Opening The Door to Virtual Reality – initial approaches to integrating VR in the classroom

April 4, 2021

In this article Steve Bambury provides practical tips and ideas for any teachers considering VR integration in the classroom.

Opening The Door to Virtual Reality – initial approaches to integrating VR in the classroom

At least once a week I receive an email or DM on social media from an educator asking for advice about getting started with integrating VR in the classroom. It’s a broad question which is very difficult to wrap up in a simple one-size-fits-all answer. Multiple factors need to be considered from budgets to space to student age(s) and curriculum. When I dig a little deeper though, quite often what I find underlying this type of question is a general sense of confusion about VR hardware and the options available for schools. It’s an understandable issue since the Virtual Reality ecosystem is very different to say the mobile technology landscape of 2012 when iPads were essentially the only decent option. So, let me break down five potential choices for VR in the classroom, including the pros and the cons of each.  This will hopefully serve to help you get a better understanding of how you can start to integrate VR in your school or classroom.

VR in the Classroom Option 1: No VR hardware at all

Option 1 is without a doubt the easiest choice – simply don’t use any VR hardware (yet). Many lower-level immersive experiences are device-agnostic and will work on any device including laptops and tablets (which are the better choice as the gyroscope allows students to move the tablet around to engage with the experience). Students of any age can engage with 360° images and videos this way, and a vast range of 360° media can be found online for free. Nearpod is another great option, with their Virtual Field Trips allowing students to engage with a huge library of lessons and activities, enriched with 360° media.  This is a great starting point for anyone introducing VR in the classroom.

There has also been an increase in WebVR content of late and since this content is hosted online it is also accessible on any device. Gabe Baker’s multi-user Frame VR project is a particularly noteworthy example in this regard. Alternatively, you could harness the mobile/desktop versions of some of the most popular VR platforms such as ENGAGE, AltSpace and Rec Room as a stepping stone towards the real VR experience.

So, does this mean that VR hardware is a complete waste of time? Of course not, but if budgetary limitations have your initiative throttled or your students are very young, it is worth remembering that you can dip your little toe in the virtual waters this way. It’s also a great workaround for schools during the current COVID-related logistics, as many countries have had to lock their shared tech away for the foreseeable future as they strive to limit the sharing of resources. By using the BYOD hardware which students are already using to engage with online learning, you can start to introduce some immersive VR learning experiences in the classroom right away.

Pros:

  • Harness existing hardware (mitigating capital expenditure)
  • Wide range of educational 360° media freely available online

Cons:

  • Lack of any genuine immersion without using headsets
  • Limited access to higher-end VR experiences

Option 2: Mobile VR headsets

I think I own more mobile VR headsets than I do pairs of socks. That being said, I have been amassing that collection since I first imported a foam EVA headset from the US back in 2014. Mobile headsets (i.e. the ones you put your mobile phone inside) seem very much to be facing extinction in the present day but can still be a viable option for schools. They’re dirt cheap and whilst there are a wide range of options and quality varies dramatically, there are some robust models which work well in classrooms. Personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Viewmaster headsets but the Merge VR and even some of the cheaper Chinese brands are also worth a look if this is the VR entry point for you.

Using mobile headsets as opposed to opting to access immersive media using tablets or laptops does give you access to a wider range of experiences since many mobile VR apps (e.g. the Inspyro ones) enforce a stereoscopic view, so without headsets, the learner is unable to readily engage with the content. It also means that your students can engage with the content in a more immersive way – from inside the experience rather than watching it on a screen they are holding. A word of caution though, most developers within the immersive tech field have abandoned the mobile world and every year more and more apps are mothballed with the launch of new mobile OS updates.

Another word of caution relates to expected expenditure. These headsets are very cheap, it’s true, but you do need to remember that you will likely need a bank of phones to power them. iPhones work great but are pricey and iPods are generally too small. Android devices need to be vetted carefully as not all contain a gyroscope and thus won’t support VR apps. Even some of the cheaper ones that do work, will run at shockingly low frame rates and thus will be more likely to induce motion sickness in users. BYOD can be an option here but if students have a wide range of phones, access may not be equitable – which is never a good approach.

Pros:

  • Headsets are very cheap to source
  • More options in terms of VR content
  • Great for simple experiences e.g. with younger students

Cons:

  • Headset quality and durability varies significantly
  • Devices to power headsets ramp up the overall expenditure
  • If BYOD is not standardised, student access may not be equitable

Option 3: Class VR

Without a doubt the most prevalent example of VR integration in the classroom I see deployed in schools here in Dubai is Class VR. I totally understand why, it is without a doubt the most turnkey, all-in-one solution available for schools right now (so much so that it’d actually be nice to see some of the bigger companies like Vive and Oculus follow their example!) Class VR headsets come in sets. Each set comes in a charging/storage case, similar to those used by Sphero these days. The headsets are connected and controlled by a web-based MDM style platform which teachers can use to control the flow of sessions (pause/send messages/direct focus/change media). This platform also allows the educator to build playlists of content from the impressively broad, and UK curriculum-aligned, library that Class VR boasts. Add in some strategic partnerships with leading educational platforms, such as CoSpaces and Thinglink and you really start to see why it’s been such a success. So, what’s the catch? Well… technically nothing as long as you understand what you’re getting up front. These are still essentially mobile VR-level headsets you see, don’t expect any Tilt Brush or similar room-scale experiences. In fact, don’t expect anything that isn’t part of the Class VR library as the content students can access is very much limited to their bank of 360° images, 360° video clips and 3D models, unless you subscribe to the aforementioned add-on integrations with CoSpaces and Thinglink. Technically you can upload your own 360° media but the process is quite cumbersome, especially if you want students to access a clip you’ve found on YouTube. Such a clip would need to be downloaded (in a suitable 360 format) and then reuploaded to the headsets and even then, you will often find that the fidelity has been compromised in the process.

If you are prepared to make this compromise in terms of open access to content, Class VR really is a great option since the classroom management tools, bank of 360° content and overall logistics all streamline the deployment process significantly. It’s also worth noting that these headsets can be used with Primary-aged students, with moderation built into the platform, which is a stumbling block we will confront as we move on to the more advanced headsets…

Pros:

  • Turnkey deployment
  • Cost effective solution
  • Teacher dashboard for sharing content and lesson management
  • UK curriculum aligned content
  • Suitable for younger students too (in moderation)
  • CoSpaces and Thinglink integration

Cons:

  • Experiences are broadly limited to 360° media and simple 3D models
  • Very limited access to content outside the Class VR ecosystem

Option 4: Oculus Quest

Rewind 18 months and it was becoming increasingly difficult to recommend any VR headset other than the Oculus Quest. At $300 it was incredibly affordable and it offered access to fully immersive, room-scale VR. Things just seemed to get better and better with the launch of hand-tracking and even the ability to use the accompanying charge lead to plug into a VR-ready PC to access higher-end experiences. No wonder it was such a success and so we eagerly awaited the launch of the Quest 2 at the tail end of 2020.

Whilst the Quest 2 was indeed another great device from Oculus, it came with an unexpected chaser which left a sour taste in a lot of mouths, especially within the education community. Zuckerberg announced that Oculus accounts were being discontinued and for all new devices, Facebook accounts would be required. This presented a huge issue for a lot of educational institutions where data policies (and opinions on Facebook in general) meant that Quest was no longer a viable option. I actually know multiple schools and colleges around the world that have already abandoned their Oculus hardware and sought alternative devices for this exact reason. The official party line from Oculus regarding this matter is that schools should be using the “Oculus for Business” programme not buying commercial headsets. Whilst there is logic here, this programme more than doubles the cost of each headset and STILL requires a Facebook Business account to run them. Oculus have stated that they will look at educational provision down the line, but for the short term their focus remains on the two verticals which offer the greatest financial rewards, gaming and social.  Nonetheless, there is no doubting the impact Quest 2 has already made during its short lifespan, with around 3 million sold already and every major development studio targeting it as the platform of choice. If your school/district is happy to deal with the Facebook data devils, then the Quest really is worth considering. It is a phenomenal, game-changing device which offers a wide range of apps, bolstered by additional content which is accessible via App Lab, SideQuest and (if you have the hardware) the PC-VR catalogue.

One final caveat, which I alluded to in the previous section, the recommended minimum age for Oculus Quest usage is 13. This decision actually dates back to the first Rift headset, when Facebook first acquired Oculus and was indeed put in place to align with the minimum age for Facebook accounts (what a coincidence huh?). It’s interesting to note that the common misconception is that the age limit was put in place due to health and safety concerns. In truth, using headsets with younger children is generally fine as long as you moderate the length and nature of the experience and monitor them closely throughout. Nonetheless, the Oculus age limit can also be a sticking point for some schools who are looking for hardware to use with younger students. Be cautious here, a single parent taking umbrage with a headset used below the “legal age” (which is what they will likely call it) can bring your whole virtual house of cards tumbling down quite rapidly.

Pros:

  • Low price tag (on commercial devices)
  • Standalone, room-scale VR without the need for high end PCs
  • Largest development community by far
  • Can be connected to a VR-ready PC to access higher-end content
  • Integration of hand-tracking
  • Headset is updated with new features quite regularly

Cons:

  • Facebook account requirement & data privacy concerns
  • Headset costs more than double on the Oculus for Business plan
  • Recommended minimum age of 13

Option 5: Every other room-scale VR headset

I know, I know – I’m cheating slightly by making option 5 a catch-all for every other 6DOF headset on the market but there is so much commonality between them and in a broad sense, none of them offer what the Oculus Quest does…including that Facebook data policy of course! Brand-wise I think that there are three other good options for schools: HTC Vive, Pico and HP. Whilst there are many other options out there (especially under the Windows “Mixed Reality” umbrella), these really are the best classroom use right now. In terms of what you might opt for, it depends on exactly what you’re looking to do with the hardware and whether you want standalone devices or PC-VR headsets.

Looking for standalone VR devices? Then the HTC Vive Focus Plus or Pico Neo 2 are both solid offerings. Both cost a lot more than an Oculus Quest 2 (commercial model) and have less abundant development communities. However, both can access Viveport stores and sideloading experiences is a viable option. Don’t forget you’ll need some sort of charging solution for these headsets too.

Want a headset to access higher-end VR content from sources like Steam? Then the HTC Cosmos/Vive Pro or HP Reverb G2 could be for you. Don’t forget that you’ll also need those VR-ready PCs to power them (but do try to forget that you could buy Quests for significantly less and then plug them into those PCs whenever you wanted).

You’re genuinely spoilt for choice and that’s never a bad thing. Lots of educational institutions have started looking at Picos as a replacement for Quests. These are not commercially available but you can reach out to Pico directly and they are generally happy to loan devices for trials. The Pico Neo 2 really is a great headset and is becoming increasingly popular within the enterprise sector. Vive’s Cosmos was broadly regarded as a missed opportunity but their recent lip-tracking release for the Pro is a genuine innovation and a sign that this bastion of the old VR guard still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. Meanwhile HP have somewhat quietly launched the Reverb G2 which is a genuinely first-rate PC VR headset at a relatively reasonable price.

Naturally if you start looking at these more expensive headsets, you will probably not be considering a 1:1 deployment. Cost and floor space mean that many schools have implemented VR labs as a means to offer higher-end VR experiences to learners. These can be stationary spaces or mobile “labs” on trolleys. How many headsets do you need? Well it depends on your class sizes of course but there are various systems and models which can be employed to ensure equitable access whilst limiting lost learning time. It’s also a good idea to pair students when working with room scale VR in the classroom as the user’s partner can act both as a spotter (to ensure they stay within a designated, safe space) and potentially a scribe.

Pros:

  • Range of headset brands and models for both standalone and PC VR
  • Access to a range of content sources (Steam/Viveport/Microsoft Store)
  • You don’t have to hand your data over to Facebook

Cons:

  • Headsets are more expensive (and may require VR-ready PCs)
  • Potentially less portable and flexible

So, there you go folks. Hopefully that was of some use and you’re not feeling even more confused now than when we began! You can always reach out to me on Twitter (@steve_bambury) or LinkedIn (SteveBamburyVR) for more support. The journey into the world of VR in the classroom is an engaging, exciting and eye-opening one. Take that first step. Even if it’s a small one. Just take it. You won’t regret it I promise.

Steve Bambury

Director – Digital Inception Consulting,

Dubai, UAE

Steve Bambury has worked in education for 19 years, ultimately taking on the role of Head of Digital Learning and Innovation across the JESS Dubai school group. Steve now works as an independent technology consultant, supporting schools and other organisations to integrate technology effectively. Steve is an Apple Distinguished Educator, a Microsoft Master Trainer, a two-time winner of the GESS Award for Best Use of ICT, winner of the 2018 BETT MEA Innovation Award and was named as the 2018 Education Trendsetter by EdTech Digest.  In 2017, he became the first educator to host professional development sessions inside virtual reality and in 2018 he co-hosted the world’s first global lesson inside VR alongside Pixar co-founder Loren Carpenter. Steve’s work with VR has been featured on Forbes Middle East, VR Focus, The Virtual Reality Podcast and many more.

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