A Virtual Double-Edged Sword

The latest issue of Popular Science features an article by Amy Westervelt that describes the transformative potential of virtual reality. Westervelt cites a number of studies that find virtual reality can make a deep, lasting impression on its users, due to the immersive nature of the medium. When users feel like they are in an authentic environment, the experience stays with them longer, and in a more meaningful way than if the watched the same content on television, for example.

Currently, much of the driving force behind virtual reality is entertainment. Immersive games and 360 degree movie-watching experiences are taking advantage of increased computing power and a growing number of consumer VR hardware. The promise of these lasting experiences for education are particularly interesting to me, however. First and foremost, if VR offers a medium that results in a deeper connection to the content, that in itself if an important finding. Beyond just delivering the content through a new channel, though, is only the beginning.

VR has the potential to completely change the way students experience the content that they are studying. Virtual science labs could give students the opportunity to safely explore the physical world in ways that they could never do in a traditional setting. History students could do more than watch an historic event, they could actually attend. English classes could take field trips to fictional worlds and meet classic literary characters. The possibilities are staggering.

There is, however, another aspect of the impact of VR that needs to be carefully considered. As Westervelt’s article points out, with any technology there is the potential for abuse. Schools around the world are already dealing with the impact that cyberbullying can have on students. The constant connectivity and relative anonymity of online communication can have devastating results. What happens when the bullying is not just pervasive, but immersive? The experience may be virtual, but the entire point of VR is to make the experience authentic. And if the connection to the experience is deeper in VR than in other channels, we must tread very carefully when introducing students to these types of environments.

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