How Virtual Reality Will Democratize Learning

In case you haven’t heard, there is a lot of hype right now about virtual and augmented reality. Three months into 2016, investors have already spent $1.1 billion to get a piece of the action.

All this money, but no revenue and, in large part, no clear market.

There are some good signs that 2016 really will be the year that VR gets widespread adoption, or at least the year we start to see the development of a consistently expanding base of consumers and use cases. Over thirty virtual reality films debuted at Sundance. Well-known artists like Reggie Watts and Justin Lin, director of ‘The Fast and The Furious,’ have put out virtual reality shorts. Even Stephen Spielberg seems to be looking to get into the game, as he has signed on to be an advisor to Virtual Reality Company (VRC), which has developed an immersive virtual reality experience to go along with Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

So far only a small subset of the general population have been exposed to this new round of virtual reality experiences, but in 2016 that number should grow significantly. This month, consumer versions of the much anticipated Oculus Rift, the innovative HTC Vive, and the PlayStation VR have finally gone on sale. Samsung has announced that everyone who preorders their Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge phones is eligible for a free Gear VR, which pairs with the phone to turn it into a virtual reality headset. And companies as wide-ranging as the New York Times, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, and the music festival Coachella have all gotten on board and are giving away inexpensive Google Cardboard headsets for free to their customers.

Nevertheless, it is still too early to tell whether or not VR will catch on while the hype lasts. Perhaps funding will dry up and development will slow. Sales may flatline and big companies like Facebook and Samsung might even pull back on their commercial offerings, like Google did with Glass, and bring their programs back to the drawing board.

I don’t think anything so drastic will occur, but the point is we cannot predict the tides of the market with accuracy. It’s possible that the technology is not sophisticated enough or that headsets are currently priced too high to be commercially viable.

Still, I am confident that virtual reality will revolutionize how we learn, and the reason is simple. Virtual reality is not just a technology, it’s a medium. And I’ve seen how powerful that medium can be.

A couple of summers ago I spent time working with schoolchildren in a township in the suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa. This township is known as Vrygrond, which translates from Afrikaans as “Free Land.” The children were quite poor; none of them had more than one pair of shoes, and as the name of their township suggests, none of their families had any legal claim of ownership over their patchwork homes.

Incredibly, roughly a third of these children carried with them a Nokia feature phone that provided them wide-ranging access to the Internet. They used these phones to show me videos of the South African standup comedian Trevor Noah and clips of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show (where Noah would later replace Stewart as host). They even pulled up websites on their devices to provide evidence for their claims that Beyoncé and Jay-Z are members of a secret international satanist organization.

I was struck by how connected the children in Vrygrond were with the media and entertainment of the United States while their parents were simultaneously so disconnected from the global economy.

These children, like their peers all over the world, are growing up in a digitally connected world.

mobile learning

Photograph: Prasit Chansareekorn/Flickr Vision

 

By 2020 fully 70% of the world will have smartphones. What this means is that practically everyone will have access to the same pool of human communication. And as companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Google use neural networks to push the envelope of computerized language translation, even the existing divisions of human knowledge by language will recede.

But what does this mean for education? Specifically, is universal access to knowledge enough to democratize learning?

Judging by the experiences of students in developed countries like the United States, in which the achievement gap largely mirrors the wealth gap, the answer is no.

The Future of Education

The classic structure for a classroom mirrors a proscenium theater, with the teacher out front serving up knowledge and the students as audience members soaking it all in.

This model works for some learners but leaves others, like students who struggle to focus or fear speaking up in class, far behind.

I believe education is on the cusp of a revolution. With modern technology it is no longer necessary for everyone to study the same thing at the same time and progress at the same pace. Learners will soon forge their own paths and use technology to complete modules that interest them at their own speed. Organizations like AltSchool are already piloting such programs in their private schools. Their teachers create environments that foster curiosity and exploration. Ultimately, they want to use their learnings from these small-scale experiments to create curricula that can be used in public school systems.

To reach full scale, however, this sort of learning will have to be accessible remotely by students who don’t have access to high-quality teachers and school systems. In other words, mobile devices will have to become powerful tools for education that will enable even the most remote learners to explore complex subjects in engaging and interactive ways.

Virtual reality is an incredibly well-suited medium for this task.

Curiosity is Essential for Learning

According to Sandhya Hedge, an investor at Khosla Impact, when people in developing countries first get their hands on mobile devices, they spend a great majority of their time in three ways: social networking, entertainment, and news. That sounds a lot like my own smartphone usage, and probably yours as well. Access to information is not enough to foster education.

People have to be motivated to learn.

The difference between people who learn and those who don’t has much to do with curiosity, and not just because being curious about something motivates us to figure out how it works. According to neuroscience research from the University of California, Davis, when we learn about something that catches our curiosity, our brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us more attentive, and which improves our ability to remember.

Crucially, curiosity leads us to remember everything better, not just the specific things about which we are curious. As Matthias Gruber, a postdoc on the project says, “curiosity seems to put the brain in a state that is very conducive to learning…like a vortex that draws in things you are motivated to learn and also everything around it.”

Perhaps this research does not come as much of a surprise. We have all had boring teachers, and we have all had teachers who made learning easy. The great teachers found ways to get us excited and engaged in class, and as a result, their lessons are the ones that endure in our minds.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to scale phenomenal teaching to reach a large audience. In a traditional classroom, each teacher can only touch around 25 students at most before the quality of lessons start to suffer.

Resources like online textbooks and video lectures can be powerful and scalable tools to help motivated people learn a complex subject, but they are difficult to make exciting and interactive; they often fail to stimulate the imagination, and thus they tend to be ineffective for any but the most dedicated learners.

The Role of VR Certain subjects are especially hard to present in an exciting and engaging way. Chemistry is one of these difficult subjects. There are a seemingly endless array of atoms and molecules to learn, and lab work can feel like a complicated and difficult form of baking with none of the delicious upside.

Despite its difficulty, chemistry is a subject that has the potential to be extremely interesting. It is the study of the building blocks of matter, and understanding how atoms and molecules can recombine to make up the very matter that surrounds and composes us can give us an exciting new perspective from which to view the world.

In the classroom, subjects in the hard sciences are often presented without context. Chemistry, biology, and physics are all separated into distinct disciplines, and subject matter is abstracted away to two dimensions. This type of learning usually has a lot to do with memorizing molecular, cellular, or elemental properties and mathematical constants, and very little to do with anything we care about or have an ability to visualize.

Imagine this alternative: using virtual reality, Mzukisi, a boy from Vrygrond who loves nature, will be able to follow the life of a molecule of water as it is heated by the Sun’s rays, evaporates far from land and rises through the air as water vapor. He’ll watch the molecule join a cloud and ride the wind over to the forest, and see the molecule gather together with others to become of a droplet of water that falls to the ground and streams over the earth before finally being absorbed. In the soil, the water will combine with minerals and get drawn up the vascular tissue of a tree to supply those minerals to a leaf at the top. Finally, the molecule will evaporate from the leaf and get borne away again in another cloud.

At any point in this experience, Mzuki might get curious about the mechanics of a certain process in the cycle. For example, maybe he wonders how it is that the Sun’s rays can turn a liquid into a gas. He could zoom in on this phase shift and see how light from the Sun heats up water molecules until they jiggle around with such force as to break the bonds that link them to their fellow water molecules, becoming steam. Even better, Mzuki could play a mini-game where he has to act as the energetic force of the sun and excite the water molecules manually until they are hot enough to transition into gas.

Or maybe Mzuki is less interested in the physics of the evaporation process but is curious about the biology of the tree. If so, he could explore how it is that the tree is able to draw water up from its roots, thereby learning about the cohesive and adhesive properties of water, which enable the water molecules to ascend the narrow tube, defying gravity and moving up one position at a time as molecules in the leaves turn into gas and vacate their position in the chain. He could again play the role of the sun, perhaps by tapping on leaves to facilitate the evaporation, thereby driving the entire system of transpiration in the tree.

And on and on.

The Imagination

If I did my job with the example about Mzukisi, then my words stimulated your imagination and you visualized some of the objects and processes I described. That’s what the process of learning by reading looks like; we take a set of symbols and ideas from a text and convert it into understanding by imaginatively visualizing and conceptualizing the information in our minds. We then cement the learning by following our curiosity: manipulating the concept, pushing and pulling at its edges, and seeing where things shake out.

A well-crafted educational experience in virtual reality would mirror and lead into this crucial process of imagining, and ideally the bounds of a learner’s exploration would be defined only by the limits of his curiosity.

Admittedly, we are a few years off from smartphones and headsets being cheap enough to be universal, but when the price does inevitably drop, the impact of this technology will almost certainly be global.

To be clear, I am not arguing that virtual reality will replace reading’s role in education. For a curious reader, processing intricate ideas and converting them into mental models can be an incredibly effective and efficient form of learning. I also don’t want to discount the importance of human discourse in learning; we’re a long way off from computer programs being able to compete with human interlocutors in terms of adaptability and interactivity.

Still, I have no doubt that virtual reality education is coming, and I believe its arrival will coincide with a phase shift in how we conceive of formal education.

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