When virtual reality (VR) was first used it was almost exclusively for video games. The idea was to transport the player into wild new interactive environments in a more realistic way than on screen. Eventually, VR’s applications were broadened to include movies and storytelling, and in the very near future, we are likely to see VR social media, spearheaded by Facebook’s purchase of Oculus.
There’s another application to add to this already extensive list: VR can be used in education. The new interactive worlds can be exciting learning environments for students and teachers to explore, but VR’s most revolutionary use could be something more practical: increasing the accessibility of further education.
Further education’s accessibility problem
Further education is crucial in the modern jobs landscape, not just to help people find employment, but to help the wider community flourish. Further education courses have been hailed as the best way to help solve the ‘skills shortage’ in the UK, which has been partially attributed to too many young people going to university.
Unfortunately, the government has historically been committed to cutting FE budgets. The result of the cuts has been a lack of teachers hired and a lack of students taking up places. Recent budget announcements appear to be reintroducing funding, but as Shawn Chowen notes in FE Week, there are structural issues with further education that will not be addressed by funding alone.
Many of these structural issues relate to accessibility. According to government figures from last June, a mere 16% of those enrolled in further education programs are disabled. This despite 20% of people in the UK being classed as disabled by a Department of Work and Pensions survey. The disparity of 4% is significant when the numbers represent thousands of individuals. Further education uniquely needs to be accessible because it helps people learn the skills they specifically need to learn to get jobs. With this in mind, it’s clear there is a need for FE to become more accessible by any means necessary. Perhaps VR could be those means.
How teachers are using VR to increase accessibility in FE already
Some have already cottoned onto the accessibility potential of VR. Helping fulfil VR’s accessibility potential, virtual reality production company Rewind created their award-winning Spacewalk experience in collaboration with the BBC. The finished project is immersive, exciting, educational and, crucially, accessible to a broad spectrum of students with or without disabilities and learning difficulties.
Some schools are using VR in their classrooms already. Graeme Lawrie of Sevenoaks School says he and his colleagues believe VR has “a distinct and unique part to play for learners of the future.” He goes on to say it can make lessons more memorable. This attitude prioritises VR’s potential for entertainment and engagement over its potential to increase accessibility, but any kind of VR adoption in education will help get FE on the right track, as institutions and funding organisations may be faster convinced of its benefits.
The real way VR could help FE accessibility is not through occasional “memorable” lessons or big budget moon landing experiences, but through erasing the physical barriers to education that many learners have. Impaired mobility is one of the most common forms of disability, according to the Department of Work and Pensions figures. AoC Jobs has discussed using VR in FE in an article on further education and technology, saying, “virtual reality can bring disabled or disadvantaged learners into a VR classroom, stripping away the physical barriers that may have stopped them from joining conventional classrooms in the past.”
This advantage will also apply to disabled and non-disabled people who live a long way away from institutions they want to attend. The possibility of virtual attendance will open FE up to its widest audience yet, and help those currently in work or raising children to find the time to learn new skills.
Why VR might be the future of FE
Perhaps more than any other form of technology, VR has appeared and disappeared over the years as different attempts to implement it have failed. The current wave of VR technology appears to be here to stay, not least because it has the backing of billion-dollar tech giants this time.
The question, though, is whether it will continue to play a part in further education. The answer to that may well be yes, due to VR’s many advantages and versatility. The technology can increase accessibility and help create more engaging educational experiences. It can also allow apprentices to train in virtual environments, which is particularly important in disciplines that may involve danger.
Perhaps most encouragingly of all, some have argued that VR could reduce the cost of further education, due to speeding up learning times and lessening the need for expensive physical equipment. For a government concerned with saving money but looking to strengthen the country’s further education sector, VR is a truly encouraging area.