Should virtual reality (VR) be at the heart of education in Scotland’s schools? Michael Alexander reports.
Trekking through the wind swept pine forest at the foot of the Lomond Hills in Fife, pupils’ attention is drawn to the sound of chattering woodpeckers as a herd of deer leap the gurgling burn which tumbles from the ancient volcanic slopes above.
There’s no disputing the awe, the wonder and the unpredictability that can be evoked amongst young people if they are given the chance to get out of doors on geography field trips and experience nature and the outdoors for themselves.
But amid growing concerns that many young people already spend too much time in front of screens, could the same emotions be evoked if the pupils had stayed in the classroom and used virtual reality (VR) headsets to embark upon an ‘electronic field trip’ instead?
That’s the type of question being raised as a Scottish council says it has become the first local authority in the UK to invest in VR headsets for every school in its area.
East Renfrewshire Council has invested £250,000 in more than 900 ClassVR devices.
It said the headsets designed by Avantis would provide a virtual and augmented reality set designed specifically for teaching.
The technology has been provided to all of the council’s 30 schools.
East Renfrewshire Council’s education convener Paul O’Kane said the headsets would be combined with more traditional teaching methods.
He said: “By investing in this kind of immersive technology it will provide our children with experiences and sensations that they may never experience in reality and brings learning to life in a way that ignites their imagination.”
There’s no denying that VR offers exciting opportunities to enhance learning and it is already being used in many places around the world to take pupils on electronic field trips to the most inaccessible corners of the planet – and to even travel back in time!
Instead of viewing a shark-infested shipwreck or First World War battlefield in photos, for example, the technology means they can virtually swim and trudge right through them.
However, Leeds University researchers have recently warned that continued use of VR sets could trigger eyesight and balance problems in young people.
Technology already has a vital role to play in Courier Country classrooms and the possibilities of further use has not been ruled out by local authorities where most children are already savvy with computers, gaming and – dare it be said – social media.
In Dundee, the city council says VR has already featured in some of its schools through the use of Google Cardboard and they will be “very interested” to monitor how this latest development progresses in East Renfrewshire.
A council spokesperson said: “Across the city, technology is being used to enhance the learning of our pupils through a range of exciting and innovative projects.
“This could involve the use of portable devices like tablets and also code clubs, which are providing pupils with a huge range of transferable skills.”
Angus Council will “watch the East Renfrewshire project with interest” and has “no immediate plans to make what would be a significant financial commitment.”
However, a council spokesperson said Google demonstrations had also been held at a number of its schools and it “recognises the valuable role that technology plays as a part of the learning experience”.
In Fife, the council’s education service change manager Phil Black said: “We are always looking to further develop our approaches to learning and teaching in Fife. Standing still is not an option for us. The use of technology already plays an integral part in our thinking and classroom practice.
“At present, we are in discussion with suppliers about the potential of VR headsets although we are not yet ready to make a final decision about investing in this product.”
A Perth and Kinross Council spokesperson said: “We don’t have any current plans to use VR headsets.”
Dundee-based technology firm Waracle, which is one of the UK’s leading mobile app development and digital consulting companies, believes that all digital technologies should be a part of education.
David Romilly, business development director at Waracle, said: “There is far greater pressure on education, compared to the workplace, to adopt new technologies to keep up with the evolving technology landscape.
“Where the workplace has a mix of Generation X and Y capable of being serviced by legacy tech and the thin-end of cloud-based working practices, education’s audience is Generation Z’ers who expect fast, mobile and collaborative experiences as a basic requirement.
“Education has to harness, and reflect back to its students knowledge of mobile and mixed-reality environments to make sure content is transmitted and absorbed in a synchronised manner.”
Mr Romilly said it was also important for education departments to understand the difference between VR and AR (augmented reality).
VR is defined as the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. AR, by comparison, is defined as an enhanced version of reality – created by the use of technology – to add digital information on an image.
With AR technology already present on many smart phones, he said it has the capability to be deployed faster in classrooms due to Apple’s iOS and Android device penetration.
“Unlike AR, when you view VR, you are viewing a completely different reality than the one in front of you,” added Mr Romilly.
“With VR, you can move around and look in every direction, as if you were physically there.
“Unlike AR where you can use your mobile, for VR you need a special VR viewer, such as the Oculus Rift. “Therefore, VR is used more for entertainment and, perhaps more of interest to education, VR is very useful in training too.”
Last week it was announced that cutting-edge argument technology developed at Dundee University will be used by thousands of school pupils across the UK as part of a major BBC initiative supporting young people to identify real news and filter out ‘fake’ or false information.