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Point of View: The great disruptor

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Virtual reality technology could bring top-quality education to millions of learners, argues Mark Steed

One of the greatest challenges for education in the twenty-first century is that there is an ever-increasing divide between the demand for learning and the supply of schooling. This is seen most obviously in the global shortage of teachers, but it extends to a dearth of school leaders and the unavailability of schools themselves.

According to Unesco, there are currently 263 million children not in education, and the world will need 3.3 million more primary teachers and 5.1 million more lower-secondary teachers by 2030.

These statistics demonstrate that we are failing millions of young people. Our current model of teaching, with a specialist standing in front of a class of twenty to thirty pupils, is inefficient and unsustainable. We need to find a way to bring education to all. There is no easy solution to this problem, but I believe that teaching using virtual reality (VR) has the potential to make a difference.

Most people are familiar with VR – it is transforming the gaming industry and it is now finding its way into classrooms around the world. The technology is simple: it works very much in the same way that enabled a previous generation of children to enjoy 3D images through a Viewmaster. The headset projects a slightly different image to each eye, which gives a 3D effect. As the viewer moves their head to the left and right, the image also changes, giving a strong feeling of being in situ. By turning around, the viewer can see what is behind them; by looking up they can see what’s above them – it’s ‘real’!

The greatest difference between VR and, say, watching a DVD is that VR is an active rather than a passive process. It feels like the real experience. Because the viewer is controlling where they look and what they focus on, this inevitably leads to greater engagement. Indeed, VR allows the user to experience what is going on in a way that feels authentic.

At the Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) in Dubai, we use VR extensively in our primary schools to take children on virtual school trips – travelling around the world, back in time and even into space.

In the past few weeks, Year 5 (ages 9 and 10) children have met some ancient Egyptians, Year 4 (ages 8 and 9) have been to London and Year 6 (ages 10 and 11) went to ancient Greece. The children ‘felt’ what it was like to be there and the experience helped them to develop mature responses at a significantly deeper level than would ever be possible from watching a video.

Possibly the greatest strength of VR is that the experience is personalised – the child is in control of the experience and can go at their own pace, choosing to look at what they want, taking time to look for detail and moving on only when ready.

I believe that VR technology is more than just the latest in the long line of technologies that can be harnessed by teachers to help them make their classrooms come alive. It has the potential to be the ‘disruptor’ of education, providing access to some of the best teaching in the world to millions of children who are currently not in education.

Virtual Reality Teaching (VRT) has the potential to allow children in Calcutta to feel as if they are in a classroom at JESS in Dubai. Earlier this year, Steve Bambury, the director of innovation and digital learning here, conducted a ‘proof-of-concept’ test of VRT. We aimed to give students an immersive experience of being in a classroom, rather than passively watching a video conferencing screen.

This involved putting a 360-degree camera in the second row of a classroom and running a live stream to a classroom next door, where a student wearing a VR headset ‘participated virtually’ in the lesson.

The experience of the remote student was not perfect – there was a time delay and some buffering – but he felt like he was in the classroom.

This has the potential to be revolutionary. The technical processor speed and network bandwidth issues will be resolved sooner rather than later in accordance with the inexorable progress of Moore’s law. We are confident that it is only a matter of time before students will be able to attend classes at JESS remotely via VRT. Imagine the effect VR could have in English language teaching: the ability to experience lessons taking place thousands of miles away in a fully immersive way will be a big step forward from ordinary online learning.

It is likely to become an important way in which learners will be able to gain access to the best teachers and interact with native speakers. Potential investors would be well advised to target the Far East in the first instance as this region is quick to embrace new technologies and has a booming language teaching market.

VRT has enormous potential, but it will take more than a couple of forward-thinking professionals in the UAE to make it happen. Technological development will have to combine with a robust educational pedagogy. We have a long way to go.

I suspect that the technological development will come from Oculus, the leading VR company that is owned by Facebook. Understandably, having recently become a father, founder Mark Zuckerberg is becoming interested in education – and he has the resources to make this vision happen. It is perhaps fitting then that he has the last word: ‘After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences.
Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting a doctor face to face – just by putting on your goggles at home.’

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Mark Steed is the director of JESS Dubai, a non-for-profit school for pupils aged 3 to 18. It is the leading IB school in the Middle East. @independenthead @JESS_Director