Think about education and VR in tandem, and it won’t require a big stretch of the imagination to visualise the beneficiaries to its existence. Like the omnipresent use of tablets and smartphone devices in our personal lives and professional work environments, the only determinate of when VR will become mainstream in education is time. In fact, it might be sooner than we think. The Horizon Report: 2016 K-12 Edition, a report that forecasts technological advancements in education, suggests that in three short years, robotics and VR will have become blended into a student’s learning experience.

Decades earlier, René Laloux’s film Fantastic Planet (1973) could have acted as a harbinger to a modern way of learning. In it, a futuristic world of fictitious humanoids, ‘Draags’ dominate the ‘Oms’ (humans) who are considered as either pets or wild animals. The Oms’ only real chance of anarchy is through a multi lobe-like headphone, a Draag technology that projects Draag knowledge as a simulated experience in the wearers’ head – meant for educating the Draags but providing critical intel for the Oms.

Real world is catching up to fantasy: major tech behemoths are already developing VR for entertainment and advertising, for example playing interactive multiplayer 3D games, photo sharing and Facebook’s Oculus social VR app. Leading much of the kinetic charge is Google, who just announced their latest prototype of Daydream VRH (virtual reality headset) which aims for a seamless advertising experience in VR applications. That hasn’t stopped them from extending their influence on the future direction of education. Google’s Expedition is what you would expect: a virtual expedition trip in the comforts of the classroom, and the ability to dissect objects from every single angle; for example, examining DNA strands with as much precision as you’d like.  Indeed, Google knows the technology is capturing attention by its own merit – their site is scant on details but the visuals are clear; learning about hurricanes and just about any other concept is more appealing when you’re in the thick of it or alternatively, when it’s projected as a huge augmented vision. Google has wrought a technology that resembles a prescient evolution of education, although one that needs fine-tuning, especially when designed in collaboration with schools.

It’s true that we learn better on the field where we can engage and interact with the environment and the people or things it in. The distinct immersive experience of VR helps foster critical thinking skills in students, and can be akin to learning in the field.

William Winn, Professor at Washington University, and an early proponent of VRH technology made the observation, “Immersion in a virtual world allows us to construct knowledge from direct experience, not from descriptions of experience.” This means students can construct their own knowledge and ideas based on their ‘lived’ experience instead of just ones singularly curated from the teacher, which results in a better chance of personal understanding and retention.

Similarly, field trips are considered beneficial for students in the areas of information recall and particularly, critical thinking.  Unfortunately, field trips are increasingly becoming extinct due to school budgetary constraints and cost cutting, and this is where VR has conveniently emerged as the revolutionary field trip that can deliver the same learning outcomes.

VR is not just about critical thinking – it also has the potential to nurture tolerance and empathy. For instance, a VR film on Syrian conflict can help students gain cognizance on the refugee experience, the trials and the feelings of displacement that’s happening outside of cultural lines.

There are caveats though, as Winn points out, younger students might not have the ability to think in abstract terms and link what they have learnt to the real world. This is where teachers can act as facilitators in guiding abstract thinking. Annabel Astbury, Head of Digital Education at the ABC, writes that there is contention among some educators, who believe that that 19th century pedagogical methods and VR can’t exist at the same time in a classroom teaching context.

But VR should really be thought as an auxiliary tool, working alongside old pedagogical methods where one method is not pitted against the other. Students have different learning styles and widening the capacities in which they can learn is always worth exploring.  Also, remember that critical thinking is a skill in itself, and teachers are in the best position to provide these needed cues when navigating VR technology.

The only real challenge posed is designing a well-crafted program, which will get progressively more sophisticated so long as the responsibility to claw out opportunities for the biggest stakeholder of education –the students- remains active, but for now, Googles Expedition has rendered the building blocks to kick start the compelling trajectory towards Laloux’s inevitable reality.

Fantastic Planet screens at MIFF with a special Hear My Eyes screening. Get tickets here.

Feature image by Shannon Smith – IG: @shannons_myth