With the Right Investments, AR and VR Can Reduce Education Gaps

Ellysse Dick February 10, 2021
February 10, 2021

(Ed. Note: The “Innovation Fact of the Week” appears as a regular feature in each edition of ITIF’s weekly email newsletter. Sign up today.)

The shift to mass distance learning due to COVID-19 has revealed critical deficits and disparities across the U.S. education system. This has underscored the need for schools to adopt educational technology that allows students to learn independently, whether at home or in the classroom, as well as to stay engaged. Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR)—immersive technologies that enable users to experience digitally rendered content in both physical and virtual space—have the potential to meet these needs, but only if federal and state governments make targeted investments in these technologies.

Without additional investment, AR/VR adoption risks following the pattern of other classroom technologies: schools that have more resources will become early adopters, others will slowly follow, and many will lag far behind. Following this traditional approach would not only delay using AR/VR to enrich education overall, but also limit its opportunity to reduce disparities in schools with limited resources or geographic disadvantages. For example, science students can conduct experiments in fully-equipped virtual laboratories, even if their schools lack the necessary physical space or equipment. And art and history students can explore digital replicas of museums or historical sites even if a field trip is not feasible. These tools also allow for highly individualized learning, encouraging creative thinking and ensuring students with different learning styles or special needs are not left behind regardless of classroom size.

The first and most immediate need for investment is greater research on how to effectively integrate AR/VR technologies in education. Federal agencies including the Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health should invest more in research into educational applications of AR/VR technologies, their impact on children’s learning and development, and how to best combine virtual solutions with other pedagogical approaches. If there is a strong evidence base for the safety and effectiveness of these technologies, that would in turn increase buy-in from parents and educators, while research into specific applications can inform decisions about where and how to implement AR/VR learning.

Regardless of the technology, educational tools will only be as effective as the teachers who use them. Teachers will need to be trained on AR/VR learning tools in order to position them for success. The Department of Education should establish a program to ensure teachers understand the capabilities and limitations of AR/VR, known risks and how to mitigate them, and best practices to implement AR/VR in their classrooms. This targeted training will ensure teachers have the necessary knowledge base to effectively integrate AR/VR tools into their lesson plans.

Developing relevant content is also critical. While the quantity and variety of AR/VR content is expanding, uncertainty about demand for educational use leaves little incentive for creators to develop more education-focused content. Government commitment to identifying, acquiring, and distributing educational AR/VR content will promote more private sector investment in this area. In addition to promoting private sector innovation, the federal government should also invest in developing open-access content through the National Science Foundation and other bodies that aligns with key learning and development priorities. With these investments, AR/VR devices will remain a valuable educational tool for both homes and classrooms.

Finally, schools need to secure necessary devices. States should allocate funding to allow schools to invest in mobile devices and other low-cost AR/VR solutions for classrooms or immersive learning labs. Although the price of VR headsets has gone down significantly in recent years, cost is still a prohibiting factor for most school districts. Fortunately, many educational uses do not require advanced headsets. For example, Google Expeditions uses a smartphone app and cardboard headset, and educational technology company Nearpod’s VR field trips are compatible with any mobile device. While select school districts have already invested in necessary devices, government investment can ensure those in rural or low-income areas have access to them as well. The Department of Education should work with states to implement AR/VR pilot programs in select high-priority districts.

Distance learning has highlighted the need for innovation in the U.S. education system. AR/VR can be a valuable and relatively accessible educational tool to help teachers develop more engaging and wide-ranging learning experiences. With the right investments in research, teacher knowledge, content, and devices, federal and state governments can help ensure that all students can benefit from these technologies. Without these dedicated investments, AR/VR risks joining other technologies on just one side of a growing digital divide in education.