Education Week - February 14, 2018 - 10
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS > TRACKING NEWS AND IDEAS IN EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY
By Benjamin Herold
& Michele Molnar
London and Philadelphia
Is virtual reality finally ready to
make inroads in K-12?
Technology companies are making a fresh push, and some market
dynamics could provide them a tailwind. But there's plenty of reason to
That's the takeaway from Education Week's reporting from two conferences last month: Bett, a global
ed-tech trade show hosted in London, and EduCon, a gathering of
progressive educators and technology enthusiasts in Philadelphia.
Reasons to be bullish include new
hardware advances, falling prices,
and a wave of districts that will soon
be looking to replace their existing
computers and laptops. As a result,
more than 15 percent of U.S. schools
will have virtual-reality classroom
kits by 2021, predicts Futuresource
Consulting, a U.K.-based marketresearch firm.
"You're going to see increasing
adoption of this immersive technology," said Ben Davis, a senior analyst for the group.
Signs of Movement
Other experts, however, say any
potential growth will depend on
how the field navigates as-yet unanswered questions about virtual
reality's classroom value and longterm impact on children.
In addition, researchers have
started to highlight a range of
mostly unexplored ethical considerations around VR use with children.
Chief among them: Virtual reality
can be a powerful trigger for existing emotional and psychological
issues, and scientists are only just
beginning to understand how exposure to immersive virtual environments affects children's brains and
The net result, said Julie Evans,
the CEO of the nonprofit group Project Tomorrow, is that K-12 educators
and policymakers would be wise to
keep an eye on VR's potential-but
not overestimate the future benefits.
"VR is the most exciting stuff on
the showroom floor right now, so
some people are getting really jazzed
up," Evans said. "But vendors still
aren't addressing fundamental challenges to effective implementation,
and there needs to be a better justification for why schools should invest
in these technologies," she said.
Virtual reality typically involves a
computer-generated immersive environment that users can interact
with in ways that feel real.
The requisite hardware ranges
from inexpensive viewers that can
be paired with users' existing smartphones, to $600 immersive headsets
that require significant computing
power to operate.
So far, the technology industry's
primary focus has been on consumers, where VR is seen as a potential
game changer in such fields as entertainment and gaming.
But companies small and large
have also begun trying to make inroads in education.
At Bett, for example, no fewer
than 18 vendors touted VR products
With its popular Cardboard and
Expeditions products, Google has
pushed to make "virtual field trips"
an everyday experience for K-12
And Facebook recently announced
it would give every high school in
Arkansas a virtual-reality package,
consisting of computers, cameras,
and its Oculus Rift headset.
Such "classroom kits" could be a
meaningful part of the next wave of
technology adoption in U.S. schools,
Davis of Futuresource Consulting
said during a presentation at the
One reason: By 2020, Davis said,
about half the computers shipped
to U.S. schools will be to replace
existing devices, especially all the
Chromebooks that districts bought
in recent years. To help create a
market for their VR products, vendors may push to include virtualreality hardware as part of those
refresher packages, even if it means
a financial loss in the near term.
"The industry is now looking to
vertical markets to find a home" for
the technology, Davis said.
Still a Novelty
Still, some analysts remain doubtful that any tipping point is imminent.
For decades, VR in education has
been subject to hype cycles, with hyperbolic predictions of a classroom
revolution falling flat in the real
And even as VR hardware has improved and become more affordable,
the field has suffered from a dearth
of content that has clear educational value beyond simply engaging
As a result, said Trace Urdan,
the managing director of market
research firm Tyton Partners and
a longtime observer of the ed-tech
market, the technology industry has
yet to make a compelling case that
schools should be investing scarce
dollars in VR instead of other needs.
"I still think VR is a cool product
10 | EDUCATION WEEK | February 14, 2018 | www.edweek.org
AJ Mast for Education Week-File
Virtual Reality in K-12
Raising High Hopes
And Serious Concerns
in search of a market," Urdan said.
"I absolutely believe this is going to
be a thing in the future, but I'd be
surprised if anything meaningful
erupted in the next year or two."
Evans of Project Tomorrow concurred.
In 2016, just 5 percent of more
than 38,000 U.S. teachers surveyed
as part of the group's annual Speak
Up project reported having implemented VR or augmented reality
(which overlays virtual images on
the real world) in their classrooms.
Data from the group's 2017 survey are still being tabulated, Evans
said, but there does not appear to
have been any meaningful change
in that figure.
For the time being, Evans said,
most of the enthusiasm for VR
seems confined to the relative handful of "techie" educators who tend to
be on the leading edge of figuring
out how any new technology may
translate in the classroom.
That was the case at the annual
EduCon conference in Philadelphia.
Among the small group that took
part in a conversation on VR was
Rob Muntz, a visual-arts teacher
at the private Malvern Preparatory
School outside the city.
When his school got an advanced
VR headset last year, Muntz said,
his mind ran wild with the possibilities, including having students
in his sculpture class build virtualreality sets for the school play.
"It would be like shows on HGTV,
when they let [prospective homebuyers] walk around a simulation of
what the house will look like after
it's been remodeled," he said.
Still, much of the conversation focused on ethical concerns about VR
use with children.
The session was run by staff members from foundry10, a research
group founded with support from
Gabe Newell, the CEO of gaming
company Valve, the maker of the
HTC Vive virtual-reality headset.
Over the past three years,
foundry10 has provided a mix of VR
kits at no cost to 30 classrooms in
the United States and Canada, then
Triston Dunkerson, center,
uses a VR viewer to go on a
virtual field trip to a rainforest
during a class at Chapelwood
Elementary School in
Indianapolis last spring.
conducted interviews, observations,
and surveys about how the technology is used.
Foundry10 CEO Lisa Castanada,
a former teacher, said students who
try VR typically like it, especially
when they are able to interact with
a fully-immersive virtual world.
There are also signs that VR can in
some circumstances move beyond
the "wow factor," becoming a valuable tool for deepening students'
understanding of events and ideas,
But there's a growing list of concerns related to even short-term
About 16 percent of the students
that foundry10 surveyed experienced symptoms of physical discomfort when using it, including nausea,
dizziness, and headaches.
About 7 percent were psychologically disconcerted by the experience,
saying that immersive simulations
of swimming underwater with a
blue whale or riding a roller coaster
were too intense or triggered fears
And so far, Castanada said,
there's limited evidence to support
one of virtual reality's central selling points for a K-12 world now obsessed with social-emotional learning: that it's the "ultimate empathy
machine" (a phrase coined by filmmaker Chris Milk, the creator of an
immersive virtual-reality experience
that puts users inside a Syrian refugee camp.)
Even after using the technology,
most students "weren't sold on the
fact that VR was going to help them
understand other people better,"
Then there are the longer-term
Researchers know very little
about how moving back and forth
between reality and immersive virtual environments affects the brains
of children, especially those who
may have difficulty distinguishing
between the two.
Foundry10 found both students and
teachers surprisingly willing to trust
the accuracy and truthfulness of VR
content, raising questions about what
happens when the medium is eventually used for advertising or to spread
misinformation and propaganda.
And VR has the potential, at least,
to capture information on everything from users' physiological reactions to their emotional states, raising questions about data-privacy
Some manufacturers of consumer
VR technology have quietly begun
acknowledging such fears. Samsung,
for example, recently recommended
that its GearVR viewer not be used
by children younger than 13.
Companies such as zSpace are
also trying to market VR technology
that doesn't involve headsets and
is specifically designed for the K-12
market. The focus is on student collaboration and high-quality educational content that teachers introduce and explain, a spokesman said.
Given the combination of hype
and uncertainty in the field, Castanada said, it's important that
educators be careful and thoughtful
when it comes to VR.
"There's definitely something
there," she said. "But it's rolling out
faster than we understand it, for
Benjamin Herold reported from
Philadelphia, Michele Molnar from
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