Theory and practice: Virtual reality

Putting on VR glasses and exploring the ocean floor or roaming the Antarctic – virtual reality can illustrate learning content to students. But in practice, the technology has its limits and is still very far removed from reality in schools, as examples in Central Germany show. A boy looks at a virtual world map through VR glasses.

VR glasses at school? The technology is still used very rarely.

There has been talk of digitisation in schools for years, but in spring everything suddenly had to happen very quickly: In mid-March, schools everywhere closed down due to the Corona pandemic, and the only way to teach content was digitally. In Thuringia, for example, there were 20 digital pilot schools before the pandemic – out of a total of nearly 900 schools in the Free State. But the corona virus made many things possible when it came to digitization. “In the meantime, 500 to 600 schools are connected to a corresponding cloud system,” says Michael Kummer, spokesman for the Education and Science Union (GEW) Thuringia.

Digitization offers many possibilities, one of which is virtual reality (VR). Technology has made a leap in recent years, and experts expect VR glasses to be part of the basic technical equipment in many households in just a few years. So will learning content soon be taught at school with the help of virtual reality?

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) refers to a computer-generated, mostly interactive reality that usually appeals to several senses. VR is mostly visualized in 3D and runs in real time. Virtual reality is usually visualized through VR glasses.

Theory and practice

One of the digital pilot schools in Thuringia is the Henfling Gymnasium in Meiningen, where every student from the eighth grade on has his or her own Apple tablet. Principal Olaf Petschauer could well imagine working with VR to make school material easier to experience. He sees particular potential in the natural sciences, for example. However, a virtual tour of the school could also be developed at the beginning. VR equipment has already been tried out at school on loan.

Petschauer also sees limits in the still young technology. For one thing, the equipment costs a lot of money. “In addition, we must first determine whether the use of virtual reality in class makes sense at all.” But to do this, the technology must first be tested on site over a longer period of time.

VR at a secondary school

In the secondary school “Maxim Gorki” in Frohburg, Saxony, experiences with VR have already been made. Around two years ago, geography teacher Michael Kunig used an offer from Google and Stiftung Lesen as part of a media project week. A Google representative came to the school at the time – he had so-called cardboards and a WLAN router for everyone, Kunig explains. With the help of a tablet, the teacher could control which content the students could see on the cardboards. In this case, the so-called cardboards were merely cardboard boxes in which a smartphone and special lenses were installed – a simplified pair of VR glasses.

Virtual reality – chic, but who benefits from it?

The students were able to see volcanoes or the bottom of the sea. “They liked it,” says Kunig looking back. He sees VR technology above all as a motivational tool, and children and young people could be inspired by content that they would otherwise find boring.

The cardboards remained at the educational institution after the project week, but without smartphones. This posed problems for the class, says Kunig. Because although every student has a smartphone, not every one is VR-capable. This would exclude some of the class. And: Such an action is relatively costly, because all devices have to be taken out and started first.

Learning is a matter of type

Eva Dietrich from the Saxony State Film Service sees potential in the use of VR technology in the classroom – as well as in Augmented Reality (AR), where computer-generated content is integrated into reality. VR and AR could be used to illustrate content and motivate pupils. There have already been several inquiries on the subject of virtual reality, but so far the technology has played a subordinate role. The Landesfilmdienst Sachsen is active in the field of media education for young people and adults.

However, according to Dietrich, it is important how such a technique is embedded in the classroom and how the individual deals with it. Different types of learners respond to different learning methods – a great challenge for teachers, which in turn requires further training. Dietrich also sees challenges in the area of data protection.

Conclusion: Virtual reality could certainly make sense in class – but only in a very targeted manner and in certain areas. In practice, however, such use is still a long way off. Michael Kummer from the GEW says: At the moment our construction sites are somewhere else.