I’ve been deep in conversations with colleagues as well as friends and anyone else who will listen about Learning Technology’s next three-year plan and what might be best to include in it. This has surfaced topics of discussion that have ranged from computational thinking & coding to mobile learning practices to assessment & digital portfolios; what these might look like and how best to implement these successfully at various grade levels; and our thoughts about what the next great innovation in the educational technology space will be.
We often turn to documents like the Horizon Report for guidance on such matters. It provides a look at the short, middle and long-term outlook regarding innovative practices and supportive technologies, the cost/benefits of these and likely adoption timing of said practices/technology combinations in various educational spaces (k-8, high school, and beyond).
One topic that continually is on our radar is Virtual Reality or VR. Check out some examples here : Flipside, Co-Spaces, Tinkercad, Unity, Sketchfab; 8 Amazing Uses of Vr That Will Blow Your Mind ; When VR Meets Education; 7 Top Educational Virtual Reality Apps ; Real Uses of Virtual Reality in Education; 10 COMPANIES WORKING ON EDUCATION IN VIRTUAL REALITY. A very promising technology that “refers to computer-generated environments that simulate the physical presence of people and/or objects and realistic sensory experiences. At a basic level, this technology takes the form of 3D images that users interact with and manipulate via a computer interface.”
“VR devices break down into two categories: high-end headsets, such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Sony PlayStation VR, and budget headsets that include the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard along with accessories like headphones and haptic controller accessories.”
“Contemporary applications allow users to more authentically ‘feel’ the objects in these displays through gesture-based and haptic devices, which provide tactile information through force feedback. VR models can be created using a variety of CAD software such as Flipside, Co-Spaces, Tinkercad, Unity, and Sketchfab. These content creation tools along with the viewers can make learning more authentic, allow for empathetic experiences, and increase student engagement.” – excerpts from the Horizon Report 2017
For the last number of years, VR has held a position in the “four to five years out” and has only just this year moved into the “two to three years out” position in the Horizon Report. This is excellent news for educators and learners alike. It brings the benefits of VR learning and the creative spaces provided by application environments like Flipside or Co-Spaces to be leveraged in classrooms closer to reality.
There is no denying that VR in education has many educational benefits. It doesn’t take much looking on the Internet or elsewhere to find resources dedicated to this topic:
As Terry Heick said in Why Virtual Reality is So Important, “Through the use of digital technology, virtual realities can be designed precisely for human interaction for very specific reasons to create experiences not otherwise possible.
By suspending disbelief the same way we do when we read a novel or watch a movie, an artificial reality can be designed to enable experiential learning, scenario-based learning, social learning, workplace training, and more. Virtual reality can be used for pure entertainment–digital toys, video games, or to swim with whales.”
There are many reasons to laud the possibilities inherent in this blossoming new technology… Sylvia Duckworth presents some these in her Sketchnote fashion.
Here’s a few other samplings from around the Net:
- Not possible in reality is likely possible in virtual reality
- Virtual game-based experience increases students’ motivation/engagement
- Bridging cultures and fostering understanding among young students
- VR allow learners to collaboratively construct architectural models, recreations of historic or natural sites and other spatial renderings
- VR engages students in topics related to literature, history and economics by offering a deeply immersive sense of place and time, whether historic or evolving.
If we were to look at the SAMR continuum model originally created by Ruben R. Puentedura, many VR tools would be considered transformative in nature, redefining how traditional tasks would be done; changing them so dramatically that the original task could not be completed in the same way NOT using the tool.
Sounds impressive, and it is! What’s not to like?
Recently some select members of our Division had a bit of tour of an amazingly promising tool called Flipside. This tool is probably best described as a VR film/animation making VR environment. On their website, Flipside describe their tool as “your own virtual TV studio. With nothing more than an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, you can produce your own animated shows in real-time, whether they’re recorded or streamed live to the web.” Sounds incredible and the experience for “VR-naut” was immersive and unlike anything experienced before. Fully enriching, multiple opportunities for cross-curricular connections, much more flexible and forgiving than an actual film/animation making environment. Truly amazing, gobsmacking even! The ability for a learner to succeed in such an environment is huge.
What’s not to like? At first glance, nothing really.
Nothing that is until we look at accessibility. By accessibility, I am referring to total cost of ownership in terms of funds, at least, necessary for purchasing the hardware to provide the above enriched experience for a single VR-naut. As you may have surmised, It’s not inexpensive.
And here’s where we come to the crux of this article and perhaps speaks to the reason why VR hovers for now, just out of reach in the adoption timing stated in the Horizon Report: the costs may not yet justify the benefits.
Let’s look at the two scenarios, not from an educational stand point, because both provide experiences that are transformative and valuable in nature, but from a cost stand point:
Both platforms require a VR headset of some sort. Here’s the lay of the land in that department. Despite the fact that VR is still developing, some progress has been seen in the economic scaling of this technology. The cost to the consumer of VR hardware (headsets, in particular, but also prefer computer desktops to drive the headsets, particularly the Video RAM, RAM and overall speed requirements which are hefty) are steadily declining, as noted in the head-mounted displays (HMDs) commercially available today: Google Cardboard for $11 and Samsung Gear VR for $80 or the Oculus Rift, a desktop VR device, is available for $599/HTC VIVE retailing for $799.
The “For Now” Cost Breakdown:
- Google Cardboard: $10
- With an iPhone (possibly older phones and iPods), or Android Phone: $199 (or personal devices)
- Platform costs – Basic : free, Pro: USD $75 per year (best use for education)
- Oculus Rift for $599/HTC VIVE for $799
- Desktop Device (minimum requirements 8GB RAM, intel i5 or better, NVIDIA GTX 1060 / AMD Radeon RX 480 or greater). One should note that minimum requirements are just that. This will allow ONE OCULUS RIFT/VIVE device to function with your Desktop, but not necessarily within the game or program that you want to use it with. Devices such as these will run somewhere in the the $1500-$2000 range and if you would like more than one headset connection, you will need more RAM, greater number of connection ports, potentially a faster graphics card and processor.
- Platform costs: at the moment an indy licence is $200 monthly for a single seat, or for a business licence, $1000 monthly. This may change as educational licensing is discussed, but this is not in place at the moment.
The cost to get ONE VR-naut into VR-land is approximately $211 for Cospaces per year( $10 + $199 + (US$75/50seats) ) and Flipside will be at least $4,099 per year ($599 Oculus Rift + $1500 Minimum Requirements + ($200 x 10 months of the school year) ).
VR has a definitive place of value, but are these kinds of costs an educational reality when so many other critical learning technology priorities are pressing as well?
Here are the facts as of the writing of this article and as best as I can present them. We have a transformative technology with great potential for enhancing some learners’ pathways.
The issue is, it will only impact a very few at present. Costs of Ownership help inform my decision making in many situations especially related to bigger ticket educational items as do solid educational rationales. Are the costs for one-person-at-a-time cycling through an experience, assembly-line style, to get at the true benefits of an incredible technology worth it? I not entirely certain, for a number of reasons:
- First off, I am sure that this is not meaningful practice! Using technology for technology sake when we can’t ensure we implement it using educational practices that are solid and effective seems backwards, inefficient and, at best, exclusive. Let’s take a minute to harken back to Smartboard days! In their heyday, these devices were a hot technology commodity, despite the fact they were essentially large mice allowing initially one (and much later on, up to four people) to manipulate objects at the same time on an interactive surface (although truthfully, in my experience, the implementation is most always done with one person touching the board at a time). When looking at the SAMR Continuum model, Smartboards primarily enhance learning, they tend not to be used in a transformative way. Teachers simply took existing ways of doing things and digitized them with no or hardly any functional change – for example a work sheet could be presented and completed digitally, usually by one person, with the rest of the class looking on. Not a terribly effective, efficient or a fully class-engaging activity.Sounding familiar? We may be setting up a similar situation with the VR-naut in the Flipside scenario. A school may only be able to afford one VR setup for the school. So one VR-naut gets to drive and be fully immersed in and benefit from the VR experience. And what of the rest of the class? Well, they can watch. Or they could be involved in other parts of a larger process involving planning for the VR-naut experience when it’s their turn, or supporting the existing VR-naut. But they are NOT experiencing the VR experience directly or often. This could be a problem. So how is this issue best addressed?
- Secondly, spending a lot money to impact a few rather than having a solid plan for impacting the many seems wasteful in times of fiscal responsibility and restraint.
- Thirdly, even the soothsayers and technology pundits involved in assembling the venerable Horizon Report peg VR technology as being “2 to 3 or more years out” of mainstream education. Should we wait then for the right time?
- Finally, the markets will hopefully play in our favour: prices for these devices, the headsets in particular, will continue to drop if the developers of such tools want to break into the educational markets at all.
It’s a tough decision to make. This decision is made even more difficult when we consider things like:
- Are all schools device equitable? Do all schools have the same proportion of devices available per student? Is there a reasonable ratio of devices per student in the Division (say 3:1)? Do all students have reasonable access to devices?
- Do all schools have ubiquitous wireless enough to handle B.Y.O.D. needs as well as all Divisional devices in the building? What’s needed to bolster and augment this in buildings? How are dead spaces addressed?
- Are all schools prepared for a mobile learning, maker-space learning environments and what these mean in terms of pedagogical changes? Is the training in place? Does VR learning fit in a mobile learning milieu easily (hardware-wise/pedegoical-wise)?
- What about assessment training and connecting this meaningfully to digital portfolio development? What supports are needed here? What are the costs?
These are all incredibly vital Learning Technology initiatives that need attention, training dollars and development & resource money. Where will this come from if monies are being redirected in large amounts to VR? Can this funding gap be offset possibly by parent groups? Possibly by fund raising? Possibly grants? Or even from school-based decision making. None of these options are sustainable or even desirable necessarily as they can promote the “haves and have-nots” syndrome. Yes, we could talk about priorities and yes, VR could come out on top. In my opinion, this could be a tragic mistake. The list above contains too many highly critical items, much more important and pressing than pushing forward into VR at this moment.
However, I wanted to be able to go back to my colleagues with some information to assist in trying to figure out how best to build this idea of VR learning successfully into our next three year plan. We could, after all, start small.
To that end, I have been casually surveying administrators, teachers, parents, business people from around Winnipeg over the holiday to get a sense of their thinking regarding this innovative technology idea. Here are their thoughts in brief:
- Great idea. Love this VR stuff. Can you really create like that in VR? Virtual Reality is the future. I can’t wait for this to be brought into schools. How much time will my kid get to use this?
- How can we justify these costs when classrooms can’t even manage wireless?
- What about just regular devices for students? Are there enough of those available to students?
- What did you say the costs were for just one student to use this technology again? Seriously? Your joking?
- What about balance? Surely we don’t have to jump immediately into every new thing as it comes out!
- What about evaluating things? Can’t we see if the benefits really justify the costs? How is this done effectively?
The general feeling was that the technology is incredible, but too costly at the moment. So how to proceed?
Maybe we need to set our sights on the what schools can actually use now rather on what they may be able to afford for all sometime. I have heard the term “pockets of innovation” over-used too often lately. People have used it to rationalize the purchasing of expensive technology before really evaluating whether that technology is an appropriate purchase for the learners for whom it’s intended. I find this statement used this way supercilious and in the end an unwise rationale. So not a pocket of innovation! What will our focus be then?
We should probably try to start small. Looking at what’s affordable today, we have the Google Cardboard glasses option and Co-spaces or Tinkercad that seem within reach. Flipside seems out of reach for the time being, despite it’s incredible potential. In fact, anything related to higher end headsets like the Oculus Rift or the VIVE seems financially problematic at this time! The requirements are simply too rich for the next few years. Building this into a three-year plan? Maybe a Professional Learning Community (P.L.C.) to explore Co-spaces, the effective use of Google cardboard, effective; efficient teaching/learning practices within and surround a VR environment; how VR and mobile learning dovetail; perhaps where VR fits in the new LwICT continuum. Those are the kinds of investigations we should be perhaps exploring in the plan.
I think it behooves us to take a step back, to slow down and to look at the quickly blossoming landscape of both augmented and virtual reality and see how it makes sense to infuse it into our existing system. This is going to take some careful thinking from a group of intelligent people. How do we start? How do we make it learning/learner focused? How can we make it cost-effective? How can it be sustainable? This is possible and perhaps the WSD VR PLC is the way to make this a VIRTUAL REALITY!