If you visit the Smt. Godavari Devi Saraf Senior Secondary School in Vizianagaram District of Andhra Pradesh during school hours, you may chance upon some students huddled around a computer with huge eyeglasses. These students are using virtual reality (VR) headsets to see how a human heart pumps blood in a bid to learn about the functioning of the human heart more efficiently than a plain textbook chapter.
About three years ago, the school paid about Rs. 4-5 lakh to acquire 32 VR headsets. It shells out about Rs. 1.5 lakh a year to renew the contract for these headsets, having found them to be an effective tool for teaching students. As an example, if a teacher wants to talk about a tiger, s/he can also show a virtual simulation of a tiger walking around.
Experiential learning through VR headsets is picking up in both schools and colleges in India. According to Balijepalli Ravi, Principal of Smt. Godavari School cited above, students get a feel of what’s being taught when they interact with VR environments. He said the school gives students 20-minute sessions in VR per day, based on the availability of headsets.
Ankur Aggarwal, founder of Veative Labs, a company that provides learning simulations and education technology, says it has even delivered VR headsets to schools in Kohima in Nagaland. Aggarwal said the use of VR in education is picking up both in metros and through government intervention in other states.
“The government is procuring VR sets from us for educational purposes. We are working on a project in the Northeast where we are setting up several AR/VR labs in schools there,” he added. He added that the company is working with the central government’s Kendriya Vidyalaya, where it has implemented VR headsets in the school’s Delhi branch. “Thus far, we have successfully deployed learning solutions in a wide range of schools across the land, and received letters of interest from every state in the country,” he said.
In a way, VR and augmented reality (AR) being used in schools is a step up from using smart boards and whiteboards for teaching.
Tanay Pratap, chief technology officer and founder of Invact Metaversity says virtual worlds will be “so exact” that it will be difficult to differentiate “what is the metaverse and what is the real universe” in future.
Invact Metaversity is a startup founded by former Twitter India Head Manish Maheshwari and Pratap, which raised $5 million earlier this month. The company plans to capitalize on the metaverse concept popularized by firms like Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft recently, to build an entire virtual university. “Top universities can come to your bedroom. We are building campuses in the virtual world,” said Maheshwari.
Schools, colleges and edtech firms aside, central educational bodies are starting to take interest too. Biswajit Saha, director of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), said the board has been discussing the development of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) content with multiple VR solution providers. He said that it is a “matter of time” when such content is ready for expert review.
“Once they (the experts) approve it, a pilot shall come up. We are exploring web-based VR education using open source solutions. We want to promote open source technology so that it can be outsourced at any point in time. Schools and school boards can utilise this kind of a product very easily without licensing cost and all,” he said.
VR education has its advantages. For instance, Aggarwal pointed out that any student can attempt to build a rocket in a VR simulation without a college incurring any additional cost of materials.
But while an immersive experience provides an advantage, hardware required for good VR content comes at a cost. Aggarwal said VR setups can come at a premium of 20-30 percent over traditional costs of computers, but the costs are coming down as well.
There are some other challenges too. Dr. Umesh Vaidya, a consultant neonatologist and paediatrician at Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Pune, noted that prolonged exposure to VR can be detrimental too. He said VR is safe for children only when 10 percent or about 30 minutes of the overall curriculum is conducted in VR.
Overdoing exposure to VR may affect a child’s overall development, he said. He also warned that screen-based learning is considered interactive but can have negative impact on overall learning. He said that education through VR/AR is good, but it cannot replace physical teaching.