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Virtual Reality and Education: Redefining Experience-based Learning Part-1

When I remember my time in school and inside the classroom, I am touched by a weird sensation that I can only describe as “nostalgic regret.” Kind of sounds paradoxically, but the nostalgia stems from the fact that there were times during classes when I actually had a lot of fun throwing chalks at each other when the teacher looked away from us, doodling like crazy at the back of each and every textbook, and jeering at the failed attempts that the teacher made to decrease the level of chaos in the classroom. The regret stems from the fact that only after completing school as well as college did I realize one fundamental thing; math, science, geography, history and language is much more interesting than I realized! If only I had paid enough attention during those times, I could have actually learned something interesting.

Well, even though I blame myself for the lack of interest and attention, there are several factors that did influence me to shift my attention from the blackboard to the playlist in my phone during a lecture in college. The biggest reason is that even though the topics that teachers were trying to teach might have been interesting, but the way that they were trying to put that across made it seem like they were machines that were programmed to blurt out random words at specific intervals, with the occasional change in tone and timbre of voice, which acted like advertisements vying for our attention in the middle of a long, drawn out black and white art film that was twelve hours long! I guess you know where I’m coming from here.

But what if we could change this so that children in the coming generation treat learning and education as life changing experiences rather than sanctioned, force-fed bits of random information that characterizes education today. Que the entry of VR!

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See and record rather than hear and note down!

I remember my first day in my new, posh school, where my class teacher took out an odd-looking light-emitting device and placed a transparent paper with writing on it. When she turned off the lights of the classroom, the entire whiteboard lit up with a yellow light that had large words on it. Even though this form of presentation may seem to be something really commonplace with regards to today’s standards, the fifteen-year-old in me was considerably overwhelmed to have his learning experience change from constantly looking at a teacher’s stern face in class to looking at writing on a wall of light!

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Imagine if we could take this a few, hundred steps forward. By introducing VR or even AR goggles into classrooms, teachers can convert the entire front part of the classroom into a large movie theater, where she could project her thoughts in the form of visual imagery, like pictures, videos and even snippets from Neil deGrasse Tyson, who addresses you directly and talks to you about the singularity and the cosmos. This would be a scenario where bunking a class would be considered as one of the “least-cool” things that a kid can do.

Hey kids, surprise field trip today! Destination; the Central Nervous System!

One of the biggest regrets that I have with regards to my school education is not having paid attention in science class! Once I got out of puberty and started to delve into biology, biotechnology, quantum physics and other such realms of exploration, I started to understand all that I had been missing out on! This is when I really started to blame my teachers for explaining immensely amazing topics in such mundane tones that made me think that they were captured like prisoners and forced to work here day in and day out as a sort of punishment for some inhumane acts that they might have done earlier in their lives. Well, yeah; I was a kid then and insulting adults was cool and not considered immoral amongst the majority of the children, except the nerds though.

What if one day, as I walk into the classroom, my teacher hands me a pair of Google’s cardboard VR goggles and tells me to get seated. The Google Cardboard is one of the most affordable VR goggles out there, which is essentially a goggle frame made out of cardboard that has a slot where you can fit in your smartphone. That’s all you need to have an immersive VR experience. So, then the teacher tells us that we will be learning about the nervous system today and to do so, we will be taking a ride through the spinal cord into the brain. The next thing I know, I am standing at the base of a large, throbbing neuron which suddenly lights up in blue due to the electrical signals that pass through it. Suddenly, the voice of my teacher appears and starts telling me what the different parts of the neuron are, as I slowly run my hand along its myelin sheath. Now, that would be education at its best and most profound folks!

Brain Cells and Deep Space elements of this image furnished by N

Virtual encounters of the unreal kind

You have to submit that assignment on the Aztec civilization tomorrow and have no clue as to who these people were. Instead of sulking and worrying about it, you decide to call up your teacher and spell out the magic line; “Hello Sir, I was wondering if we could have a virtual rendezvous. I wanted to brush up on that Aztec lesson that you took so that I can complete my project.” Instead of the stern and rigid reply that usually comes from a teacher when he is called up a night before a submission asking for a lesson at midnight, he replies in an excited, almost childlike enthusiastic manner, saying, “Sure, let’s catch up at the base of the pyramid in 20 minutes!”

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After 20 minutes, you plug in your VR headset and set up the motion detector cameras in your room so that it records all your movements and creates an entire artificial environment around you. You then find yourself in Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the great Aztec empire, with majestic pyramids rising up above you into the sky. As you gawk at the immense beauty and architectural prowess of the Aztecs, a voice calls you from behind and you see your professor running towards you across the grass plains of ancient Mexica. Both of you then take a walk around the place, examining hieroglyphs and sculptures in detail, looking at the way in which the Aztecs interact with each other, their culture, their beliefs, their appearance and so on. At the end of the 1 hour session, you have essentially learned the way of life of the Aztecs, have climbed the pyramid of the gods, sat with the high priest in the altar of the War God, and even witnessed a human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid.

What if we were able to use virtual reality to relive historic events or visit ancient civilization, where your teacher acts as a digital guide for you and curates an entire learning experience for you by taking you around the Pyramids of Giza, or by taking you into the center of a volcanic eruption to explain to you the texture and composition of rocks and lava.

Image Sources: [1], [2], [3], [4]

About Ashwin Ramesh

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