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Education Official: Virtual Reality Can Reduce Reliance on the Classroom

meer Washington, development associate at Boys & Girls Club of Newark assists a student with Samsung’s Gear VR to help experience virtual reality at the Boys and Girls Club of Newark.

meer Washington, development associate at Boys & Girls Club of Newark assists a student with Samsung’s Gear VR to help experience virtual reality at the Boys and Girls Club of Newark. // Samsung/AP

The classroom might be the least exciting destination for a child wearing a virtual reality headset — especially when the technology can make wearers believe they're at the Grand Canyon, on a roller coaster, or under the sea.

But virtual reality could help underprivileged students access better educational materials, and it's one of the most compelling use cases for the technology in government, a senior Education Department official said Tuesday at a panel in Washington. The department already hosts a competition calling on game developers and other technologists to create simulations exposing students to educational content.

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Virtual reality is loosely defined as technology that attempts to convince wearers they're somewhere else, and often experienced through a headset that might display sights and sounds they'd hear if they were there.In one hypothetical example, a virtual reality headset could immerse a student in an environment in which he or she hears a wide variety of words, increasing his or her vocabulary.

While some researchers have concluded a vocabulary-rich home environment contributes to student success in school, not all children have one, said Johan Uvin, the Education Department's acting assistant secretary for career, technical and adult education. He spoke at the "Virtual Reality Meets Capitol Hill" event, hosted by the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

The technology could "get us to a point where our infrastructure for learning is not based on brick and mortar," Uvin said.Headsets could be deployed to children in other countries who don't have access to rigorous coursework, and adults who already have a basic education, but are lacking practical skills, could use virtual reality to supplement what they learned in school, he added.

The same technology could be used to simulate job training.

"Think of the young person, or an adult, in the Appalachian region" who doesn't have access to training materials through their employer, he said.

Still, scientists aren't sure how virtual reality affects viewers' perception of the real world — especially if they're is at a highly impressionable age, Dean Johnson, head of innovation at digital marketing firm Brandwidth, said during the panel. In an immersive virtual reality experience, “your brain only has that to take in, so you just believe it," he said.

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