As a concept – and as a line of products – virtual reality would seem poised to take off in K-12 schools, at least as measured by the slick gadgetry on display everywhere this week at the Bett ed-tech show.
But the reality for the adoption of VR and augmented reality in the education market is more complex, and likely will be for some time to come, as schools and companies try to figure out what tech is practical, and useful, in classrooms.
That was one of the points driven home by a trio of company officials, from three different nations, who gathered for a panel discussion Thursday by Futuresource Consulting, a market research group organization.
A report released by Futuresource two years ago hinted at the potential market take-up for some types of those technologies. It said the number of students who access virtual, augmented, or mixed reality through head-mounted displays will jump from 2.1 million in 2016 to nearly 83 million in 2021. (Use of the tech was counted if it was only for a short amount of time, such as 10 minutes, the authors said.)
VR and AR have found a home in some K-12 schools, and they have enormous potential, said the panelists at the event, held at a hotel near the Bett conference site. But all three pointed to barriers in those technologies’ ability to meet today’s needs in schools.
Here’s where those speakers say that existing VR/AR applications are falling short, and where they may be headed.
Frederik Linnander, the CEO of the Swedish company Online Partners, pointed to the sea of VR-related tech on the Bett showroom floor–“a lot of stuff”– noting that most of it is equipment designed to make the tech work.
The greatest value of VR and AR is introducing students to learning experiences they can’t normally get, Linnander said. Like walking to the edge of a volcano.
“What we’re really lacking is content,” Linnander said. “That’s where it will succeed or fail. Content connected to natural curriculum where the teacher can get the package, roll out the cart [with VR devices] and interact with the student.”
Pete Koczera, senior manager for education strategy at CDW-G, said debates about when VR/AR will be broadly adopted are one of his team’s favorite topics of debate.
And there’s enormous promise in those technologies, Koczera said. The problem is that the current generation of hardware and software is just not ready to scale yet. Most of the VR in place in K-12 schools, he said, is being used on relatively small, pilot scale.
There’s also a broader “cognitive dissonance” at work, he said. For several years, schools have put an emphasis on four C’s–creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. But some VR applications involve “putting the VR headset on that cuts you off from everyone around you,” Koczera said, drawing chuckles from the audience.
He sees potential for AR — which blends digital and real-world environments — to get past that disconnect. It can shape an immersive experience for students in which “I don’t have to be cut off from people around me,” he said.
“I can collaborate and share, and that’s really compelling. I’ll be watching that very closely as it mature.”
Big and Small Applications
Bernard Dady, the head of education transformation for Gaia Technologies in the U.K., said his company is experimenting with creating VR content.
The challenge for companies is finding AR/VR content that matches teachers’ curriculum needs. Right now, the technology being used across industries ranges from very intense, expensive experiences used by industry in workforce training and other areas, to more basic forms of photography and video, used in schools.
His company is looking to create content that is controlled by users, that allows them to navigate through different points, all “created with a learning purpose,” said Dady.
The use of VR headsets that can help schools with small-group activities will probably grow, he said. Schools will need low-cost devices that can run increasingly sophisticated VR/AR software, which allow students to collaborate, not act in isolation, he said.
But he also thinks there will be an appetite in schools for VR/AR that create the “wow” cinematic effect that can be shared with the whole class.
“I see all of those edging forward, but they are organizationally difficult for teachers to manage,” Dady said. “Those will be barriers–the cost, the management of the devices, and the content, going forward.”