Technology is always growing and adapting depending on what people need and for what they're willing to pay. AR and VR technologies, while initially popular in video gaming, are starting to be adapted for broader use. Generation Z, or young people born around the mid-'90s to the mid-'00s, have grown up using tech not unlike this from a younger age than previous generations. Because of this, they are in a good position to experience the positive benefits from using AR and VR in their education. Given that Gen Z is poised to enter adulthood, it is critical to ensure that they have the best possible tools to be successful. The best place to start is by understanding what these tools are and how they can help.
What are AR and VR?
VR is Virtual Reality: This is a fairly broad term that refers to the use of computer programs to create a virtual experience for the user through screens and interactive parts. You have probably heard of VR headsets, which many people have used to play certain types of video games. The nature of the headset allows the user to feel as though they are actually in the game. Sometimes they may even experience vertigo when looking over a cliff in a game!
AR stands for Augmented Reality: AR is more complex. It involves combining both the virtual and the real world, real-time interactions, and the software's ability to register both real and virtual objects in 3D. Sometimes AR merely adds to an existing environment, but it can also be used to mask it. Depending on how well it's done, the user can be made to feel like they are fully "in" the virtual environment because they are receiving feedback from the real environment that reinforces the qualities of the virtual. It creates a more immersive experience than VR because it makes use of different sensory inputs. While VR effectively replaces the real world with a virtual one, AR changes how a user moves through the real world.
Given this information, it might be hard to imagine how these tools could be useful in an educational setting, but that's because we are really only at the cusp of knowing what AR and VR are capable of. This technology has few limitations when used for educational purposes. All it really needs is a little imagination.
Some of the benefits of AR and VR learning tools for Gen-Z
Soft Skills: They are good for soft skills in particular; this is especially helpful for kids growing up in increasingly isolated social spheres whose primary interactions happen through screens. Studies have been done observing how much more likely the younger generation is to interact with peers almost exclusively through the internet. Face-to-face interactions are not as common as they used to be. While this can lead to many Gen-Zers becoming extraordinarily talented at text-based communication, their in-person soft skills can be underdeveloped.
Through AR and VR, Gen-Zers can practice real-world situations that teach them those skills in a safe environment. Most people learn best through immersive experiences, especially where they can play around and experiment without feeling punished when they get something wrong. One example of this would be public speaking. Learning to be comfortable speaking in public is an excruciating experience for the average person, but being able to practice giving speeches in a VR environment allows them to make mistakes and learn without the added pressure of messing up in front of their peers. They get the practice they need to become more confident.
Accessibility: This kind of tech can be excellent for differently abled folks, as it allows them to experience things without typical restrictions or limitations, or it can be programmed to meet their unique needs. For many young people, this can make a huge difference in how they see and move through the world when they have better access to it. Many young people fall through the cracks, thanks to one-size-fits-all systems that don't account for them as individuals. With AR and VR, it's much easier to create an individual experience at low costs. We are already seeing highly customizable accessibility settings in regular video games, so we know this is possible and doable.
Better field trips: Instead of organizing a class trip to a foreign country that many students won't be able to afford or manage, educators can simply use VR or AR to bring that experience to their students. While it can't fully replace the feeling of physically being in a new place, it can still create something that is both memorable and educational. Kids learning about the Roman Empire in middle school could be transported to the Coliseum and feel like they've traveled back through time. College students studying art history wouldn't have to travel around the world to view important works of art. Importantly, it's also much safer and poses lower risks.
True immersion: It's easier than it's ever been to be constantly distracted. Students have a lot on their minds and focusing on a lesson isn't always their top priority. However, through AR and VR, educators would have a better time keeping students focused and engaged, since they would be playing a far more active role in lessons. The immersion can also make things that many students find boring, like history or math, much more exciting. Imagine being able to engage all your senses when learning about the fall of the Ottoman Empire! Especially if started from a young age, students can cultivate a deeper love of learning if they associate it with fun and the joy of discovery.
Community. Depending how it's set up, students can make use of AR and VR to connect with each other more easily. This means they could make friends in other countries and feel as close to them as they do to their in-person friends.
Educator reluctance: Teachers need to learn these tools too. Young people will have a harder time learning how to use AR and VR if their teachers don't feel confident using them. Many teachers rely on tried-and-true methods of instruction, which are still valid. But they should be open to learning about and adapting to new methods as well, especially if there is clear evidence that these new methods are effective, and students are interested in adopting them.
Financial accessibility: To make AR and VR learning tools beneficial for as many Gen-Zers as possible, it's important that these tools be made available to anyone who needs them. Young people should not be hindered from enhanced learning opportunities by financial limitations. Equitable access to AR and VR will ensure that everyone benefits in ways that suit their individual needs. To this end, those experiencing financial hardship should be able to apply for grants or scholarships that enable them to access the necessary tools, assuming the tools are not already offered for free.
Students tend to understand concepts and retain information far better when it is conveyed in an engaging, memorable way. To that end, gamifying, i.e., adding game elements to AR/VR lessons, can be a great option. By adding in elements such as competition, the ability to score points, and specific rules to a lesson, students have to focus all their attention in order to participate. While we may feel that they should want to pay attention simply for the sake of learning, the truth is that's just not the most realistic perspective anymore.
The future of VR and AR in education
Despite some financial barriers, the technology is gradually becoming more affordable, meaning that even educational institutions with less funding could potentially add AR and VR to their arsenal of learning tools. Once people see the benefits and have access, the changes made to Gen Z's education could be swift and effective.
If we want to beneficially meet the needs of Gen Z, we have to meet them at their level. We can't expect them to continue wanting to learn using outdated systems that don't make sense to them. We also don't want to eschew new tech because it feels intimidating or foreign.
Being able to see the value in AR and VR means recognizing their place in education and the value they can bring to new generations of learners, whether that be through fully immersive experiences, as safe spaces to learn important skills like public speaking, or in making difficult topics more fun and engaging.
There are of course always going to be students who struggle, regardless how hard we try to meet their needs. No system is perfect, and no technology can perfectly adapt to every individual. But by deploying the right tools and perfecting their use, everyone stands a much better chance of learning, growing, and succeeding. This is what we owe to our children and their children.