AR/VR EdTech: Experts Discuss Past Issues & Future Possibilities of Augmented and Virtual Reality

As the broader AR/VR technology market has drawn over $2 billion in venture capital investment and competing products from the likes of Facebook (Oculus), Google (DayDream, Cardboard), Microsoft (HoloLens), Samsung, and Sony (Playstation), applications in education are following quickly.

While much of the buzz around AR/VR technology has been positive, in two back-to-back presentations at SXSWedu, a more skeptical view was taken, highlighting various problems with the adoption of AR/VR within the education market.

Evan Schiff, Product Development Manager for Kaplan in London, asked attendees if they remembered Second Life, and how it was going to revolutionize education.

Dr. Herb Coleman, Director of Campus Technology Services at the Austin Community College, noted that schools will be convinced that they need some kind of VR program, as they were with 3D video previously. But to date, all of this technology still has limited specific outcomes (i.e., simulations in medicine) and none of this necessarily needs to be VR.

Schiff had also raised this point noting that schools are still asking for efficacy around immersive learning solutions, but the truth is, we don’t know — what we do know about is only around “VR used in specific situations with specific students from specific socio-economic backgrounds with teachers and administrators that support that.”

In a concluding bit (that might be humorous were it not describing very real physical side effects), Coleman read from various manufacturers’ product safety labels, highlighting that no VR device is intended for children under 13. And even with older children, adult supervision is recommended. But most shockingly, these products explicitly warn that their use may result in the reduction of motor vehicle abilities and visual development, or could even cause burns.

Against this backdrop, several universities and publishers shared more promising views, ranging from Panoform, a simple and affordable system to create 360-degree videos with Google Cardboard (which retails for $15) out of North Carolina State University’s Immersive Experience Lab, to Pearson’s new nursing simulation programs launching for the Microsoft HoloLens (which retails for $3,000).

I had the chance to both demo Pearson’s nursing product on the HoloLens and to sit down with Mark Christian, Global Director of Immersive Learning, to discuss Pearson’s initiatives further.

Full interview with Mark Christian, Pearson Education:

Christian noted Pearson’s efforts started initially three years ago around 3D video. Through their continued work in interactive 3D video, they started working on VR, and partnered with Microsoft about a year ago to develop holographic learning content.

Christian’s team has now established a “proof of concept” and developed nearly a half dozen apps, for nursing in higher education, as well as high school level curricula in math, commerce and economics, chemistry, and history. Pearson is committed to bringing these education apps and mixed reality learning experiences to the education market in 2018.

Questioned about some of the other speakers’ skepticism on AR/VR for education, Christian noted Second Life was a more limited MMO (Massive, Multiplayer Online Game) and education was a late adopter of such.

In the case of AR/VR, edtech is leading the adoption of this new technology and, besides, the ability to bring the outside world into the classroom has long been the dream of every educator.

Christian was joined by Sharon Decker, the Covenant Health System endowed chair in simulation and nursing education at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

Decker shared several longitudinal studies, which have shown that simulations can substitute as much as 50% of education “appropriately and with the same educational outcomes.”

In addition to the pedagogical value, simulations also help address operational concerns, such as the faculty shortages besetting healthcare education (particularly in states like Texas which have instituting hiring freezes and are not replacing retiring educators).

While medicine and applied healthcare has long been the killer app for such new technology, Christian shared that some of their most simple apps are potentially their most effective.

For example, Pearson’s new math app allows teachers to bring alive any 3D concept previously limited to approximated drawings and other 2D representation through simple geometric models. Pearson is currently studying their efficacy with hundreds of students using these new tools in their daily learning; a pilot that will be expanded to several thousand students in the fall.

Christian stated that no one is doing as broad of research around such broad curricula as Pearson.

Decker noted that students expect more today. Certainly, this all must be proven out with research, but in her experience, students that use new technology such as simulations, find it enjoyable, learn more and become both more competent and more confident in themselves.

With regular exposure, Decker has seen students forget it is all just a clinical lab and become truly immersed. The biggest challenge she sees is convincing educators to adopt these products, with much of their resistance borne of wanting to remain the perceived expert on any new tool and avoid “looking like a fool,” particularly with their students so versant in new technology.

Learn more about what Pearson is doing in this interview with Angie McAllister about AI technology:

Christopher Nyren

Christopher Nyren

A Chicagoan with 15 years of strategic investment experience in the education markets, Christopher Nyren (@cnyren) is the founder of both Educated Ventures, an education industry-focused advisory and seed investment firm, and Educelerate, a not-for-profit network to foster startup ventures focused on education technology and innovation. When not sharing his expertise on edtech investment, Christopher enjoys plane-hopping and collecting rare craft brews.