VR in education offers one giant leap for students
When the faculty at Jyothy Institute of Technology, an engineering college in Bengaluru, decided to address the shrinking attention spans of their students, they decided to try and do it through a virtual reality (VR) module.
They tied up with a tech startup and ran a one-month pilot programme for first-year students. “We found that VR enhances the learning process,” says Harsha S, associate professor of information systems and engineering at the institute. “Students could tinker with, assemble and dismantle an internal combustion engine, actually observe its functioning by slowing it down and tracing how the fuel moves from the tank to the combustion chamber, how it ignites and causes the engine to move.”
VR is most widely used in the fields of gaming and entertainment, but is making inroads in education. It enables institutions to bypass physical limitations of time, cost, accessibility and safety, to perform tasks and offer experiences in a virtual environment.
So, engineering students can strap on a headset and be transported to a steel plant or an oil rig; history students can travel back in time and walk through ancient cities; a biology student can go on a voyage through the human body and even into a cell; and a virtual trek up a mountain can teach management students about people management and team work.
A few engineering colleges in Karnataka such as Jyothy and JSS Institute of Technology, as well as Krea, a private, liberal arts university in Andhra Pradesh, are tying up with edtech startups to introduce VR modules into higher education. The startups collaborate with the faculty and develop content, and advise institutes on how to set up a full-fledged VR lab.
Vrook, which set up the pilot programme for Jyothy, supplies immersive and interactive learning content specifically for engineering courses. “We’re trying to change the way students in India learn,” says co-founder Roopak Krishnaswamy. “About 80 % of the engineers in India today are unemployable. The problem area we have identified is in moving past theory and visualising the complex concepts they are learning. That is where VR comes in.”
As with the first moving pictures at the turn of the 20th century, it takes time to orient oneself to the new dimensions of this virtual world. Complete immersion, for instance, can be overwhelming to the senses and can cause nausea and headaches if used for more than 15 minutes at a stretch.
“We do not have enough research on long-term physiological and psychological effects of prolonged VR exposure. Generally, no more than 20 minutes is prescribed for an immersive experience,” says Aditya Vishwanath, a doctoral researcher in learning sciences and technology design at Stanford University.
“The sweet spot, we have found, is five to eight minutes,” adds Vishwanath, who is also co-founder of Inspirit VR, an e-learning company that designs immersive and interactive content for schools in the US. In India, Inspirit will be working to set up a media lab at Krea University.
For Nayana MK, 22, a fourth-year electronics and computer science student at JSS, learning through VR was overwhelming but effective.
“In my second semester, learning some of the electrical concepts was especially difficult for me, but figured it out when I got to work on it through VR. So for me, it was good in many ways, though I remember being overwhelmed when I first put on the headset,” she says.
GETTING IT RIGHT
The use of VR will modify the role of the teacher. The VR system is highly suggestive and self-assessing. A student building a machine within the system, for instance, will get real-time feedback and will be prompted when they get stuck.
“At the end, you can get an analytical report,” says Vrook’s Krishnaswamy.
This makes teaching more engaging and more challenging. As Abhilash CB, assistant professor of computer science at JSS puts it, the students’ questions become more pointed.
“They have a good understanding and interpretation of how it works and we found that they were able to elaborate on those concepts more fluently when it came to theory,” he adds.
Another big factor, of course, is cost. Setting up a continuously running VR system requires a bulky initial investment. You need about 2,000 sq ft of space just for the set-up, expensive tech infrastructure, and a dedicated manager.
“Now that we have an outcome-based education system, we assess how much has been learned at the end of the course, instead of just how many marks have been scored. It is interactive, the students are involved in the teaching-learning process and we find that information is retained longer because they understand concepts better,” says Harsha S of Jyothy institute.
The main takeaway, according to first movers, is that as a teaching aid, VR has the potential to introduce new perspectives and dimensions to a subject.
As Vishwanath puts it, the programmes may not be more than a few minutes long. “But in those minutes, you can throw a ball on the surface of the moon and the surface of the earth and observe the difference in their projectile motion and the different gravitational forces at work!”