The University of Auckland is currently in its fifth and (maybe) final Semester of digital learning. We’ve all experienced the worst of it, from Zoom lectures filled with names instead of faces, to the only social interaction being the voice of a recording. With modern technology, there must be a way to improve our use of digital learning—right? Well, with virtual reality (VR) kicking up a storm, especially the Metaverse, it looks like we could be sucked into the Matrix to learn algebra within the next few years. Could this new format improve our currently tedious online learning situation?
Believe it or not, VR, as a communication tool, is already common in some workplaces—one of them being software development. Dylan Duffy-Bregmen is a recent graduate of Victoria University with a BSc in Computer Science. He now works from home for Blackball Software and uses VR every morning for meetings. Dylan and I both took a page out of The Lawnmower Man and stepped into VR to talk about his experience with this new medium. Even just getting into VR was a bit of a nightmare—but once we were in it was refreshing to see a moving body in front of me responding to my questions. Although I was taking notes the entire time—ironically staring at a screen within the virtual world—it was entertaining to hear a voice in the space, and to glance over my left shoulder to see my mate chatting to me.
One of the first things Dylan noticed about using VR in his job was a boost to his morale and work ethic. Even though Dylan’s time in university wasn’t hugely affected by digital learning—as computer science degrees can be done relatively easily online—he still noticed an impact when he was able to look around and see his colleagues next to him. Being able to interact with his colleagues in such a realistic way, made his work feel much more engaging—he could see the people that were on the other side of the emails. Funnily enough, Dylan has only ever met his co-workers twice in person but has seen them almost every day in the Metaverse for the past two months. Naturally, he now finds it difficult to imagine his co-workers as anything other than their avatars. “You don’t think about it after a while,” he muses.
Dylan’s boss and Blackball Software’s founder Ben Liebert notes how surprisingly effective it was when they started using VR. “Even though you are cartoon rendered, it is just so much more immersive than video chat (which is pretty damn artificial anyway).” Both Dylan and Ben believe that the eye contact, spatial audio, and depth perception that you get in VR play a huge role with their engagement in their work and meetings. They also think that VR will be implemented into our education systems in the future. “I don’t know how good it will be,” Ben says, however, he believes it will go far because “it’s becoming a new medium within which to communicate.” Dylan, with his experience and personal interest in global technology, believes VR could replace some part of digital learning “within 5-10 years.”
Implementing VR into education could be a massive improvement to the engagement of students and destroy the wall between us that is Zoom—and it seems awfully exciting that we could soon be stepping into Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. We could have architecture students walking through a house they’ve designed, art history students finally seeing two arms on Venus de Milo, and med students interacting with a human body at no expense. The opportunities seem endless, but maybe we should look at some important questions first…
Associate Professor Luke Goode, who teaches a communications course on new media and the future of communication at UoA says that we should prioritise the social and moral questions around VR in education:
“Is the implementation based on poor educational principles? Does it exacerbate inequities among students? Does it degrade the social, communal and collaborative aspects of education? Does it lock public education deeper into dependency on powerful profit-driven tech corporations with dubious ethics?”
Answering these questions would only be the first step in implementing VR at university—we should also consider practicality. Professor Andrew Luxton-Reilly currently teaches CompSci and Dr. Burkhard Wuensche researches VR and scientific visualisation. They see VR, or even augmented reality, being adopted in the far future as a learning medium. But for now, there are certain barriers to widespread adoption of VR. For example, in VR, note-taking can be a struggle; VR equipment is expensive, and developing 3D content that caters to students’ diverse needs makes this medium less appetising. Even small things like the fact that 5-15% of VR users experience simulation sickness inhibits our progress to implementing VR in education.
Let’s imagine we’ve overcome all these philosophical and practical hurdles—will we see results? Dr. Sam Kavanagh, who did his PhD on the applications of VR in education,found that since VR provides an immersive experience, that “it unsurprisingly also increases engagement”. But with any new technology and fad—much like our first year of sleeping through pre-recorded online lectures—the novelty will eventually die off. This is a shame, because it seems increased engagement is all VR has going for it. Dr. Kavanagh discovered that there is no cognitive difference between learning on a computer and learning on VR. However, there is a glimmer of hope. His research gave a small indication that people could remember spatial information better in VR—but not many areas would benefit from this improvement.
So, will we ever experience VR university and go to our Metaverse Munchie Mart? Maybe. Maybe not.
Perhaps we shouldn’t view VR as a solution to all our digital learning problems. Associate Professor Goode says that “we should think of it as one tool among others.” In some circumstances, text-based learning will be what’s best. He said viewing VR as a solution to make education more engaging is “a naïve fantasy” and VR “won’t fix anything if it’s the underlying materials or the educational approaches that are broken.” Dr. Kavanagh also expressed that universities are lagging behind in digital formats; trying to “shoehorn these mediums into the traditional lazy hour-long-lectures-spread-over-a-one-size-fits-all-predetermined-semester-length format.” So, maybe sitting in hour-long lectures with a phone strapped to our face won’t aid us; but instead, using this taped-on phone in areas where it can be applied could be beneficial—a place like architecture or engineering where full 3D blueprints can be envisioned.
Nonetheless, VR does provide the social element online learning typically misses. Even interviewing Dylan for this interview in VR was much more engaging and lifelike—we weren’t stuck behind 2D screens. But Zoom would’ve gotten me the same answers—without the 40 minutes of troubleshooting, eyestrain, and racing red stripes across my face.
Virtual reality will soon become the norm. But we should only use it when we need to. You wouldn’t use Excel to write your English essay—right?