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VR Can Make School More Immersive, but Accessibility Issues Remain

Panelists at the recent AR/VR Policy Conference said AR/VR tools have a unique ability to broaden participation and engagement in STEM courses, provided the tools are created and adopted with accessibility in mind.

A student wearing VR glasses to simulate welding steel.
A student wears VR glasses to simulate welding steel.
As AR/VR technology continues to improve, K-12 and higher ed instructors are increasingly looking to AR/VR tools to help combat learning loss and make lessons more immersive and interactive. But to get the most out of AR/VR’s unique ability to facilitate hands-on learning, experts say it’s important for AR/VR tools to be practically designed and deployed without widening the digital divide among students.

According to a panel of ed-tech leaders and educators at the AR/VR Policy Conference on Thursday, hosted by the nonprofit policy think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the extended reality consortium XR Association, AR/VR tools could play a key role in education and workforce development in the years to come if the technology becomes more affordable for schools to adopt at scale. The panel, made up of Schell Games’ Senior Director of Education Brooke Morrill, Morehouse College professor Muhsinah Morris, National Science Foundation Deputy Division Director Monya Ruffin, and Joan Ganz Cooney Center Senior Director of Research Medha Tare, centered on the latest capabilities of AR/VR tools, as well as the benefits and challenges that come with K-12 AR/VR adoption.

Ruffin and Morris said the ability of virtual reality tools to make lessons more visual and interactive could boost engagement and performance in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related courses like chemistry or the health sciences in particular by making complex topics easier to digest and conceptualize.

Noting that Morehouse College was an early adopter of AR/VR technology in higher education, Morris said students have responded positively to the use of AR/VR and its general ability to make subjects more tangible ever since the college partnered with VictoryXR and Meta to launch “metaversity” versions of courses that students could attend using virtual reality headsets.

“The reason why I [used] it in chemistry was because people can’t see molecules,” said Morris, who also leads much of the college’s efforts to adopt AR/VR. “Now, you can touch it, you can feel it, you can rotate those molecules. … One of the comments I got from one of my seniors was, ‘How come we didn’t have this when I was a freshman? Because if we had this when I was a freshman, I would have been a big-shot chemist [by now].’”
Monya Ruffin of the National Science Foundation, Brooke Morrill of Schell Games, Medha Tare of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Morehouse College professor Muhsinah Morris sitting in a row participating in a panel discussion.
From left, Monya Ruffin of the National Science Foundation, Brooke Morrill of Schell Games, Medha Tare of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Morehouse College professor Muhsinah Morris discuss AR/VR uses in education Thursday at the AR/VR Policy Conference.
Image courtesy of the AR/VR Policy Conference (screenshot)
While VR can be difficult to deploy for reasons like cost and technical know-how at some schools and institutions, AR’s ability to enhance what students see in the real world can also help boost participation and lesson comprehension. Morrill said Schell’s game “Happy Atoms,” for example, can help chemistry students like Morris’ take a deeper dive into course topics by letting them explore the physical makeup of molecules rather than just encouraging them to memorize chemistry lessons.

Tare said that as schools formulate IT policies around instructional technologies, students and faculty need to understand the technology they’re using, how it works and the risks presented by VR and AR technology in particular. These can include “cyber sickness,” similar to motion sickness, and digital privacy concerns depending on the platform.

“They need to know how these things work in XR [extended reality], what data is it taking from you, what data is it keeping or sharing, and how they can keep themselves safe,” she said, adding that parents also need to be informed in the case of K-12 students.

Morrill said it’s important for VR programs with a social component to be carefully developed and moderated, especially for K-12 students, to make sure VR doesn’t expose them to harmful material and supports learning. She stressed that it’s also important for ed-tech companies to be mindful of accessibility compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so the adoption of AR/VR doesn’t add to the existing digital divide.

“Instead of layering on situations and things to make it easier at the end, we just design it to work for everybody from the get go,” she said.

Ruffin noted that AR/VR tools might broaden participation in STEM studies for students in underrepresented demographics, which has been a key concern for education officials and workforce development organizations in recent years amid efforts to build the STEM talent pipeline for a more tech-driven job market.

“I think being a champion [of AR/VR’s education potential] is really important, and I think that can happen at multiple levels and in many different ways,” she said, adding that more funding is needed to research, develop and adopt AR/VR tools for classroom use.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.