The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: VR in China’s Classrooms

Just last month, it was announced that Microsoft China, the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Education (Education and Management Information Center) and Center One (Microsoft’s Innovation Demonstration Center) would launch a laboratory to provide VR to Chinese universities, colleges and vocational schools. It is understood that the project will harness the governments “Internet+” and “Made in China 2025” strategies.

China’s “Made in China 2025” strategy was issued by Premier Li Keqiang and his cabinet in May 2015 with the goal of moving China away from its image of being the “world’s factory”, and instead towards a technology-intensive powerhouse. The transition? Instead of “Made in China”, we may alter our perspective to “Made by China”, China’s Internet+ strategy has generated widespread applause within the mainland; its goal is to integrate mobile Internet, cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things with modern manufacturing.

Around the world, it is estimated some 19 million people were using VR in 2019; while games were shown to be the key revenue driver, the enterprise space is steadily catching up. Pre-pandemic, it was predicted that in 2022, revenue would reach $16.3 billion for VR, $9.6 billion for Mobile Augmented Reality and $8.2 billion for Augmented / Mixed Reality Headsets. Other data suggests both the VR and AR industries will be worth $105 billion by 2022.

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Weighing up the benefits and drawbacks of VR in the classroom is complex and highly dependent on variables such as the age of the students, the subject being taught and the capabilities of the teacher, among others. However, the benefits of bringing VR to the classroom are outstanding. Students can immerse themselves into a language, an ocean or a forest. Motivation and engagement is stimulated as they visualize experiences that could never be “lived” in reality.

What’s more, visual stimuli in learning can facilitate enhanced learning and memory. This comes at a time where academics are despairing, as one report explains “no studies employ advanced visualization and engage deeply with educational theory.” Traditional classrooms would find it difficult to emphasize content through visualization the way VR has done.

Fun is another key benefit of VR, as lamented by the time-old phrase “if you do something you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” This golden rule should be extended further back to children in classrooms; if they are entertained, they are happy and more likely to retain the lesson’s content.

And yet like many education-orientated technologies, there are drawbacks. Many of which center on debates at the core of humans complex relationship with technology. Some worry that personal human communication and interpersonal connections are reduced such that students damage their relationship with peers and teachers. Others have expressed concern that students might become addicted. Is this a bad thing if they are learning?

Two of the key concerns of VR in classrooms, however, focus on its lack of flexibility and functionality. With a VR headset, students use specific software which has been programmed to work exactly the same for each student. As we all learn at different paces, this is problematic. Mastery, i.e. when you master a concept before moving onto the next, is not possible and some students may be left behind. Functionality issues can delay learning until the tool is fixed. This also brings our attention to socioeconomic divides; VR is frequently expensive and only students from wealthy backgrounds may experience its benefits.

Global media has looked upon China’s use of VR with intense curiosity. Whether it’s “Virtual Reality Classrooms Another Way Chinese Kids Gain an Edge” or “China On-Track as the Leading Country in VR Classrooms”, in fact China is not the only nation utilizing their VR investment. In Malaysia, Hla Hla Win established 360ed, an EdTech social enterprise that leverages VR and AR to bring “scalable, immediate and exponential impacts.” UNESCO explained, “the €4 cardboard headset combined with a smartphone opened up a whole new world for teachers and students.”

Today in China, VR is concentrated almost exclusively on education. Both on a national and local level, Chinese educators are investing heavily. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology established the first government-backed Industry of Virtual Reality Alliance. Despite this, crafting pedagogies for VR is proving difficult. Academics have called for new design guidelines, an assessment of the effective use of VR in everyday teaching and learning as well as greater awareness of how VR can address cultural sensitivities.

Harnessing VR can truly transform and impact learners around the world. Whether game-based learning, virtual campus visits, language immersion, architecture and design or even baking, enhancing education through visualization is a powerful tool to bring learning into the 21st century. VR headsets in each and every classroom in China would undoubtedly prove the value of their “Internet+” and “Made in China 2025” strategies, bringing EdTech in China to a new level.