Virtual Reality and Education: From Classrooms to Libraries

On a seemingly daily basis, virtual reality (VR) is seeing rapid growth as an industry, both in terms of adoption and technological advancement. While most consider its application in entertainment, via gaming and other recreational platforms, education has also seen an upswing in virtual reality use. Not only have teachers around the world applied virtual reality technology in classrooms, but as stewards of information and educational resources, libraries have factored largely in this adoption as well. There are many ways virtual reality can enhance an educational experience, a point best demonstrated by a survey of several different institutions and programs.

In the fall of 2017, the University of Washington (UW) Library began work on UW's Health Sciences Library, a virtual reality and augmented reality studio, funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Faculty and researchers can use the studio to analyse anatomical models in 3-D and even simulate heart surgery (Enis, 2018). The virtual practice of heart surgery highlights one of the main benefits of virtual reality in education- the ability to gain realistic experience of high stakes situations without the consequences of real world experimentation.

Also in science education, at the University of Iowa, students developed a virtual reality program called GravBox, which helps illustrate how gravity works. Gravbox has seen widespread adoption since its inception, as learners in high school and undergraduate astronomy classes can create universes in simulation and launch projectiles through them to get visualizations of how heavenly bodies of different sizes interact (Oyelude, 2018). Illustrating an otherwise abstract, difficult-to-picture scenario like this is yet another advantage of virtual reality in education.

The Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory has been guiding virtual reality initiatives at the University of Oklahoma since 2017, including a virtual visit with students at the University of Arizona to a historic site of Native American art, now hundreds of years old, located in remote Arizona caves. The art is so delicate that the cave system entrance is kept secret from the public (Enis, 2018). This presents yet another benefit of virtual reality learning; access to the inaccessible, due to logistics, to preserve the safety of the observer, or in this case, to preserve the integrity of the observed.

Simply saving patrons the expense of this still new and costly technology is a large consideration for libraries enacting virtual reality programs (see Table 1). Many institutions have done this, including North Carolina State’s D.H. Hill Library, which launched a virtual reality studio featuring workstations and equipment loans. Some of the products they offer to faculty and students are Microsoft HoloLens, Oculus Rifts, Samsung headsets, and Google Cardboard (Enis, 2018). Public Libraries in California offer similar services, as Oculus donated 100 PCs, headsets and controllers to over 90 public libraries in 2017 (Chant, 2017).


Finally, it would be remiss in a review of information services and virtual reality not to mention that some people have begun to question the future of publishing with the onset of this new technology. The New York Times distributed over a million Google Cardboard headsets in 2015, along with their first story in virtual reality, which was supplemented by a New York Times magazine essay. Google Cardboard has already gained popularity as an alternative classroom tool, but the implications for storytelling in virtual reality have led many to speculate about its potential in the publishing world- whether through textbooks, news articles, or narrative forms beyond video games (Brantley, 2015).

The New York Times experiment highlights how newspapers in particular could benefit from using a popular medium like virtual reality, as an industry that struggles to attract younger readers. Evolution like this is paramount in many fields; as Ranganathan’s fifth law suggests, libraries are growing organisms, constantly in flux, and virtual reality represents many new possibilities for information institutions looking to engage their communities.


By Andrei Mihailovic (pictured)

References

Brantley, P. (2015). The VR revolution: will virtual reality and the rise of visual culture change publishing? Publishers Weekly, 262(47).

Chant, I. (2017). Oculus VR comes to CA libraries. School Library Journal, 63(10).

Enis, M. (2018). VR meets the real world: Virtual reality is fast reaching a mainstream tipping point, with libraries already facilitating next-generation learning environments that use it. Library Journal, 143(6).

Oyelude, A. (2018). Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in libraries and museums. Library Hi Tech News, 35(5), 1–4.

Robertson, A. (2016, February 29). The ultimate VR headset buyer’s guide. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/a/best-vr-headset-oculus-rift-samsung-gear-htc-vive-virtual-reality