Can Virtual Reality Make Gains in Career and Technical Education?
Some invention ideas stay lodged in brains and imaginations for generations. Flying cars, personal jet packs, robot butlers. People long have dreamed about these technologies, not so much because they were practical (flying cars would be a disaster) but in no small part because they loudly screamed this message: “Welcome to the future! The one you were told about in movies and books and TV shows!” Virtual reality, the use of computers and technology to create an artificial digital world that we can experience in an audiovisual way, is another futuristic invention. The difference is that VR very much exists today, albeit still in its infancy.
Now the U.S. Department of Education is looking to promote VR in higher education and spur tech entrepreneurs to help move career and technical education into the 21st century. The EdSim Challenge promises $680,000 in federal grant funding to applicants who can design and develop virtual reality programs that simulate hands on training for the 12.5 million high school graduates pursuing careers as medical professionals, information technology specialists, and other licensed professionals occupations in the career and technical education space.
What kind of programs is the Department of Education looking for? At its heart, the challenge is designed to create learning content more engaging and immersive than more passive forms of screen time, such as watching instructional videos. The idea is to provide “hands-on” instruction while providing a safe way for students to simulate stressful real world situations relevant to their field of study.
The virtual reality challenge
The Office of Career Technical and Adult Education put together a short video demonstrating what they hope will come out of the project. A young woman comes home from class and her father asks her how her day went. “Today I was a doctor,” she responds and proceeds to recount her experience handling a (virtual) patient with a burst appendix fresh off the medical evacuation helicopter.
She gives him a CT scan, diagnoses the problem and wheels the man into surgery where she then removes the appendix and stitches the patient back up. Tomorrow she plans to practice flying the helicopter while the narrator intones, “What if this was how students trained for careers? Help us create the future.”
“VR an augmented reality represent an emerging class of tools,” Albert Palacios, education program specialist at the Department of Education, said during a informational webinar for the EdSim Challenge. “Research indicates these tools provide students with enriched experiences in information retention, engagement, skills, training and learning outcomes.”
Applicants have until Jan. 17 to submit proposals; ultimately, five entries will be selected for grant funding. Each finalist will receive $50,000 to fund a project and work hand in hand with Department of Education officials over the next year to turn the concept into a working VR prototype. Eventually, finalist teams will present their products to a panel of judges and compete with one another for a $430,000 grand prize. The goal is to keep the projects realistic and applicable, blending the use of virtual reality training simulations within the traditional career and technical education curricula and programs in use across the country.
VR not meeting expectations in other markets
If the EdSim challenge is going to deliver, it will have to successfully navigate a nascent VR industry that is (at best) unsettled and still trying to find its footing. The past year has seen the long-awaited release of major virtual reality gaming products by tech behemoths such as Facebook (Oculus Rift), Google (Daydream) and Sony (Playstation VR), while lesser-known companies such as HTC have rolled out headsets of their own.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the latest generation of virtual reality technology, and while the hype and anticipation for these releases have been at a fevered pitch for years, sales numbers have indicated a far less robust appetite for virtual reality than market analysts had forecast. According to SuperData, a media intelligence research firm, many of these companies have significantly dropped projected sales of VR products.
Sony was expected to sell more than 2.6 million headsets in 2016, but that figure was downgraded to less than 750,000 in November, with SuperData citing lack of prioritization and marketing on the part of Sony for depressed sales. Google’s Daydream also had projected yearly sales nearly cut in half from 450,000 to 261,000, and the company has dubbed the VR market one of the biggest losers of the Christmas holiday shopping season.
Analysts are still trying to determine why the reality of VR is not selling as well as the idea, which has entranced the gaming community for decades. Part of it is almost certainly the price. With the exception of the Playstation VR, which currently sells for $400 (that’s if you already own a Playstation to use it), most of the VR products currently sell for between $600-$800, or double the cost of most gaming consoles.
Another reasons may be that, like a lot of emerging technologies, the early generation VR products don’t quite match up to the standards we have come to expect from watching virtual reality programs on TV or in movies. Reviewers have reported experiencing motion sickness and technical problems that ruin the immersive experience that VR is supposed to deliver.
Some companies, including Sony, know their early headsets are not fully up to par with expectations and hope to finetune and improve their products before investing a lot of marketing dollars to promote it.
A steep challenge
For EdSim Challenge participants, this begs the question: if multibillion dollar tech companies with oodles of resources and personnel are struggling to develop VR simulations that successfully convey an immersive real world experience, what hope do five finalists and the probably-not-as-tech-savvy Department of Education have?
Of course, no one expects an educational VR program to match the realism or depth of gaming VR platforms, but Palacios repeatedly referenced the gaming industry as a general model for the kind of programs the EdSim Challenge wants to promote, and the example video the Department of Education showed to the public appears remarkably similar to the kind of technology that is used in gaming headsets. From the Department of Education’s press release announcing the EdSim Challenge:
“[The Department of Education] is most interested in simulations that pair the engagement of commercial games with educational content that transfers academic, technical, and employability skills.”
The good news is that a VR program probably does not need to exceed or even meet the standards in the gaming industry to be considered successful. Palacios said programs that come out of the EdSim Challenge will be designed as a tool to compliment existing traditional career and technical education programs.
“We don’t expect or intend for [VR] to replace the entire teaching and learning experience,” Palacios said.