtual reality sparks students’ interest because it is new and exciting. VR plays by different rules than most other media: The audience doesn’t see the scenes from a fixed point like in a photo, movie or most theatre plays but becomes part of it. This adds a whole new level of fascination and makes the learning content more engaging. 

One of my favourite companies, Linguisticator, received a tonne of funding because they proved this. Inspired by medieval monks, Aaron Ralby, founder and CEO of Linguisticator, started researching the memory palace technique during his PhD at Cornell University. He has been teaching language learners how to build memory palaces to achieve full grammar and vocabulary retention since 2011 – and early tests have been showing that it helps with dyslexia as well. Armed with this knowledge, Macunx wants to use VR to improve memory retention, tackle dyslexia, and improve the learning of new languages and their grammatical structures.

Wandering through palaces

VR education
An example of a memory palace. Credit: Linguisticator

For example, in a talk last year which I attended, Aaron walked through how one would memorise the first seven kings of England. Using images and linguistic connections, Aaron showed how wolves with crowns, eagles, and elves on cars all connected together to make remembering the kings of England manageable. The virtual objects helped with memorisation, with a measurable effect – small wonder they partnered with the British Dyslexia Foundation.

And do I even need to mention Medical Realities? The award-winning education platform for surgical trainees, enabling them to learn how to do complex surgeries without hurting anyone?

No, of course I don’t.

I fully recognise the benefits VR brings in certain sectors, and in areas like medical and the like, it’s a godsend. But in most other cases, its superfluous – particularly in teaching.

The state of education at the moment is quite poor

The schooling system in the UK is excellent, but flawed. Not all schools are created equally, and some are worse supported than others, to the point where being in a particular catchment area will likely have a profoundly negative effect on your education.

I sat down with Tom Sandford, who taught Computer Games design at university and college levels for around 8 years, and is a freelance VR interactivity specialist. He believes that education is very weak and requires improvement:

“It can almost entirely be traced back to the usual: lack of funding. Aside from the fact that teachers earn less on average than people of equivalent education and skill levels in other vocations, and that pay has been frozen for around a decade, funding has been reduced while the number of students has increased.”

Tom then explains that the school is incentivised to oversubscribe its classes, to reach its targets for the next year. More students means more money.

“Oversubscription means large class sizes, extra work for already overworked teachers. In addition, money-saving initiatives often involve the firing of administrative and support staff, with the responsibilities of those roles added to the teacher’s already significant workload. Due to the inability of overworked teachers, understaffed support facilities, and so on to give students enough 1 on 1 support, this results in a drop in success rates.”

VR education

Teachers first, technology second

Tom continues: “This can also directly affect a teacher. They are regularly assessed on their performance in a classroom, a procedure that is intended to be supportive, but becomes increasingly stressful and aggressive as the situation in an institution becomes more desperate. A good teacher who will perform well under normal circumstances will rank poorly when required to teach above the normal hours, with extra responsibilities, with a class size more than double the recommended size.

As Tom notes, teachers simply do not have the time to process the requests of high performing students. “The best performing students suffer. With so much time spent chasing after poor students, less time can be spent helping those who excel achieve their potential. In some instances assessors may be so pressed for time that they will forgo checking that high grades have been achieved, and simply award passing grades to save time. We simply did not have the time to process them, and were forced to deny all requests.”

Tom is not the only one. Many, many teachers believe the UK schooling system needs a revamp. The education system is elitist and discriminatory, and requires a revamp to function better (perhaps following the Finnish model). And I feel we should focus on that first, then VR. I don’t feel an emerging bit of tech, which very few people would use, should be above sorting the schooling system to begin with.

To emphasise again – VR in education is amazing

When people ask how VR could be used, one of the most common answers is video games. Then once you dig deeper, the second is likely to be historical reenactments or locations. The idea of going back in time to see an ancient battle, swords swinging and historical leaders commanding, is enticing and poetic. It’s the automatic gut reaction to what VR can do which is different from videos and books – placing the person right in the middle of the action.

What about visiting the wreck of the Titanic?

The player takes on the role of Dr. Ethan Lynch, associate professor of Maritime Archaeology at the fictional University of Nova Scotia. From the safety of your home, you can tag along and dive deep below the sea aboard a research vessel to dive the wreck. Nifty, and a good use of the tech.

Another I really like was the Economist Films working with Visualise on their travel documentary series, titled Osaka VR:

Hori Benny takes us around one of the most important cities of Japan, showing their culture and significance in the fishing industry. The film included visiting a Sentō (communal baths), a fish market, and the nightlife and busy street life of Osaka – all of which aided by a 360° perspective which immerses the viewer. I have to say, I love it.

Yet the actual number of people who will be seeing or using the tech is minimal ,and will likely remain minimal for a very long time. Reinvestment into improving the schooling system brings greater benefits to the next generation than investing in powerful technology, no mater how impressive it is. Tech entrepreneurs wish to walk on the moon, but first they need a stable shuttle.

Tom Ffiske
@thomasffiske_VR
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