Virtual Reality In Schools: The Ultimate Educational Technology

The future is here, and ithas come faster than anyone thought. In an age marked by the rapidintegration of computers in schools, the ultimate technology looms onthe horizon - the age of virtual reality in schools. Using virtualreality as an educational tool conjures up visions of a Jetsons-likefuturistic scenario, students exploring their schoolwork immersed invirtual reality, gaining a deeper understanding of their subjects. Aphysics class experiments with a simulated virtual reality lab wherethey control the properties of objects, and observe them from anyangle. In another part of the school, a social studies class usesvirtual reality to travel back in time into the Battle of 1812. ASpanish class visits the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, and soon.

Harnessing the awesomepower of virtual reality for educational uses will permanently changethe nature and course of how children learn. No longer will childrensit idly by in classrooms - the opportunity is here to provide themwith an unprecedented chance to explore, engage, and visualizeschoolwork like never before. The beauty of it is that they willactually want to.

Piloting VR inPublic Schools

For the first time,virtual reality has been used in a non-research, public-schoolenvironment. During the summer of 1998, summer program students atthe Coles Elementary School and the Ph'enix High School in Chicagoused virtual reality to supplement their traditional learning. Thisinnovative pilot program was born through a partnership betweenSUNRISE Virtual Reality, a Chicago-based virtual reality company, andDr. Eleanor Byrd, director of the New Functional Learning Institute,also based in Chicago. The objective of the pilot program was todiscern the optimal ways virtual reality could be integrated into aneducational curriculum, and to see how students and teachers alikereacted to the new technology.

Because the students are immersed in the virtual reality learning environment with a headset, there are no distractions to learning.

The age-old problem ofbetter involving students in their studies is particularly acute atthe Coles and Ph'enix schools, located on the South Side of Chicago.Traditional teaching methods have often not been effective in thegoal of seizing these students' attention. Traditional methods oftenrelegate students to a passive role in the classroom. This iscontrary to the wisdom that learning is much more effective when itis an active discovery process. Similarly, new teaching methods andtechnologies must be pioneered to relieve teachers of the growingburden placed upon them by today's classroom and its changing role insociety.

Using virtual reality inthe summer programs seemed to be an effective response to thesepressing educational needs. First and foremost, students, especiallyat-risk students, must become more involved with their studies. Tomany students today, school is boring. Relying on textbook readingand lectures can only go so far in learning, while CD-ROM-basededucational programs often merely transfer information from a book toa computer screen.

Virtual reality, bycontrast, put the Coles and Ph'enix students inside of theirsubjects. From their own point-of-view, students have a self-guidedpersonal experience with their studies. They step inside (virtually)of Independence Hall (in 1787) while studying the Constitution. Theytravel through a computer to learn how it operates. They become apart of what they're learning, which can happen only in virtualreality.

There's NothingLike the (Virtually)
Real Thing

In our video game-crazedsociety, new ways must be found to engage students. Traditionalstyles of education cannot compete with the excitement of a videogame. Attention spans (and neurological pathways) are markedlydifferent from that of previous generations. Virtual realityprograms, with lush graphical landscapes and textbooks full ofinformation, surround the student, engaging and exciting them like noother video game. In virtual reality, students have the ability topush two molecules together with their own hands, with theperspective of being the size of a molecule. There is simply no otherway to engage students as virtual reality can. A recent study ofchildren aged 10 to 15 showed that after being immersed ineducational virtual environments, 98% of them would rather return tothe virtual worlds than play video games. This great natural interestin virtual reality is being leveraged for education.

"I hear and I forget. I see and I understand. I do and I remember."


Virtual reality is acutting-edge technology that allows students to step through thecomputer screen into a three-dimensional, interactive environment. Byputting on a special headset and glove, it places students inside ofa simulated environment that really looks and feels like the realworld. Through virtual reality, we're convinced we're in anotherworld experiencing some event, and doing things that don't physicallyexist.

A helpful analogy tobetter understand the educational promise of virtual reality is thatof a child exploring a forest for the first time. A child will bestlearn about the forest not from reading about it or listening to ateacher lecture, but by walking into it and becoming a part of it.The child is free to explore the forest any way she likes.Self-guided discovery and experience become the best teacher - whichis what learning in virtual reality is all about.

VR Fits AllCurriculum

Inthe pilot program, virtual reality was used as a supplement totraditional instruction. During a social studies class, students wereimmersed in the Virtual Constitution. Specifically designed for thesummer programs with state standards in mind, the VirtualConstitution takes students on a virtual reality adventure back intotime to better understand the Constitution. Initially, studentstoured the post-Revolutionary 13 Colonies to see the chaos of theperiod and the need for a new constitution. They then visitedPhiladelphia of 1787 and took a trip to Independence Hall to see theConstitutional Convention, hear the debates and interact with theFounding Fathers. Finally they were taken to Washington D.C. toexamine the finished Constitution and Amendments.

Dependingwhat subjects were being studied, other virtual reality programs wereused. The Virtual Solar System put students adrift around the Sun,giving them complete freedom to explore the Solar System. A virtualreality tour of Chicago exposed students to the city's architecture,museums and other educational resources. In the Virtual Cell studentstraveled inside a typical human cell to see its components andoperations.

The virtual realityprograms used in the pilot program were designed to be easilyintegrated into any curriculum. When a subject is being studied,virtual reality was used as a supplement. Virtual reality educates,clarifies, and reinforces because subject matter makes immediatesense to students. For example, students have a difficult timegrasping our Constitutional lawmaking process. In virtual reality,the process makes immediate sense as students were able to pick up apending Bill (with their hands) outside of the virtual House ofRepresentatives, and take it over to the Senate for a vote. Combinedwith traditional teaching and guidance, virtual reality makes asubject crystal clear.

Benefits of a VRProgram

The biggest problemencountered using virtual reality in the summer program was a sideeffect of the program's limited scale: students did not want to leavethe virtual reality environment. One student complained, "When theysaid we would be using virtual reality, I thought each of us wouldhave our own headset." Light years beyond any video game, moreengaging than any lecture, the virtual reality programs genuinelyfascinated the students.

Using virtual reality inschools greatly eases the burden of teachers. Teachers becomelearning facilitators as students explore and learn in virtualreality. As opposed to merely supplying answers, teachers guidestudents' self-discovery and assist in building ideas. Virtualreality is a giant step towards "perfect learning" - a learningenvironment that focuses on the student rather than placing burdenson teachers. It creates a learning environment where studentsexplore, discover and make decisions, while teachers assist andguide.

Froma teacher's perspective, virtual reality creates a structuredenvironment that focuses students on specific learning objectives,similar to good teaching. Because the students are immersed in thevirtual reality learning environment with a headset, there are nodistractions to learning. Students are totally focused with no unrulybehavior.

Tied to the curriculum,virtual reality is an educational aid without peer. It can beintegrated into schools in a number of ways. Modularly designedprograms work as a stand alone educational tool, as a classroomsupplement or as a study aid. In an initial stage of integration, aswith the summer program, virtual reality is best used as a supplementto existing coursework, allowing instructors to integrate theprograms into learning objectives. The biology class where studentsare learning cell structure is supplemented by a trip to the virtualreality lab where students enter and explore a human cell.

Virtual reality labs inschools are the ultimate classroom supplement/study resource forstudents. A virtual reality lab is similar to the way today'scomputer and language labs are used. Each class, at selected pointsduring the week, uses the virtual reality lab to supplementtraditional classroom work. A rapidly growing library of coursewareallows virtual reality learning materials to be used by every classin the school. As a study resource, similar to using the library,students would have access to the virtual reality lab before andafter school, and during study periods. A typical virtual realityworkstation consists of a PC, virtual reality headset andglove.

Overcoming Barriersto Implementation

In the past, the mainbarrier to implementing virtual reality technology in schools hasbeen cost. Cost-effective virtual reality is necessary for schools totake advantage of its massive potential. The conventional wisdomabout virtual reality seems to be it is only possible in the"future," because it's too expensive. The truth today however, isthat virtual reality systems are now run by the same personalcomputers already in schools and homes. Five years ago, a $200,000computer was needed to run a sophisticated virtual reality program.Today, these programs are run on PCs, ushering in the age of virtualreality in schools. Because virtual reality is now PC-based, easymaintenance and upgrading becomes a reality as well.

Five years ago, a $200,000 computer was needed to run a sophisticated virtual reality program. Today, these programs are run on PCs, ushering in the age of virtual reality in schools.

Integrating virtualreality into the learning environment is an ambitious and visionarypursuit. The reality of the situation is that the age of educationalvirtual reality is closer to us than we thought. Because of advancesin PC computer technology, the magic ingredient seems to be, nottechnology or money, but rather imagination. Teachers must understandits implications for learning, and formulate a vision of where theywant to go with it to enrich their own curriculum and their students'learning. School administrators must figure out the optimalapplication of virtual reality for each situation, while at the sametime not falling into the trap of buying new technology for the sakeof having new technology. Full of promise and excitement, usingvirtual reality in schools is a great challenge, but one that must bepursued.

Students of today,especially students at the Coles and Ph'enix schools, face amultitude of challenges in their pursuit to learn. To succeed today,and in the years ahead, they need to have the best learning tools attheir disposal. A number of Chicago school districts are currentlyexploring how to harness the massive potential of virtual reality,with uses ranging from virtual reality labs to supporting individualcommunity college vocational programs. It's not yet the 21st centurybut virtual reality is here, in schools, waiting only on individualteachers and administrators to embrace it, and put it to use in theserious matter of educating students. Judging from our experienceswith the Coles and Ph'enix students, the kids will be happy, andsmarter.

Robert Reid is Presidentof SUNRISE Virtual Reality, a Chicago-based software companydedicated to harnessing the learning potential of virtual reality ineducation and training. Robert is the chief architect of A NewInstructional Design: Virtual Reality and Education, the world'sfirst instructional design for virtual reality-based learning. He isa former critical thinking specialist with the City Colleges ofChicago and can be reached at

E-mail: [email protected]

Dr. Wylmarie Sykes is aprofessor of English at Malcolm X College in Chicago. She receivedher doctorate in Education from the University of Iowa. Dr. Sykesalso holds four other Masters Degrees in disciplines ranging fromPuritan literature to reading. She is currently seeking a MastersDegree in Computer Science.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.