What happened?

This week, TIME magazine reported a story about a group of Japanese high school students who created a virtual reality (VR) experience that recreates the sights and sounds of Hiroshima before, during and after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city 73 years ago. The children found that the VR experience brought this event to life, transforming it from a historical fact to a meaningful experience. This is only one of many examples in which VR has been reported as a useful tool in education, motivating students in a way that is rarely accomplished through traditional education with books. Because of its potential, there are many initiatives to introduce VR into the education market, including by Apple, Facebook and Google. For example, Google launched ‘Cardboard Expeditions’ for virtual field trips, and ‘Poly’, which allows students to build their own virtual environment. At one of the largest educational technology conferences in the U.S. this year, VR was voted the third most compelling topic in the field.

What does this mean?

Both Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf schools, and John Dewey, famous for his contribution to pedagogy, worked to reform traditional education methods in the 20th century. Although their ideas differ in many regards, they both believed that education should incorporate active (physical) participation that allows students to connect their personal experiences to the information they are introduced to at school. This would not only make learning more enjoyable; rather, both considered this to be a superior mode of education in its focus on applying and internalizing knowledge. VR makes a similar promise: connecting personal experience to the curriculum, thus deepening a student’s understanding, motivating students to participate more actively in the classroom and preparing them to apply what is learned. Furthermore, VR can bring students into contact with environments and experiences that they otherwise would not have access to.

What’s next?

Making “field trips” to foreign countries or even into space or back in time are within reach with VR programs. Skill education, such as leadership skills in business schools, might also be taught more effectively through VR programs. As these examples suggest, VR has the potential to address the labor market’s long-held desire for youngsters to be prepared for their working lives not only through theory but also through experience and practical application. However, there are still some barriers that prevent VR from fully entering the classroom. For many schools, VR kits are still too expensive. Moreover, there is a lack of research on the effects of VR on child development. And, last but not least, many schools, including Waldorf schools, may hesitate to allow the digital world to play an even greater role in the already technology-saturated lives of students, given their philosophies on child development.