Equitable VR – The Trials and Tribulations

Building socially equitable VR for education and training is fundamental to opening VR to new educational audiences. JISC1 notes accessibility centres on ‘… designing systems to optimise access’, in this blog we explore how this definition can be applied in the context of further education audiences.

Providing affordable, equitable virtual reality headsets for everyone, underpins scalability and arguably useability. Whilst large companies like Accenture and Fortune 500 companies have enormous purchasing power, this isn’t necessarily true of smaller companies or the further education (FE) sector. Even where there is budget, questions around how VR impacts on learning, perhaps specifically how learning in VR supports learners to progress into employment.

Over the past two months The VR Hive have spoken with Learning Technologists across the UK, gaining insights into how the further education sector perceives VR , use cases and barriers to engagement with VR as an educational resource. A report of our full findings will be made available in January 2022.

In considering VR headset ownership, our findings suggest colleges are choosing to buy small numbers of headsets, devices identified ranging from Oculus Quest 2, Pico Neo to HTC Vive. There was a tendency to favour Android based headsets, to circumvent the need for a Facebook account. As Facebook morphs into Meta this may no longer be a barrier to access next year, an encouraging move since the Oculus Quest 2 is the most affordable VR headset available on the market opening up new audiences.

We found the further education sector is exploring VR and are reporting some very positive experiences. Students are both engaging with and being inspired by VR, use cases include using VR to inspire students to write creatively, to exploring human anatomy up close in healthcare curriculum.

Indeed, several colleges told us they had funded the purchase of 4-10 Oculus Quest headsets using grant money, which is of course, a one-off payment. What happens if a college can’t access grants the next academic year to build and expand on their VR provision? Arguably, this may be significantly reduced, or stalled leaving VR in the ‘nice to have’ box.

One college told us they were planning to spend a significant amount of money on one VR learning resource, because there weren’t other options available to fit the curriculum. Despite this spend, the resource reflected U.S. curriculum needs, rather than the U.K forcing FE to adopt a line of best fit, rather than perfect alignment.

Spending significant amounts of budget on such VR content, can prohibit investment in additional headsets or other educational content that may benefit learners. This may actively contribute to the current siloed pockets of VR adoption. Whilst highlighting the need for affordable, curriculum aligned VR content. Yet it’s not just the lack of content that curtails accessibility, rather it is the length of VR experiences.

One Learning Technologist described, involved an electrician simulation requiring 1.5 hrs for each learner to complete, in addition to time spent setting up a room scale tracking system.  To enable every student to complete the simulation within scheduled contact hours was not possible, forcing the simulation to become an extracurricular activity.

There is little question that VR can be a powerful learning tool, with the ability to outperform traditional learning methods, in terms of accelerating learning, increasing knowledge retention and providing learners psychologically safe spaces to rehearse skills567.

However, some institutions are yet to embark on a journey of discovery and, understandably, are cautious about splashing the cash on what to them may be viewed as experimental technology and content. How can we overcome some of these accessibility challenges? We don’t have a magic wand, but we can suggest an agile and affordable solution.

One possible, scalable option may be found in the humble mobile phone. In 1973 Motorola was the first company to mass produce the mobile phone, setting the scene for rapid innovation and exponential growth in mobile phone ownership. Today 98% of young people aged 16-344 own a mobile phone, making it one of the most pervasive technologies of our time. Furthermore, modern smartphones are powerhouses, punching more power than desktop PC’s five years ago giving way to mobile VR.

VR produced using a 360o camera offers an affordable alternative to graphically generated virtual reality, removing the need for high end computers or expensive virtual reality head mounted displays.  Using a 360o camera to capture live footage, a spherical field of view is produced, enabling the user to explore and engage with the environment using a smartphone.

Students can access 360o VR content by downloading an app for iPhone or Android onto their smartphone and slotting the smartphone into a virtual reality smartphone-based head mounted display (VR SHMD). So, is this a real solution to achieving equitable VR, or at least a way for educators to explore and make a start with VR? The answer is potentially yes.

As UNESCO8 is using mobile learning across the world, to support the UN Sustainable Development Agenda Education for All Goals. There is a sense mobile VR may offer a pragmatic solution to, at least the barrier of affordability. Examples of free virtual reality mobile applications include:

  • LifeSaver VR, a tool to support users to learn CPR procedural knowledge.
  • Autism Virtual Reality, puts the user in the shoes of an autistic individual

Despite the potential mobile VR has in terms of offering accessible VR to education populations, there is limited content available. In a bid to overcome these challenges, The VR Hive is developing a mobile phone app to host interactive 360 video content, replicating real world interactions. Content will be compatible with VR SHMD , though will also allow the user monoscopic access on mobile and tablet devices..

Of course, there are many other design considerations if VR is to be truly accessible. This blog simply represents the tip of the iceberg of a broader set of design considerations, requiring deeper exploration and consideration beyond the constraints of a blog. In this month’s podcast episode, we delved deeper into accessibility and VR in autistic populations we spoke with Dr Nigel Newbutt. If you’d like to learn more about The VR Hive’s developments, why not get in touch or sign up to our newsletter at: www.thevrhive.com.