How virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality could be used in education

vr in classroom istock steve debenport

Virtual, augmented and mixed reality could bring a wealth of learning resources to schools and universities across the country, but how exactly could it be used and what are its drawbacks?


Virtual reality is well publicised in the world of gaming, with VR products flooding shops and magazines over the past few years. In education, some schools are already trialling VR as a way of offering new and engaging ways of teaching and learning.  

Mixed reality and augmented reality, while less familiar in the education space, has proved to be successful in other areas such as museums and construction. But the technology used in these environments could easily be translated to school and universities. 

Like with most things, the biggest barrier to full adoption of these technologies in education is cost. And while mobile VR such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR offer great (and cheap) alternatives to full VR units, the VR apps available are still somewhat limited. 

On the other hand, mixed reality and augmented reality in theory offer the best learning experience, with AR offering - in the long term - a relatively cost-effective option for schools to provide classwork that can work nicely with AR apps, making the content 'come alive' in the classroom. 

Mixed reality products like Microsoft's HoloLens offers great potential in education with benefits for architecture and medicine training being well promoted by the tech giant. However, as Microsoft only offers two options, the developer HoloLens coming in at £2,179 and the enterprise model costing £4,529, the cost of this could be enough for education institutions to write it off completely. 

Read next: Is VR ready for business use? Six industries getting to grips with virtual reality

How could virtual reality be used in education?

Virtual reality uses a computer to create a simulated environment. Users are within that simulated world, rather than outside looking in like in AR and MR.

There are a few different types of VR, all offering different levels of immersion.

Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear provides mobile VR, that requires users to place their smartphones in a headset.

VR units such as the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR provides a totally immersive experience, and are connected to a computer (or a PlayStation in regards to the PS VR).

The benefits of virtual reality units in education are pretty clear; more student engagement, faster learning and better quality of education.

And, if you believe the hype, VR could reduce classroom disruptions from children with behavioural difficulties.

For example, a VR history class could transport students to Ancient Egypt to see how they lived and learn about the early Egyptian civilisation in great detail.

But primary and secondary education is just part of the education sector that could benefit from virtual reality.

There could be advantages for higher education institutions too, such as medical schools at universities which could benefit greatly. For example, students could get to grips with the intricacies of a surgery, go inside the human body to fully understand how things work and simulate any real life medical situation.

Speaking at Bett in London last week, University of Leicester’s educational designer, Terese Bird described how important emerging tech is in the medical field. Bird highlighted how VR videos of real life surgery could help medical students understand how the body works and the steps taken in any surgery. 

Away from medicine, university courses such as architecture and those requiring technical drawings would definitely benefit from VR. Architecture students could see in real time how their designs could work, or not work, what need changing and how it could look in the real world.

VR in education: pros and cons

The main drawback of VR is price and accessibility. Some universities and schools might not want to dedicate a large chunk of their budgets to such an emerging technology while others will not be able to afford it at all regardless.

If the consumer prices of VR units are much to go by, equipping one or more departments at a university, or subjects in a school could be hard to justify.

Another drawback is content, specifically the applications that will run alongside the VR hardware. While there are various VR videos on YouTube and a lot of apps available for both iOS and Android, a lot of this content is not high quality or made specifically for educational purposes.

However, there are a handful of companies out there that offer both the hardware and educational content for schools, and it's these companies that could make VR more accessible to schools.

"The most complex side of VR is the content itself. We make the content from zero, entirely in-house and we have subject specialists who go through a visualisation process and then programmers who try to make that happen," said Colin Bethell, director at classroom VR firm Veative, speaking to Computerworld UK at education technology conference Bett last week.

But while the 'package deal' approach will appeal to some schools as it offers convenience and tailored content, the cost could out-price a large number of schools.

Even though VR units are likely to come down in price, until then mass use of VR in the classroom or lecture hall will be limited, if there at all. But that’s not to say some early adopter establishments won’t invest in VR and take advantage of its powerful interactive learning.

It seems the most realistic or attainable form of VR will come in cardboard form. In secondary schools, most students will have a mobile phone and Google Cardboard, for example, cost about £5 each, which is a long way off other options. 

Credit: iStock/Izabela Habur

How could augmented reality be used in education?

Augmented reality overlays computer-generated images and videos on a real-time environment by using markers such as a movement, barcode or physical object that will act as a trigger and a method of interaction that the user is seeing ‘on screen’.

In most cases, lessons revolve around a certain textbook and augmented reality could enable its images to ‘pop out’ and make the textbook become an interactive lesson.

Many schools across the UK offer tablets to students and these tablets (or even their own smartphones) could be placed over images in the book enabling it to provide an AR ‘video’ the student.

For example, biology students studying the human circulatory system could place their device over a textbook image and see the heart move and show in great detail how blood is pumped around the body. And this is likely to improve students concentration and enthusiasm.

Keeping practicalities in mind, AR will offer more accessibility to a broader range of schools, as the technology itself is easier to implement within the classroom. Once established (i.e. sufficient AR-enabled textbooks and apps are created), AR should be much cheaper to implement across schools with limited budgets.

So, AR might be the better choice for schools that don’t want to commit to full VR headsets and VR capable PCs.

But AR isn’t just limited to the classroom. The potential for its use on class trips and at home is another thing that augmented reality can provide that VR cannot.

For example, teachers could provide a homework sheet with ‘markers’ on them for students to use with their smartphones at home.

While cost is a running theme when implementing VR, AR and MR, it's an important factor, and in some school the most important metric. Once AR materials (books, task sheets, textbooks and more) are set up and the apps and content is made, implementing AR is a pretty cheap option for children with smartphones or schools offering tablets. 

It's likely that a subscription AR package will be used by schools to get curriculum-based AR apps and in theory the benefits to learning are huge. The only question is when is this going to happen?

How could mixed reality be used in education?

Mixed reality, put simply, is a mix between real life and virtual worlds, sometimes described as a mix between VR and AR and augmented virtuality (AV).

Products like Microsoft’s HoloLens offer enterprise mixed reality, with HoloLens claiming it to be the ‘first self-contained, holographic computer’.

"What we're seeing is a huge amount of interest in how people can learn in 3D. Traditionally the way that people have been learning has been with books and all of that is obviously 2D, and is not necessarily the way that everyone likes to learn," said Microsoft HoloLen's senior director and commercial lead, Roger Walkden.

"What we're doing is giving people the opportunity to see real items and bring them to life in a classroom. That is a very impactful way for people to figure out how they can really get a feel for an item and or to understand more about a real life item like the anatomy of the body," added Walkden.

Like augmented reality, MR can be used to provide training to medical staff, construction workers and even town planners. 

As mixed reality projects a virtual image or video on a real world scenario, it is ideal for people at university-level studying subjects that require exceptional details and technical accuracy.

A prime example being civil engineers that need to find pressure spots and weaknesses in their bridge designs. Or perhaps someone studying brain function that needs to see what happens to the brain if its been put under immense stress. 

However, mixed reality does have a few flaws. As it is enterprise-led, it's less accessible to primary and high schools as it requires a lot of time for implementation and the creation of the mixed reality applications themselves.

While these schools could work with Microsoft to create educational apps, the cost of this - while not known - would probably be more than what an average school could afford.

However, in 2016, Microsoft partnered with educational materials firm Pearson to create educational applications and mixed reality learning tools for the HoloLens. These tools are to be used across a broad range of areas such as nursing, construction and engineering, and working with colleges, universities, and secondary schools in the US.

If this is a success, it could be the case that Microsoft offer these educational services to UK schools and colleges in future.

Right now, it seems that the most accessible - in both price and set up - is mobile VR, however the 'experience' is very limited, not only by the apps on the market but also by the level of student interaction that mobile VR can provide. Whereas, AR and mixed reality could be the next step up for early-adopting schools.

The benefits of VR in classrooms could be huge and for some schools a reality in the future, but for now it seems that the technology might be better used at universities where the budget and access to these technologies is much higher.