Faculty & Leadership Blog / Innovative Curriculum

Virtual Reality: What’s the Opportunity for 21st Century Education?

Post by Adam Sanders

Although virtual reality (VR) has sparked the imaginations of inventors and researchers for decades, the primary enabling technology, the head-mounted display (HMD) has been unwieldy, expensive, and limited in terms of options. That changed in 2016, “the year of virtual reality,” when five different companies released consumer-aimed HMDs, that could provide a relatively mobile, high-quality experience (Hayley, 2016). Then, in 2018, Facebook’s Oculus released its Go at a relatively affordable price point of $199 USD. Meanwhile, the Google Daydream and Cardboard platforms continue to expand, allowing users to convert any compatible mobile cell phone into an HMD with a simple frame, some which are available for under $10 USD. Consumer spending on virtual reality (and its close relative augmented reality) is expected to reach $7.2 billion USD worldwide in 2019 (IDC, 2018), incentivising developers to build out VR content and platforms even further. Technology is catching up to our imagination. And now that access to virtual worlds through HMDs is comparatively convenient and inexpensive, there are a host of new applications for VR. One interesting application is in education technology (edtech).

“the technology industry has yet to make a compelling case that schools should be investing scarce dollars in VR instead of other needs”

In 2016, only five percent of teachers surveyed (for Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning) said they had used VR in their classroom; in contrast, “41% of middle school students say VR is a must in their ultimate school of the future” (Speak Up, 2017). Despite interest from students, “the technology industry has yet to make a compelling case that schools should be investing scarce dollars in VR instead of other needs” (Measure, 2018). Indeed, there seems to be a lack of edtech firms developing VR tools altogether. At the 2019 Bett Conference, the largest edtech trade-show in the world, only 23 out of 950 suppliers represented, designated VR or AR as part of their offerings.

It’s important that this gap is addressed, and not just for the entrepreneurs who stand to gain economically. Research indicates that VR offers benefits to teachers and students in a variety of ways, but it often disproportionately benefits students who are underserved by traditional classroom tools. By exploring use cases of VR in education, I hope to surface some of the opportunities and limitations that VR can offer in the classroom. These insights may help edtech entrepreneurs who can focus their efforts to provide and capture value for themselves as well as teachers and students.

“Being There” in VR Provides a More Direct Experience

One of the primary features of VR and one of its most valuable qualities in the classroom is its immersiveness—the  ability to engage the user’s senses and block out peripheral stimuli. Because of this, VR is able to simulate direct experience and provide “presence” and “flow” in a way that indirect experience, like learning through books, cannot (Kwon, 2019).  Presence, the feeling of “being there,” and flow, a highly focused mental state, help students block out distractions and focus their attention on content.

Students Explore Calculus in Virtual Environments

One experiment took a simple calculus lesson traditionally taught using 2D formats like books and PowerPoints, and translated it to exist in a virtual environment on the HTC Vive. Students were able to interact with cylinders and rotate them along each dimensional axis, gaining more direct experience with abstract concepts. The responses were mostly positive and students cited the impactfulness of immersion in the experience (Goehle, 2018).

Outer Limits VR, Calcflow educational VR experience is an example of an immersive experience with abstract concepts (Outer Limits VR)

Source: Calcflow


English Language Learners Benefit From Immersion

There is evidence that immersive experiences provide extra benefits to English language learner (ELL) students. Because experiences in VR are primarily visual, they shift the learning load from a language burden to a cognitive burden. In a guided, immersive experience, ELL students can focus less on keeping track of complicated vocabulary and untying metaphors (“the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”), and focus more on the direct experience of a concept (seeing the cell function close-up) (Craddock, 2018).

VR Gets Students Close to Far-away Things

Leaving the confines of the classroom to visit places connected with lessons is recognized as an effective way to teach and motivate students. But many students are not afforded this opportunity due to logistical complications or, more often, prohibitive costs (Tuthill, 2002). Virtual reality has the ability to circumvent these obstacles and bring students anywhere on Earth, like Egypt – or off Earth, like the Moon – through virtual field trips. Students do not only gain historical knowledge in the process, but they also develop an emotional connection to these places and that can have an impact on their global mindset. Virtual reality makes it possible for students that would not normally be able to experience field trips to reap some of the benefits that more privileged students get from leaving their schools.


Gameplay images of the Moon Exploration Learning Game

Source: Kwon (2019)


For example, one study brought several student groups from primary school age to adults, on a VR experience with marine divers to explore the effects of pollution on ocean acidification. Students both gained scientific knowledge and showed signs that their attitudes toward climate change had shifted. Markowitz observes,

“moving within the space that looked and behaved like a real underwater reef made it easier for people to elaborate and understand the consequences of climate change, and the more that people explored in VR the more they benefited from the virtual experience” (Markowitz, et.al, 2018).

The VR Medium Can Eliminate Barriers in the Experience

VR also presents interesting opportunities for interaction on these field trips: interaction between students and teachers, students and locals, and between students that are themselves in different geographic locations. For instance, teachers have the option to guide students through an experience, moving them through their field of vision to draw their attention to specific features. VR platforms can also provide assistive features like subtitles, breaking down language barriers between students and other inhabitants of the virtual world (Schott, C. & Marshall, S. 2018).

VR Data Can Inform A More Personalized Classroom

The data collected and presented through the HMD interface gives practitioners a whole new way to approach learning outcomes. For instance, social interactions have a major impact in the classroom, but they’re hard to measure and the data are difficult to analyze. But the HMD can identify certain activities, like a teacher’s eye contact across several students, and present the data to a viewer in real time. That teacher can identify habits that favor or disfavor certain students and practice spreading attention evenly across the classroom. Students’ behavior can also be collected and allow teachers to create detailed student profiles and tailor classroom activities to the personal needs of each student (Bailenson, et. al, 2008).

VR Can Help Teachers Accommodate Students With Special Needs

This micro-approach to classroom management can be taken a step further for the benefit of students with disabilities. Designers have identified specific aspects of VR experiences, like “challenge” and “interactivity,” that contribute to the enjoyment and efficacy of gamified teaching modules. These elements can be manipulated to meet each individual student’s needs (Yu-lu, et. al, 2018). In virtual reality, teachers can manipulate elements of the environment, like noise level, to improve learning for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). VR also affords these students the opportunity to practice and experiment with social interactions in a safe, consequence-free environment (Wallace, et. al, 2010).

The Technology Is Waiting for the Right Steward

“vendors still aren’t addressing fundamental challenges to effective implementation”

Although many educational uses of VR have been well documented in research settings, there has been little reporting on practical use in classroom settings. This is probably due to the underwhelming market for effective VR teaching tools, and the multitude of pain-points around the technology that have yet to be addressed. For instance, one user noted that it’s hard to scale many VR experiences to a class of students. She had to set up each student’s HMD one at a time and start the experience asynchronously (Craddock, 2018). As Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow noted, “vendors still aren’t addressing fundamental challenges to effective implementation, and there needs to be a better justification for why schools should invest in these technologies” (Measure, 2018).

Of course, this is good news for would-be entrants to this market. Firms that understand the unique strengths of VR and that can take a customer-centric approach to understand the users’ needs will have a distinct advantage in encouraging adoption of their products, and in enabling teachers to improve the lives of students anywhere.


Adam Sanders is a theater artist working at the Sorenson Center for the Arts at Babson College and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and an MBA candidate at Babson College. Adam wrote this article as part of the graduate course Thought Leadership in Technology. You can learn more about the course here.


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