While the architects of tomorrow perform with the tools of today, no mind is bound by the constraints of its own era. This is because minds operate in a world of holograms on top of physical reality, where there are more dimensions than time and space. Empowering the mind to create in this world is an ongoing process, enabled by abstract projections whereby mouths, bodies, and hands produce the output of the brain.
Over time we have moved from teaching each other and our progeny with the sounds of our language, the movement of our hands, and the scripture of our traditions. The traces of our collective education can be seen in the paintings we’ve left in caves, the scrolls stored in vases, or the pillars of once vast libraries. Today we teach with projectors and their slide presentations, videocasts, and whiteboards. Interspersed in the reading and writing will sometimes be a film, diagram, or song. Things to help us remember, things to help us reason.
There are many dimensions to education, but the 2nd dimension is the most often utilized. For good reason. We are able to convey powerful ideas that support structures of knowledge that build airplanes, skyscrapers, poetry, and immunology all with the numeri-letters or pictographs of our language. Over the past few decades we have integrated the 3rd dimension, sometimes to the very core of a discipline’s pedagogy. A few courses in architecture or mechanical design illustrate this. Today, the 3rd dimension has spread its educational utility to other domains, like art and science, where students are allowed to explore and dissect what might be scarce or untouchable in their classroom.
Imagine with me a girl of 13, named Beatrice. She is a Californian nearing the end of the 8th grade, the end of middle school. She begins high school in a mere five months and says that she is “Excited for high school, because I’ll finally get to choose my own classes.” Beatrice is a good student with an affinity towards art and a habit of making her own stories. She often builds her creative ideas off of the content of her coursework or the from the memories she makes with her friends, in and out of school. While she sketches everyday, she is also one to explore mediums and practices. Geometric expression with scissors and paper; water color stamps made by cutting fruits and vegetables in half; collages of her math homework; compositions of photographs she takes on the walk home from school.
Beatrice is comfortable on the computer and uses her smartphone frequently throughout the day, exploring apps that expand her creative abilities, discovering she has things to say about topics she learns of, through social media. Because she is curious and capable with technology, she’s been exposed to Google Cardboard and has used it a few times. Her Earth Sciences teacher brought in a few Cardboards for the class to try on one day. The virtual experiences she tried in that class were primarily passive, but gave her a deeper glimpse into the concepts she was learning from her textbook and teacher.
Back to our original discussion: How might Virtual Reality build Beatrice’s capacity to learn?
We need to consider the accessibility and interactivity necessary for a learning setting. The two are intertwined, as higher-end virtual reality hardware will often have systems that deepen the level of interactivity for any given experience. But virtual reality built for mobile phone technology will be more accessible, both in price and portability.
Perhaps a middle ground can be struck in a real-life classroom situation. Beatrice’s middle school, for example, might have a high end VR system in the library, so that students can experience a virtual lesson in higher fidelity and with more interactivity. But the teacher might also leverage VR content for the student to experience at home, perhaps a lesson in anatomy or geography, using their personal smartphone.
The interactivity aspect of education is often contingent on the desired outcome of a course. For schooling that requires a student body to recite facts, timelines, or even analysis, little interactivity in the content is necessarily required. However, for an education that requires problem-solving, prototyping, presentation, or modeling, a rather high degree of interactivity is required. High end virtual reality systems have begun to ship with specialized handsets that enable immersive interactivity, but the mobile VR industry is starting to develop its own set of handheld devices for interactivity by leveraging the bluetooth capabilities built into smartphones. So interactivity in and of itself isn’t too limiting, although the degree of interactivity likely relies on the price point of you controller.
So let’s go back to Beatrice’s education. In history class Beatrice is learning about the Venetian empire in 16th century Europe. She learns about their massive naval fleets, their beautiful architecture, their flourishing art. After the typical class of slides, videos, and worksheets, Beatrice’s teacher asks all the students to schedule an appointment in the library with the school’s HTC Vive system. The Vive in this school utilizes the Engage VR education system, so the lesson on Venice is interspersed with 3D animations that illustrate the operation of the Venetian ships and warcraft. At dispersed waypoints throughout the lesson, the teacher has set up virtual screens where he describes the routes of trade that flowed through Venice and its territories. Behind these screens, history unfolds before the children.
The homework assignment is an easter egg hunt in the workshop of a master sculptor in Venice, giving the students insight into what the physical spaces and day-to-day life might be like for someone their age. This exploration is made possible by a VR content platform created by an organization like National Geographic or Discovery. The kids come back to the next class with descriptions of their experiences with the VR platform in the library and at home.
So what is the point of this exercise in imagination? To think about how and why we integrate technology into education generally, and why virtual reality is a tool worth that investment specifically. Now, Beatrice’s thought experiment is just a small example of how VR might work today, in a middle school setting. But the applications of VR in more abstract thinking like that in mathematics or engineering are endless. Educators have been theorizing ways to teach utilizing VR for decades, but the time hasn’t been right for the technology until now. So a call to action for all of us that love to learn, teach, and play: Let’s engage with the 3rd dimension.