Virtual Reality (VR) technology will impact many aspects of modern life, including education. Early implications are that VR has the potential to improve and optimize collaboration between teachers and students – in both remote and classroom-based environments. Early studies, such as that by international researcher Richard Van Hooijdonk, show that virtual and augmented reality tools can increase student engagement and motivation while promoting knowledge building. Izzy Ngo and VERE360 position themselves as contact points for virtual reality education. Ngo recently spoke to EdSurge about her work with VR and education.
On topics like history or SEL, a first-person perspective allows students to see life through the eyes of others
EdSurge: Tell us about the beginnings of VERE360. What was the driving force for you and your team to adopt VR?
Ngo: The original idea for the company emerged in 2018 from the UNLEASH movement, an innovation laboratory for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The original idea was to use VR as a tool to develop empathy. The first prototype was a VR simulation of the experiences of Syrian refugees who came to Germany. The aim was to use this VR simulation with German students to better understand the experiences of their new Syrian classmates. We wanted them to empathize with them to ease cultural conflicts and facilitate integration.
When the project came to Singapore, we continued to explore the use of VR for empathy. We realized that we had to move on to an issue that was more felt among the Singaporeans. So we decided to focus on mental health problems. We got requests for VR content and found that VR is a very good tool for developing empathy as it can increase engagement.
We already had a passion for education. It made perfect sense now to bring VR to schools to reach and influence young people. In all of our work with other clients, we were already sitting in a large repository of content that had educational value and only needed the right platform and people to distribute it.
Describe how a typical classroom session would work on your VR for Schools platform.
We believe that education is an inherently social process and that technology should aim to highlight the best parts of education. This is the ethos we bring to the development of all of our content. We develop VR simulations and other immersive content that the teacher should use during the class.
As a rule, teachers use our platform together with their lesson content. They uploaded their slides and then dragged and dropped immersive content such as 3D models or VR simulations from our library. These are then embedded in the slides as separate slides so that the teacher can easily switch back and forth between their classroom materials and our immersive content. In addition, absolutely no additional devices are required to use our content as we create exclusively for mobile VR. We make our content so that people just need a cell phone or laptop – no additional hardware, no fuss. We try to bring experiential learning online in a way that is affordable, scalable and teacher friendly.
What differences do you see in students learning material with VR compared to traditional methods?
Early on, we conducted a study with the Psychology Department at Yale-NUS College that showed our content helped increase student engagement by 25%. Engagement is defined here as the student’s attention, attachment and deeper understanding of a concept. Over the years the engagement of all students who have used our VR content has increased. In addition to being able to engage in audio, video and kinesthetic learning, students are given the opportunity to take first-person perspectives, which is essential for experiential learning activities. On topics like history or SEL, a first-person perspective allows students to see life through the eyes of others and experience things they would otherwise never have known.
Can you remember a moment when you knew VERE360 really worked?
Our first long-term partnership with a school here in Singapore was with a private international school called The Grange Institute. They asked us to create content for their curriculum and then test it with their students and teachers. The first time we created something for them was when we developed a 360 degree experience for the water cycle.
Students ages 7 to 8 put on headsets and lived their lives as Winnie the Water Droplet, cycling through the water. As we were new at the time, we were very nervous about student feedback. The day we first used it with a small group of students, they put headsets on and we heard “Wow, that’s so cool!” For 15-20 minutes. They exclaimed the sentences “this is evaporation” or “this is condensation”. My heart just melted. Because getting kids really excited about content can be one of the biggest challenges, I knew we were getting into something.
We’re trying to change the way visualization and simulation take place in schools – from textbook images to laboratory experiments.
Where do you think VR fits when more of us get used to interacting virtually?
I don’t think VR is the be-all and end-all, and I don’t think VR will evolve as a technology either. I’m sure future versions of VR will be unrecognizable for what VR is today. Even so, I believe that technologies like VR will revolutionize the way we visualize and simulate something. At companies like VERE360, we’re trying to change the way visualization and simulation take place in schools – from textbook images to laboratory experiments. I hope it will be used to provide better access to quality educational content and tools. VR’s potential will be wasted if it is not used to democratize access to learning.
How did AWS EdStart help your company achieve success in education?
We’re fairly new to the EdStart program, but we’ve benefited so much from it already and love being a part of it. For anything we need – technical advice or support – Edstart has something to help us. We haven’t maximized the networking opportunities yet, but we see all the events taking place and we look forward to being even more connected.
How did AWS and the cloud enable you to build education and innovate faster?
The biggest thing was the scaling. With AWS and the cloud, we’ve reached more people than ever before. It also enables us to optimize our content so that more people can be reached with different internet access. This is important to us as we try to serve the general public in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.
Is there anything that makes edtech in Singapore particularly unique?
I think one of the most striking features of the Singapore educational landscape is the fact that the government is so heavily involved in all aspects of public education. Anything coming through a public school here has been checked or contacted by the Singapore government. And this has a big impact on what kind of edtech companies are successful here.
Check out the videos below for examples of VERE360’s VR work
The general trend in the world is that public education is slow to adopt classroom technology. And compared to private schools, this is also the case in Singapore. However, given COVID in particular, there is a great effort by the government to bring more technology into the classroom. This means that schools receive money for the purchase of their devices such as tablets, but also for technologies such as virtual reality.
However, VR technologies are only used by a small proportion of schools as they are still niche and require very enthusiastic teachers. Although the implementation of infrastructure and hardware has increased, it does not necessarily result in behavior that fundamentally changes the instructions.
What’s next for VERE360?
We continue to move closer to our goal of achieving 100% access to quality educational content and tools for the Southeast Asia region and beyond. This means expanding into countries in the region and learning more about how we can support the world’s education systems.