by Aaron Rafferty, CEO of BattlePACs
While artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) have recently gained popularity, these technologies have actually been around for decades. When it comes to applying them in the field of education, AI is still in its infancy, but VR has long been used for training purposes.
In this article, I’ll take a look at how these technologies have been used in education in the past, consider their pros and cons, and explain how incorporating them in today’s schools will likely affect students.
How VR has been used in education
As far back as the 1960s, medical students have received training through computer-generated environments. By working on a virtual patient before real people, young surgeons obtained more confidence and an edge over others who hadn’t used VR during their education.
In the 1970s, NASA used VR to simulate different environments for astronauts before missions. NASA funded a project called Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) that allowed people to create 3D objects using a computer program and share those files online with other people across the world. At the time, this was revolutionary because it allowed anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection to take part in these simulations — and do so virtually.
Computer-generated environments were also used to help astronauts learn about space stations, ships, and other vehicles they would use during their missions. The idea was that if an astronaut could familiarize themselves with this equipment in a virtual environment, they would be less likely to be surprised by something unexpected when they actually dealt with the real thing.
VR has also been used in military training. Military engineer Thomas A. Furness III is often called the “Grandfather of Virtual Reality” for developing virtual flight simulators that helped US Air Force pilots learn to fly. Another example is the Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3) simulation system, which was developed by Bohemia Interactive Simulations and the United States Marine Corps (USMC). VBS3 offers realistic virtual battlefield environments for soldiers to train in that can include ground forces, air support, and even naval units.
In the past, VR has mostly been used for the specialized training of adults. Only recently has the technology advanced to the point that it may help fulfill the educational needs of schoolchildren.
The AI education revolution
Computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” in 1955, defining it as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.” The field was given a lot of attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s when machines began to show promise of someday becoming capable of doing many tasks that are considered “intelligent,” such as learning and problem-solving.
Today’s AI is not a single machine but rather a collection of technologies that improve specific tasks through machine-learning systems and algorithms that can learn from past experiences. In fact, there are several distinct types of artificial intelligence — from simple machine learning to deep learning — each based on different algorithms and programming techniques.
While AI has been around for decades, it doesn’t have the same long history of usage in education as VR. That changed abruptly in late 2022 when the arrival of ChatGPT caused a splash. Suddenly, students had a free, easy way to generate essays and complete their homework assignments. Teachers, administrators, and school board members have been forced to wrestle with a slate of unforeseen new questions: What can be done to ensure students do their own work? What skills should students learn in this new era of AI?
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that AI does nothing but threaten students’ learning. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this technology in the realm of education.
The pros of AI and VR for education
The first benefit of AI and VR is that evidence suggests these technologies do improve students’ learning outcomes. One recent study in Frontiers found that “introducing VR and AI technology into art education and encouraging students to carry out deep learning can significantly improve student concentration and creativity.” A 2022 meta-analysis found that “AI has significantly improved children’s concepts regarding AI, machine learning, computer science, and robotics and other skills such as creativity, emotion control, collaborative inquiry, literacy skills, and computational thinking.”
Since these technologies immerse students in novel environments, they are more engaging and interactive than traditional classroom activities. For instance, through AI and VR, students can access 3D models, virtual tours, games, and simulations. With their senses and emotions engaged, students become more willing and able to learn. A sense of fun and a spirit of exploration attracts them naturally even to complex concepts as lesson plans transform into new adventures.
AI and VR can also provide personalized learning experiences. When an individual student indicates a desire to dig deeper into a subject, for instance, these technologies respond automatically, providing follow-up resources in the blink of an eye. They can also answer students’ questions in real time. Finally, they can track and evaluate students’ progress, adjusting students’ timelines as needed and allowing learners to proceed at their own pace.
In this way, AI and VR can help automate tasks that otherwise would require a teacher’s time and attention. In effect, they become teachers’ new 24/7 assistants. This frees educators to focus on the more important elements of teaching and learning — building authentic connections with students, gleaning the particular motivations of each, serving as appropriate role models, and helping to guide their personal development.
In addition, gaining experience with AI and VR in school will likely help many students later in life. According to an article from PwC, “51% of companies are either in the process of integrating VR into strategy, or have already built VR into at least one dedicated line of business.”
The cons of AI and VR for education
On the other hand, AI and VR technology can be expensive, and not all schools have the necessary budget for hardware and software. These technologies would also require additional technical support, an ongoing expense that may be difficult for schools to provide.
Furthermore, incorporating AI and VR does require a substantial time commitment. Additional staff training would be required to teach teachers how best to use this technology. A study has also shown that students need to go through a learning curve while learning how to use VR technology. Only after they have gotten comfortable with the equipment, interface, and software can they learn about other subjects with it.
Another problem is that, currently, limited applications in the education field specifically leverage AI. While VR programs for schoolchildren do exist, the current number of offerings is quite small. In addition, the risk of students being exposed to inappropriate content or experiences is real. At their present stage, AI and VR can be difficult to monitor and regulate.
Only a small amount of research has been done to date about the effectiveness of AI and VR in education, making the results of any one study inconclusive. One recent study found “no significant differences in learning” between undergraduates who were given a VR experience and those who did a hands-on activity or completed a desktop simulation.
However, the same study did find that men with prior video game experience outperformed other kinds of students. “These differences may indicate certain groups have an advantage in the VR setting,” the authors write. Many educators would rightly be concerned about the learning gaps that could emerge among different student demographics as AI accelerates the progress of some and not others.
The very novelty of these approaches can also be expected to create resistance from stakeholders who prefer more traditional schooling. For instance, many AI products today raise concerns about plagiarism. Therefore, decision-makers at existing educational institutions may find it difficult to marshall the necessary support for this change.
Why it matters
Incorporating AI and VR might not be the right choice for every school at present, but these technologies are here to stay. There’s no way to roll innovations like ChatGPT back into the past, but neither should we want to. As these tools continue to improve, we can expect exciting developments in this field.
With time and experience, developers and educators will find increasingly effective ways for AI and VR to help students reach their full potential. In the process, AI and VR will change education forever.
Aaron Rafferty is the CEO of Standard and Co-Founder of BattlePACs, a subsidiary of Standard. Aaron unlocks value for individuals, institutions, and companies by leveraging technologies like Blockchain, AI, cloud, and social media. Aaron’s primary focus is to build products that enhance engagement and productivity for college students.