Virtual Voyages-Part I: Why Extended Reality Matters In Education

This is the first part of a 2-part series exploring ways for teachers to create XR experiences for their students. Check Part II for 4 specific ways to build those experiences.

Does Tech Matter?

It seems that any education technology conference I go to, extended reality activities are what everyone is talking about the most excitedly. It’s all “check out that new VR headset” or “this AR app is awesome” or “can mixed reality be scaled for schools”. But why? Is it just because it’s new and shiny? Or is there a real educational purpose? I mean there have a number of technologies that were supposed to “revolutionize classrooms” and while blackboards may have given way to whiteboards or interactive displays, many practices, for both good and bad, have remained. So why would these be any different?

This is a much longer discussion on the role of technology in classrooms which I have addressed before. People have thought technology, which has so drastically impacted other industries, would automatically alter the nature of education. In some ways, there have been changes like less chalk and integrated classrooms (in some places). The Socratic method remains a powerful way to question our own thinking and Thomas Edison was certain movies would make books and all other learning obsolete. Over time similar things have been said about the internet, online courses, tablets, and now virtual reality. Has that change really happened?

I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.

Thomas Edison
Technologies to Revolutionize Education
Printing Press
Motion Pictures
Mixed Reality
What ways has tech changed the classroom since the industrial revolution and in which ways does it remain the same?

Suffice it to say the success and effectiveness of technology in your classroom is determined more by how you define teaching than the equipment or software itself. If teaching is simply that one person holds special information or skills (like the times tables or sentence diagramming) that they impart or demonstrate to others then teachers will soon be obsolete. Why do I need you to tell me how far the earth is from the sun or the capital of Taiwan? I can Google that. Or even if I want to learn to play the guitar, I can watch some YouTube videos, right?

If instead, though, the role of the teacher is to bring forth knowledge you wouldn’t know to seek on your own, to guide you through obstacles, and scaffold a path for you to grow through successes and challenges then teachers may yet survive the coming robot apocalypse (he said only half-joking). If you see teaching as something more akin to that than you will use technology to serve in whatever aspect of learning is necessary whether that tech is a pencil or an Apple Pencil. We may engage in virtual experiments and online discussions and create micro-badges, but we will still see value in playful learning and hands-on exploration with or without technology.

What Is Reality Anyway?

So I’m going to be referring to extended reality experiences (XR) which is a blanket term that includes virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. All of the experiences require varying levels (and prices) of technology and have different pros and cons. If you don’t know the differences check out A New Reality for a more detailed run down. For now, here are some quick explanations and some of the interesting ways they’re being used.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is essentially digital escapism (think of an extreme 3D movie). We are putting on a headset and escaping our current reality to enter another. That may mean we can visit distant locales like national parks, the moon, or inside the human body. We can perform expensive or dangerous simulations and scientific experiments in safety. Or maybe we get to live a day as rock climber or someone with a disability. The benefit is getting to experience things that wouldn’t be possible in a classroom and perhaps even build empathy as some studies show. It’s pretty incredible how quickly your mind and body adapt to a high-end virtual space. Check out some virtual museums for a beginning experience.


The fact that you’re escaping from reality doesn’t make it inherently negative though it is, simply due to the nature of the equipment, naturally isolating. That means people (like teachers and programmers) need to make an extra effort to make the experiences social and collaborative. There are also physiological considerations that are more limiting than AR. VR experiences shouldn’t be done with students under 2nd grade and the high-end VR systems recommend 12 and up. Part of the reason for this is that they are intense and immersive. After a long physical session, even I have to readjust my hand/eye coordination momentarily in the real world. Studies still aren’t clear on how that can impact bodies and synaptic pathways that are in periods of drastic change. That’s part of why, at least with the low-end systems, I recommend viewers without a strap to hold it on if students are physically capable of doing so. That way students can choose to quickly “escape the experience” if they feel nervous or nauseous.

There are 2 distinctly different types of VR setups. One uses low-cost headsets that need a smartphone and the other uses high-end headsets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, etc.) connected to a powerful Windows (for now) computer. The low-cost option is a good way to introduce and explore brief experiences. There is a lower price point but also lower capability For anyone who has experienced nausea in VR, it was likely in one of the cheaper headsets because of the delay between head movement and the phone registering the movement. The high-end headsets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, etc.) have decreased that delay enough that the nausea is less likely though high movement experiences, especially those where you move in the experience even when not moving in the real world can cause unease. Compare it to when you’re about to start your car in a parking lot and the car next to you moves, but you lurch thinking you were moving.

The high-end systems are out of the price range for schools to implement at scale, but there are kits of the low-end systems that can be purchased that allow for regular VR interactions. There are a vast number of applications built now for low and high-end systems though the most frequently used in schools are Google Expeditions and CoSpaces Edu. With that said many other educational companies from Discovery to BrainPOP have begun to demo their own VR offerings. Teachers and students can even create their own experiences using computer-generating software or a 360° camera (see Part II for details). The worthwhile uses of VR continue to expand from medical procedures, employee training, and autos safety to treating anxiety and PTSD, developing social skills, and even teaching people to walk again!

BENEFITS/USES OF VR: highly emotional escapes to different worlds or experiences

  • DEVICES: Google Cardboard/Daydream, Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift/Go, HTC Vive (Pro), Playstation VR, Merge Cube
  • LIMITATIONS: not for young students, isolating, requires a viewing device and phone or computer, high-end are expensive

Augmented Reality

Unlike the escape of VR, augmented reality keeps you in your world and simply adds a layer of something extended. Think about Pokemon Go characters in a real-world environment or Snapchat/Facebook filters coming to life on your face. We overlaying digital content on our natural world. This might be worksheets or flashcards coming to life or dissecting a digital frog on your desk. Even on field trips, AR brings a new twist to museums you may have already visited.


I find AR to be much easier to integrate into classroom experiences than VR and they have a much smaller toll on the body and the wallet. But they serve to offer different types of opportunities, each with their own role. Some interesting school uses I’ve found include AR digital storytelling, book reviews, museum exploration, and AR bulletin boards that turn student work (just a final product) into a video showing the complete student work process (see Part II for details). I even created an AR experience in the lobby of the NYC District 75 offices that tell the history of disability advocacy.

The actual integration of AR usually involves a smartphone and a particular app that functions as a creation/viewing tool. There are a vast number of apps each with specific purposes but here also Google Expeditions and CoSpaces Edu play a large role along viewer apps like HP Reveal, Blippar, and the Merge Cube. You may ask why not just let students look at a picture or a video, but there is a marked difference. Quality AR experiences allow the viewers to walk around an object and see and interact with it from multiple angles. You’ll see the difference when you view the earth and then walk closer to see the mantle and the core. That gross motor activity can actually improve retention in our kinesthetic learners.

You can put the smartphones in a viewer (similar to VR) to allow for hands-free interaction, but I prefer it to be a collaborative experience. Some people recommend a device on a selfie stick (which I loathe intrinsically) to allow for discussion and multiple students viewing on one device. I personally prefer using a large device like a tablet being shared for AR activities. Just know that older devices may not be capable of running AR Kit. You may have already seen AR in GPS systems, in sporting events (that yellow first down line), in museums, or in decoration and construction apps. They’re also being used by chefs, surgeons, and to provide sight to the blind!

BENEFITS/USES OF AR: added information to a real-world collaborative environment

  • DEVICES: smartphones, holo displays, Merge Cube
  • LIMITATIONS: requires room to move around, sometimes limited interaction with digital objects and locations

Mixed Reality

Think of mixed reality as the best of both AR & VR, but the cumulative effect is something more. You actually need to delve into some sci-fi like Minority Report to understand what’s possible as mixed reality is only in its early stages. In fact, some leading companies like Magic Leap are seeking to build a multi-layered Magicverse that we will be able to live inside. In the meantime, their Magic Leap One isn’t really available for consumers, but they have a few games and mixed reality graphic novels that will give you a taste of the future.

The one place where you can really experience mixed reality now realistically is with Microsoft’s Hololens and now Hololens 2 although it still seems like something for high-end engineering and is unrealistic for regular classroom use though there are already applications for science and social studies and Pearson is offering an integrated mixed reality curriculum. They even have examples of young students studying biology with Hololens, but the cost and learning curve make it prohibitive for most classrooms. Check out Microsoft’s Holotour and overview for more details.

Another type of mixed reality type of tool is zSpace which essentially is a 3D computer with an interactive pen. And while their interface isn’t exactly the same as what is usually considered mixed reality, they have been at it longer and have developed a full K-12 curriculum along with other learning materials for career and higher education.

In the end, it will be some time before many of these tools, especially mixed reality become mainstream in either homes or classrooms, but the possibility for fully immersive virtual experiences that still allow for real-world interaction is exciting. It will likely become more accessible now that there are several more capable headsets on the market. Check out Kyoto’s mixed reality museum for a look at what’s possible.

BENEFITS/USES OF MIXED REALITY: added information to a real-world collaborative and interactive environment with virtual objects integrated & responsive in the natural world

  • DEVICES: Magic Leap, HoloLens, ZSpace, ClassVR
  • LIMITATIONS: very expensive, only in the early stages, limited software

Best Practices

In addition to managing the equipment, there are a few other details you need to keep in mind to have the most effective XR experiences.

  • Effective Space: Make sure you have good lighting and clear paths. While some VR experiences can be done while seated, most require space for movement and sensors and AR is best when students can move around. Allow students the opportunity to move around an explore the digital items. And AR won’t work at all in a dark room. Check out 12 Ways to Create a Safe & Effective Learning Space for more details on classroom setup help.
  • Student-Centered: Like all PBL, it’s best if students are driving the learning process. Make sure you aren’t just functioning as a tour guide and let the experiences drive student conversations and interactions.
  • Social: To help it remain collaborative, make sure to incorporate social components like partnering for AR experiences.
  • Combine Physical & Virtual: Take what students experience virtually and bring it into a hands-on learning experience. Help students continue the iterative process.
  • Enhancement Not Replacement: Like any new technology, XR is not meant to replace all other experiences, but to enhance them in ways that may otherwise be too difficult. If you can visit a real zoo, museum, or another country do it. VR is great, but it will never be equal to actual reality if you can make it happen.

Why Extended Reality

First, let’s understand that delving into extended reality experiences in the classroom shouldn’t be because it’s some new or interesting tool. It’s not about a shiny toy for class but about a medium to provide learning experiences that would be difficult to incorporate otherwise. While XR can be an exciting way to intrinsically motivate students and bring 21st-century learning into your classroom, it’s certainly not the only way. So what makes it special? Here are some of the key benefits to XR that I’ve noted.

Why shouldn’t people
be able to teleport
wherever they want.

Palmer Luckey, Founder of Oculus VR

Engagement: Don’t minimize engagement. It is one of the 3 key aspects of a universally designed classroom. You can captivate struggling students and enhance the learning of unchallenged ones.

Increase Prior Knowledge: One major reason students struggle to learn new information is a lack of prior knowledge according to studies. In New York City, many students never leave their neighborhood let alone the city so their world experience can be very limited. XR lets students experience life in ways they hadn’t yet to build that prior knowledge to improve all further learning in the area.

Subject-Area Opportunities: XR can be used for any subject and brings experiential learning to what may otherwise be flat or difficult to explain.

  • Hard Science: Imagine manipulating 3D models of planets, cells, or animals. You can dig into human anatomy or incorporate chemistry experiments without worrying about a chemical explosion. And while some students might get to go to Space Camp, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to walk on the moon like they can in VR.
  • Social Sciences: You can already have Obama give you a White House or national park tour, but you can also walk through ancient Egypt and explore different cultural events. Even literature and economics become more tangible in VR.
  • Fine Arts & Design: You can visit museums quickly and make the ones you visit physically more immersive. Take your 3D design and manipulate and craft it. Let your drama students perform at the Globe to a crowd of thousands.

Bypassing Limitations: Take students to space or back in time. Walk on the surface of the son hold it in your hand. Reality and cost (except for the equipment which continues to decrease) are not limitations.

Collaboration: Students from around the world can work an play together in a virtual space that allows them to create and share their experiences.

Developing Empathy: You can experience situations through the eyes of a Syrian Refugee, someone with autism, or an assault survivor. Studies show that these kind of experiences are helpful for building empathy in the participants. This may be a pathway towards addressing many of society’s current issues with equity.

Accessibility: It’s amazing that I’m able to offer students in wheelchairs the experience to climb a mountain. Beyond that, I have used VR for life skills training and SEL for students with disabilities so they may practice in a safer environment.

So while extended reality experiences are unlikely to be taking over most classrooms anytime soon due to cost and training needs, it makes sense that all of these conferences are prepping teachers for what may become a key part of future learning experiences. The benefits are clear as long as you keep the instructional goals and not the equipment at the forefront. So whether it’s starting with an AR walking tour in your community or a museum using apps like HP Reveal or buying Merge cubes to bring students 3D creations to life, there are several ways to begin exploring and creating in XR. Check Part II for 4 specific ways to build those experiences and Jaime Donally’s ARVRinEdu is filled with great resources.

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