If it's two things you'd think belong nowhere near a classroom, it's immersive video games and Facebook. But not at Jackson School, a primary and secondary school outside of Melbourne. It's become one of a handful of tester schools for Oculus Rift in the classroom, even despite its link to new parent company Facebook.
"We’ve been using Oculus Rift to improve teaching students with disabilities, as well as potential therapeutic benefits for students with autism," says Mathieu Marunczyn, IT coordinator and a teacher at Jackson School. Students play Blue Marble, a demo game that lets players listen to their favorite music while exploring outer space. Marunczyn says that the game’s peaceful chill-out effect is central to its usefulness as a classroom aid. "It allows them space away from usual school surroundings," he says.
Another Oculus demo he’s been using at Jackson School is Titans of Space. It’s a VR game that takes players on a tour of outer space, zooming in on planets and shrinking them down to one millionth their actual size. Marunczyn says the kids think the game is fun, but it’s also jammed with actual educational content, like how many kilometers across each planet is.
But is virtual reality really learning, or is this just an expensive digital babysitter? And what happens when Facebook uses its enormous resources to push its agenda into education, whatever that might be? Is Oculus a Trojan horse?
In his Facebook.com blog post detailing his goals for Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg wrote: "We're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences... Imagine studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world just by putting on goggles in your home." So it's clear FB has education on its VR radar.
"Facebook has access to almost one fifth of the planet," says VR expert Jeremy Bailenson. "Given Mark Zuckerberg has donated close to a billion dollars to charity, lots of it to education, I am hopeful that he can provide a unique lever to get the tech to classrooms." Bailenson founded Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which studies the relationship between humans and VR technologies. He thinks that Facebook’s inherent reach on the global populace could give VR the exposure it needs to become a mainstream utility.
And he says that once VR actually reaches schools, students will have an easy time using it, and teachers will have an easy time teaching it.
"The interface to VR is simpler than a computer," Bailenson says. "Instead of using an interface, a student simply turns her head or moves her arms." He says it’s more natural-feeling, and more closely matches "learning templates we use in the real world."
But is this a good thing?
"As the technology gets more accessible and compelling, we need to manage the possible addictive aspects of immersive virtual reality," says Bailenson. And while Twitter and even Facebook have been used in classrooms to better connect teachers with students and their parents, Bailenson says "with VR, social networking will feel like a block party." An exceedingly addictive, virtual block party where you can do whatever you want with impunity. "There are no rules in VR," Bailenson says. "We can alter art without damaging it."
Wiebe de Jager is the guy making that experience possible. He's marketing manager at Europeana, a huge archive of over 30 million historical items from over 2,000 of Europe’s museums and libraries. They’ve teamed with Dutch design agency ArchiVision to create a small, fictional museum that contains works from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. Users can "walk" around the facility and look at virtual replicas of real-life masterpieces.
De Jager points out that consumer-targeted VR is developing at breakneck pace, and "there is still no standard whatsoever." He warns organizations: "When developing VR applications, be careful not to bet on the wrong horse."
Still, Facebook may be able to do less damage to this potential learning tool than over-protective technophobic parents.
"As with anything new in education, you’re immediately going to be faced with parents and staff members who will be concerned about its implications," Marunczyn says. "I’ve had a few people criticize me online for using the Rift with my students as it if were something barbaric or experimental." He says that since VR is so new, some people don’t understand it, and it makes them uncomfortable or scared to have their kids exposed to it.
So while Facebook’s influence could help extend Oculus Rift’s reach in education, it doesn’t change the fact that mainstream VR for consumers is in such infancy that educators’ real goal should be familiarizing themselves with VR—as much as possible and as early as possible. But no matter how tremendous virtual reality’s impact on education might be, one thing will always be true, says Marunczyn: "Nothing can replace a great teacher."