Expo Highlights the Rise of VR, AR in Educational Game Design, But Will Educators Want It?

Contributing Writer

Educational games that featured virtual and augmented reality were the stars of the show at the U.S. Department of Education’s annual ED Games Expo, a trend that may signal a market shift towards more immersive digital options.

With over 100 educational game titles showcased at the Jan. 8 event, approximately one-fifth of these games featured augmented or virtual reality. But whether or not the K-12 education market will bite on these new game features and styles–and whether they are effective at improving learning–is still up in the air. 

Edward Metz, founder and director of the ED Games Expo and program manager of the Small Business Innovation Research program at the U.S. Department of Education, confirmed there has been an increase in AR and VR games. “We’ve also seen an increase in games that are mixed,” he said. “They’re part technology, but also part hardware that developers are able to create, like 3-D maker stations where students print out designs that they develop online and then have a real, concrete representation in their hands.”

Metz said it remains unclear what educational benefits may come from incorporating augmented reality and virtual reality into games used for learning. “We’re looking forward to the findings of the studies to come,” he said.

Emerging Games and Technology

The ED Games Expo launched in 2013 as a way for the U.S. Department of Education to be able to showcase the technologies coming out of the Small Business Innovation Research program.

One of the augmented reality games featured at the Expo was a prototype from the Northwest Evaluation Association, or NWEA. Michael Nesterak, the NWEA’s senior director of its Innovation Center, said that NWEA’s game, simply called “Augmented Reality Science Game,” allows users to complete science experiments that involve determining what different wires, liquids, and other materials are made of. The prototype relies on the Common Core State Standards and has been in development since early 2018. There is currently no launch date.

“This was never designed to be necessarily an end product,” Nesterak said. “It’s basically us doing the first phase of discovery, and that really comes down to how well kids are able to access it. Then we want to know whether this would be the right content.”

He added, “Everywhere we’ve taken it, kids love it. The biggest response we get from this AR app is, ‘Can I do it again?’”

The two main challenges NWEA found in developing “Augmented Reality Science Game”  included making sure it was accessible on multiple platforms and ensuring that the game wasn’t completely virtual.

“Sometimes, we think that the virtual environment is going to be the be-all and end-all of education, and I still … [am] very much interested in the cognitive, but also the physical development of kids,” said Nesterak.

While NWEA’s game is in its early stages, there were some augmented and virtual reality games at the expo that have already gained traction in schools around the nation.

Brooke Morrill, director of education at Schell Games highlighted her company’s two games: Happy Atoms, which she described as an “AR-lite” experience where users combine atom models, and HoloLAB Champions, which is an immersive virtual reality chemistry lab game show. Since Happy Atoms and HoloLAB Champions launched in 2016 and 2018, respectively, Schell Games has partnered with a variety of Pittsburgh-based classrooms on its development. The games are free to teachers.

“We did that because not only do we want students playing it, but there is already a large hurdle with getting VR into the classroom,” she said.

Marketplace Challenges Include Costs

The price of virtual reality equipment can be a deterrent for many schools and districts, but Morrill said that there have already been drastic price drops in recent years.

Furthermore, augmented and virtual reality seem like the best choices for these games, Morrill said. “[Students] can have a safe, productive space to practice and get themselves ready to go into real life,” she said. “We wouldn’t say that this should replace a real chemistry lab. It’s more of an augmentation of it. It’s where they can practice to get good.”

A similar virtual reality game featured at the expo was Tablecraft, which allows middle schoolers to learn the periodic table and other scientific concepts. Game players act as inventors, deconstructing objects and constructing new ones while learning about different elements.

Rafael Brochado, co-creator of Tablecraft, said the game is slated to become available to the public later this year. Already, he has partnered with the University of Central Florida to ensure that all of game content aligned with common core standards. Currently the prototype is for use with the Oculus Rift VR setup, a wired headset which can be clunky to use, but Brochado said he hopes to adapt the game for the Oculus Go, which is a standalone headset that costs less than $200. Tablecraft is designed so that users can still use the game, even while seated or in a confined space.

“Now, a lot of VR games are designed in such a way that require you to walk around inside, and honestly that’s not how you design for a classroom,” Brochado said. “In a classroom you can’t have 30 kids bumping into one another.”

Virtual reality allows learning to be more engaging, Brochado said. Instead of reading a text about the Great Wall of China, students can instead view it “in person,” though digitally. While describing traditional classrooms as “a little bit behind,” Brochado said, “Our goal is not so much to replace the teachers or give kids all of the information, but rather to inspire them to ask more questions and get them passionate about the topic and develop an emotional connection.”

‘A Transformational Experience’

This year, for the first time, the expo offered live-streamed sessions where developers discussed how their games were created. Throughout the day, groups of students from Washington, D.C.-area schools visited to test out the educational games.

That school district partnership and the test-drives by local students is an important component of the expo experience, Metz said. “We’re really excited that the students from the D.C. schools … [are getting] to experience the games and meet the developers firsthand, which can be a transformational experience for them, especially if they ask the developer how they did what they’re doing and what career they had,” he said. “The students can think about themselves in that role as well.”

In a phone interview with EdWeek Market Brief, Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and author of “Experience in Demand,” said that in the next five years he expects the virtual reality market to develop lighter, easier-to-wear hardware, making VR games both more accessible and easier for designers to create.

Bailenson noted that some of the benefits of using virtual reality in educational games is “you’re having an experience, and for certain types of learning, that experience matters.” For procedural training, virtual reality appears to be a good way to teach specific skills, but when it comes to abstract STEM lessons, he said, more research is needed from developers to prove it is effective in the classroom.

In his book, Bailenson notes that, “The field trip is the perfect metaphor for VR learning … You don’t go on field trips every day, of course—they are designed to augment the classroom, not replace it. VR should do the same.”

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