The Problem with VR

Virtual reality headsets seem like what science fiction movies portrayed the future as looking like to their audience. It seems wild that people could hold a device to their head and experience walking the Great Wall of China or hiking up Machu Picchu without leaving the room! In one of my early Online Innovation and Design program classes, I took a class called current topics in educational technology. One unit was entirely dedicated to AR, VR, and AI. I have never seen those tools being used in the classroom, and became fascinated with the idea of it. Though it is exciting to think about, there are more cons that come to mind rather than pros when talking about virtual reality (VR) headsets in the classroom. In the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, there was an article titled: Pedagogy of Productive Failure: Navigating the Challenges of Integrating VR into the Classroom. I had read a lot of forward thinking ideas and innovating implementations about VR in the classroom, but never did I read anything about the failures and challenges of implementing this futuristic technology. This review will summarize the article by talking about the case study they conducted in educational settings and the major issues found to be problematic for educators during the implementation process.

The goal was to develop tools, centered on the theory, Focused Associational Thinking (also referred to as FAT) to engage students in different problem solving techniques. The project lasted around eighteen months. FAT is a type of “divergent thinking” and was the basis to make sure that the virtual reality tools would play a part in assisting creative and innovative thinking. The first attempt was through a brainstorming activity. Participants / students were encouraged to make connections between the items they say on the screen. When looking at one of the example figures in the article, it looks like there are random combinations such as: dog, dinosaur, and cactus another being swimming pool, fire extinguisher, and weightlifter. Their goal was to encourage connections – no matter if they felt wrong or silly, what on earth could possibly connect these three random things. They used this for brainstorming for an English or math course or inspiration activities for writers and composers. It is to help create that creative thinking that could help produce new work through those made-up connections. It sounds like an interesting way to implement VR technology into all classrooms, no matter the subject. Every student needs a brainstorm session or a burst of inspiration. I would have loved to hear some of the answers that students came up with through those random pairings.

Though the concept was interesting, it did not all go swimmingly. One of the problems is the cost. In this case study, they decided to go with the Google Cardboard model. It is an inexpensive (for virtual reality sets) option that requires following the instructions on folding and a smart phone to place inside. This is by far the best option for schools that are purchasing all a classroom or school wide set of VR sets. The researchers of this study were building the technology, and were new to it (which in itself is more cause for problems, but that is later in the paper). Some of the problems include: you are stuck with the limit of a smart phone screen or quality, not everyone has smart phones, or the same smart phones, the VR applications were limited for what they need to accomplish. If you want a headset that is specifically for VR and VR applications, you could splurge on the very popular Oculus headset, but each headset is around $400 – which is not feasible for an institution to be purchasing a classroom or school wide set. Another difference besides the hefty price tag on the Oculus, is that with its hand held controls, the VR system can track body movements in addition to head movements. The Google Cardboard cannot track body movements. This can make the experience less accurate and in some cases less meaningful as the equipment won’t work properly.

The second issue researchers encountered, and something I’ve personally experienced is the disorienting nature of a VR headset causing students to feel dizzy and sick. In a humorous remark in the article it said that some students argued that while VR has the capability of transporting you anywhere, not all students want to be moved. Developers believe that the cause of this “simulation sickness” is due to a lag such as when a user turns their head and the environment slowly updates to reflect that rotation. Having those handheld tools could minimize the sickness (to a small degree) as the machine could be aware of the head moving before it does, but they haven’t found a way to stop the temporary illness. Students who opted out of the virtual reality activities due to their sensitivity to the sickness had to complete the task on paper. The pen and paper task had the exact same objects to find a connection, but it looses some of it’s “magic” as the student is not immersed in the activity. When I tried an Oculus headset for the first time, I had to sit down afterwards, there is something disorienting about the process for me and I’m sure many others. I don’t get motion sick or sick in general very easily, so I imagine a lot of students would be sensitive to this technology. This is a major drawback to use it in classrooms.

The last problematic issue that I’ll touch on in this review is the complexity of virtual reality. As mentioned before, the researchers were building this technology / application before testing or as they were testing. They underestimated the amount of detail needed to fill for the application. If you are placing you students in a large, virtual room, there are 360 degrees of detail that need to be accounted for when programming. It requires a massive amount of memory and bandwidth to create something for student’s smartphone to accommodate. The design can fall short resulting in an unsatisfactory experience for students as a user such as clunky exit screens, movement, saving work. The way the room is designed can also cause sickness to students as well. In the study, most of the “simulation sickness” was due to the design of how the application started by looking down and students had to look up and forward to start.

Though the article started on an optimistic note before the study began, in one of the concluding sentences it reads: “… the FAT-VR project will, we suspect, long hold an intellectual and emotionally ambiguous place in our minds” (Melo 2019). Personally, I am still intrigued by implementing virtual reality in the classroom, but it was interesting to read about the pitfalls of someone else’s experiment. Though a lot of their issues were due to the researchers creating the VR application themselves, I would have never thought about the limitations of certain headsets or students getting sick.

If you are interested about virtual reality in the classroom, there are several interesting videos on YouTube or applications. A few I suggest you check out are:

References

Melo, M., Bentley, E., McAllister, K., & Cortez, J. (2019). Pedagogy of Productive Failure: Navigating the Challenges of Integrating VR into the Classroom. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 12(1), 1-19. doi:https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jose_Cortez2/publication/330928700_Pedagogy_of_Productive_Failure_Navigating_the_Challenges_of_Integrating_VR_into_the_Classroom/links/5c61c25b92851c48a9cd3b97/Pedagogy-of-Productive-Failure-Navigating-the-Challenges-of-Integrating-VR-into-the-Classroom.pdf

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