Virtual Reality Digs Into Brick-and-Mortar Schools


As the hype around virtual reality in education swells, new developments show that the movement may have some staying power this time around.

Although much of the buzz has centered on the Facebook-owned $600 Oculus Rift, which has yet to make a strong push into education, two other developments have caught my eye over the past few months.

First, Washington Leadership Academy, a Washington, DC-based charter school, nabbed one of the $10 million XQ: The Super School Project prizes. Among the many innovative things that WLA is doing is its use of virtual reality.

As recounted in this piece by Richard Whitmire, the school is building what it says is the nation’s “first-ever virtual chemistry lab” instead of a physical chemistry lab. As Seth Andrew, one of the school’s founders, told Whitmire, “During [a lab], no child will be burned, no child will have a chemical spill, and it will cost the school a fraction of what building a lab would require. … In virtual experiments, we can use chemicals like sulfuric acid or mercury or lead that we can’t use with 10th-grade students in actual reality.”

They’ll also be able to use the technology to go all the way into actual molecules as opposed to just performing and observing the results of the experiment as you would in a traditional physical environment. The possibilities are tantalizing.

And as Andrew points out, “a million kids in the United States… don’t have access to chemistry at all… [this] will be a game changer for kids who have nothing as the alternative.” Competing against nothing is a textbook way disruptive innovations get their start and is one more reason to keep an eye on the school.

The other development is also informed in part by disruptive innovation theory, which suggests that Google—and not Oculus Rift—may be the one to watch over the long haul.

In September 2015, Google launched Google Expeditions to a closed group of schools. The product consists of a cardboard viewer that costs a mere $15, which holds a smart phone and, at the time, allowed students access to more than 100 virtual field trips. The Google Cardboard viewer works with an elegant simplicity. Users place their smartphone into the viewer, which houses a pair of 45mm focal distance lenses placed an optimal distance away from the phone’s screen. With compatible apps—such as the New York Times’ virtual reality app—the lenses create a 3-D effect, and scenes shift with users’ movements.

A critical question for virtual reality in education though has been whether teachers are ready and able to incorporate virtual reality lessons into their daily routines and constrained class periods. In other words, is virtual reality really plug-compatible with the existing K–12 schooling system? Or does it require a bigger re-architecting of schools and classrooms to make it relevant?

In June at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, Google, in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), took some important steps toward addressing that question, as the companies together announced the HMH Field Trips for Google Expeditions for students in grades K–12—arguably the first-ever curriculum-based virtual reality field trips.

At launch, the offering includes four field trips “aligned to select HMH science and social studies curriculum” with more than 20 HMH Field Trips planned for release in the coming months. The programs not only align to existing HMH curriculum, but also contain “free teacher guides for HMH customers, including student activities and lesson plans.” The idea is for virtual reality to fit seamlessly into teachers’ lesson plans without the need for lots of redesign and planning efforts.

This development is an important sustaining innovation for both Google and HMH that shows virtual reality in education could move beyond fad status. The partnership improves Google Expeditions’ offerings and increases its odds of being plug-compatible with existing classrooms. For HMH, it essentially adds another set of features to HMH’s curricular offerings to make those offerings more enticing and attractive to its core customers. It is not meant to be a standalone, more affordable product for non-HMH customers.

And the early virtual field trips—journeys to the Florida Everglades for grades 6–12, through prehistoric caves formed during the age of dinosaurs for students in grade 5, in a covered wagon through the prairie during America’s expansion in the 1800s for grades 6–12, and into a swamp for students in grades K–2—appear to be reasonably robust. More trips are also in the works, including journeys to the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, and back in time to the Roaring Twenties.

Watching for uptick in schools this year will tell us a lot about whether Google and HMH have truly understood the job to be done for teachers in designing these experiences and integrating them with lesson plans—and, as with the developments at WLA, whether virtual reality will become a reality for students across the country and around the world.

—Michael B. Horn

Michael Horn is a co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and an executive editor at Education Next. This post originally appeared on

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