Imagine a student of the future using a data glove and Virtual Reality (VR) technology to explore the Acropolis. But waiting for the future is over. VR is showing up now in classrooms nationwide.

As number one emerging trend of 2016, VR technology opens a new door to true escapist entertainment with a whole new level of immersive experience. It allows us to be with people, attends events, and visit places that are physically out of reach. Many companies like Samsung or Google originally made VR for practical and fun simulation. Although VR has grown to many other departments like medical to simulate surgery, engineering to construct robotics or taking exotic field trips inside the classroom.

Just last year, schools in America have implemented the use of VR in many of their core subjects such as math, English, science, and history. Schools have found that the educational possibilities are endless with VR. VR allows the students to touch and manipulate objects within a virtual environment. This generates a greater understanding of them.  But this does not only apply to objects; students are able to interact with data sets, complex formulae and abstract concepts that they may have previously found inaccessible.

What started Virtual Reality in the classroom?

unnamedVR gained much interest in schools when the company Google released a simple cardboard viewer for kids to wear in class. Kids just attach a smartphone and voila, instant-VR. Then in January of last year, Google Expeditions fired up a beta app for Android smartphones that can travel to more than 100 destinations. Students can use cardboard viewers to soar over the pyramids in Egypt or explore under the sea at the Great Barrier Reef. Thousands of cardboard viewers were sold to classrooms in America hoping to give the students a hands-on experience. Another company, Nearpod Inc. then incorporated the components of Google Expeditions with a lesson plan, which grew to become the most used VR in classrooms.


Why is VR so attractive in the classroom?

Schools know that today’s students are the ‘digital generation’. This generation is (and intends to be) much more clued up about technology than their parents and use it on a constant basis. Everything from Facebook and Twitter through to computer games, mobile phone apps, the iPad etc forms a large part of their lifestyle and teachers are aware of this use and reliance upon technology.

So, it makes sense for teachers to implement the use as a part of learning. Teachers are also aware that for some students, learning by doing is easier than learning by listening. Schools around America are attracted to VR because it provides an active rather than passive experience for the students. VR immerses the student into immediate engagement with the experience which causes fewer distractions while learning, exploration and hands-on approach aids with learning and retention, and as discussed: it helps with understanding complex subjects/theories/concepts. The educational uses perpetuate.

Students also are less likely to lose their precious smartphone or turn in assignments late. Kenneth Mendribil, a French teacher at the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco, tested Nearpod’s VR with his 11th-grade students. He also found that ever since he started using Nearpod with his students; they are more likely to turn in their assigned homework on the app. “They never say they forgot their smartphone,” Mr. Mendribil says.

Why are not all schools using VR then?

VR devices and software are only a recent addition to the market, which makes it expensive. On average, the cost for each student is up to $600 for all accessories. Private schools have an easier time affording such technology but the majority of the public schools do not. For example, only a full 27 percent of the teachers of American school districts still do not have enough computers or tablets to go around in their own class. Since there is an uneven amount of distribution of technology to all students in classrooms, companies like Nearpod hope to resolve it by compensating for low prices.

Nearpod’s approach relies on students using their own devices or grants given by private organizations to the schools. From last year, Nearpod had raised $ 9.2 million from a pedigree of investors. These investors are Emerson Collective (founded by Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs), Salesforce CEO  Marc Benioff, and Zynga. These investors bet that vision is more impressive than the actual amount of cost. Just last month, Nearpod has reached up to 10,000 schools with VR. Plus, VR technology as a whole has been distributed to over 1 million students. Which is impressive, especially considering they only launched the VR feature about a year ago. However, VR still has a long way to go until it becomes our primary source of learning.

Even if the school pays for the VR tech, it is not guaranteed that the teachers will use it. Guido Kovalskys, Nearpod’s chief executive, explains this problem. “Many teachers are apprehensive about incorporating virtual reality, and technology in general, into their classrooms because they view it as expensive and complicated. Our (Nearpod) biggest hurdle is to become relevant to teachers that are not fully ready to adopt technology,”

Besides getting teachers to use the VR tech and schools affording such technology there is another hurdle. This hurdle stands in the way of sending VR to every classroom, age restrictions. Many VR companies, including Nearpod, have restricted the use of their VR to ages 12 and above. It is not surprising that VR headset manufacturers are being cautious.  For VR is relatively new, and our world does not know much about the long-term effects yet, especially on children.

Although, evidence published in the American Academy of Ophthalmology, suggests that nearsightedness is on the rise among young people. One of the major contributing factors to this is so-called “near work,” is focusing on close-up objects. These close-up objects can be reading or using a computer. Which the VR would fit into that equation.

Professor Martin Banks, Professor of Optometry, Vision Science, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley explains this concern.

There is pretty good evidence, particularly among children, that if you do so-called near work, where you’re looking at something up close, like reading a book up very close or looking at a cellphone, that it causes the eye to lengthen and that causes the eye to become near-sighted.

He records that damage occurs when a child focuses on something near for long periods of time. So it’s understandable that some may fear VR headsets will add to the problem. The screen is just two inches from the user’s eyes. But the technology is more concerning than that. “The virtual world can have a lingering impact on users after they’ve disconnected,” Banks illustrates, “As you use VR, your brain starts to adjust for the peculiarities of the new experience – but when you return to the real, you must adjust again.”

VR is on the rise as an emerging trend in the classroom; it is not going to disappear. The question to ask ourselves: will educators step up to the challenge of creatively using it in the classroom or will VR potentially fall due to the sophistication and evidence that could harm our youth?