Last month Facebook announced a Beta release of "Spaces" for the Oculus Rift. Spaces is Facebook's Virtual Reality extension to its social network. It allows users to meet together in fully-immersive virtual environments to share and interact with one another. When Mark Zuckerberg first previewed Spaces to the public last year I knew that it was going to revolutionize the way we think about collaboration and more importantly, education. 

I understand that at this time the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are fairly expensive investments with limited educationally focused applications. Even Facebook Spaces isn't built specifically for teaching in VR. The cost and tools within these platforms will become more user-friendly as time goes on. When smartphones first came to market they were perceived as being expensive and unnecessary. Why get a smartphone when I can play Snake on my Nokia 3310 and not pay for data? There is always an adoption phase with any new technology and we are just about to sign the papers to adopt VR into our lives. 

About five years ago I had the opportunity to help pilot a videoconferencing distance learning program at a local university in my area. I taught a lesson on the California Mission System and dressed up as the Franciscan Priest "Father Junipero Serra" who founded many of the missions along the coast. Role playing the part of this figure from history, I took students from all over the world on 1-hour Virtual Field Trips to learn about California's history. Using a Tricaster and green screen I was able to interact with these classrooms and answer questions in a real-time video conference throughout the lesson. The green screen background made it possible to insert backgrounds of relevant missions and other locations the early settlers encountered. Here is a video clip montage from my videoconferencing lesson:

Piloting that videoconferencing lesson was a blast. At the time I remember thinking how great it was that students were able to see such powerful visuals and interact with an expert on the topic as they learned. As I moved on from this experience and ultimately began my current role as a classroom teacher I kept coming back to the idea of teaching virtually to students from all over the world. I thought about doing something like this with virtual reality but the technology simply wasn't at a point to support it. 

Enter Facebook Spaces. Over the past few years we have seen interactive tools like Google Expeditions, Edorble, and Engage that provide a taste of the immersive educational experience VR can be. But until now there hasn't been a platform that provides virtual reality collaboration with sufficient features and reliable tools to support this type of collaboration. I believe Facebook Spaces is the first Virtual Reality platform to meet these demands and does so within the largest social network in the world. 

I do want to be clear about one thing though. As great as virtual education is, I think it has a long way to go before it transitions from an enrichment tool to a full-time classroom replacement. In all honesty, I have hard time visualizing a time when the physical classroom interaction is replaced completely by virtual connections. So, as virtual reality is still in it's infancy, I believe VR lessons will be used primarily as a supplemental option to enrich what students are already learning in class. Perhaps one-hour topic focused lesson connections. In Higher-Ed I can see this transition to more full-time VR instruction happen more quickly, but K-12 students will surely take much longer, if ever. 

In order for completely immersive educational experiences to be successful in Virtual Reality I believe the following criteria must be met:

1. The platform used must be reliable. Bugs or dropped connections can ruin the immersive experience of VR collaboration. 

2. Clear objectives must be identified for the lesson. Having clear goals for what will be taught is critical to any lesson or task. 

3. Pre, Present, and Post materials/resources should be provided to the student. Students need some context before entering into a virtual space. Pre-materials provide students with the background knowledge needed to fully engage in the lesson. Present materials are given within the lesson itself. Post resources are provided as opportunities to continue learning on the subject provided. This means that VR lessons probably will need to be given in tandem with some type of other communication medium to provide these additional resources (ex. Email, Direct Messages, Forum, etc.).

4. Interaction with the instructor and opportunities for peer collaboration are required. The thing that separates a social Virtual Reality experience from watching an informative YouTube video is the collaboration between participants. Just like in a physical classroom, students need to have the opportunity to verbalize what they are learning with others to help them process through and better retain the information. 

5. Participants, Teacher and Students must have a way to find and connect with one another. When I was teaching via video conferencing we used to find and schedule connections between schools and content providers. I can see a similar model working with VR Platforms today. The finding and scheduling of programs could be integrated within the VR platform itself or it could be housed at another site. This is was a need that I originally wanted to meet when I started I wanted to provide a place for teachers to connect with students and schedule lessons. (Let me know if this is something you're interested in by clicking here and we'll talk about next steps) Here's a screenshot of one of the programs listed on on CILC as an example:

6. Students need to have the opportunity to give honest feedback and rating about the Teacher/Lesson that is visible to other students interested in participating in that lesson. This is a valuable feature that promotes high quality teaching and lessons while providing students with the confidence that they need to know they will have a positive experience and not waste their time. 

7. Teachers need a way to easily monetize the service they provide. Unless teachers get compensated for their hard work the lessons will be low quality and not sustainable. The investment by teachers to create quality content and make it sustainable requires some type of payment system. 

Here is why I believe Facebook Spaces has the ability to change the way we teach and learn in fully-immersive environments, and here are some reasons why:

1. Photo / Video 360 Environments - Studies at Stanford show that people who use Virtual Reality have greater empathy for their environment than those who watched a video about the same place. This is why I believe VR is going to be such a powerful teaching tool. Students can truly experience and immerse themselves into what they are learning about. Some great examples of these experiences can be found in the New York Times VR App. (Take a look at The Displaced and The Fight for Falluja)

2. It is Remote - Spaces breaks down the barriers of distance between teachers, students, and locations. A teacher from England, along with students from New York, Japan, and Egypt can meet together on the San Andreas Fault in California to talk about Earthquakes while each person is actually sitting in their living room. This tool provides a new level of connection and collaboration between cultures and locations.

2. Draw - Using whiteboards in a classroom is a great way to check for understanding in the classroom. But in Spaces these whiteboards become three dimensional. Similar to the Tilt Brush for the HTC Vive participants in Facebook Spaces can create three dimensional drawings. This tool provides students and teachers with a great resource for creating within the virtual space during a real-time connection. 

3. Hand / Facial Gestures. Depending on the research you site, Non-Verbal Communication makes up roughly 70% of our total communication. Spaces requires Oculus Touch Controllers which can sense where your fingers are. Allowing you to point, wave, or make a fist with your virtual hands. Spaces also makes inferences based on your voice that move your avatar's mouth as you speak. Finally, if you look in the direction of one of your friends, your avatar will make eye contact with what person, giving a more personal feel to your communication. All of these non-verbal connections between your physical and virtual self brings a new level of immersion and connection between participants. 

4.Facebook Messenger Video. Adding another dimension to a Spaces connection is the ability to add others to the experience through Facebook Messenger Video calls. Unfortunately at this time only the person who makes the call can see the caller and others in the virtual space cannot. I would expect some expansion on this feature in the future. But this does provide some creative options for enhancing virtual meetings. 

5. Stereoscopic Sound. The way sound is presented to us is something we we may not think of as being very important. Within a VR environment it can be the difference between an ok experience and a truly immersive one. When the person on your right talks and you hear them more clearly through your right headphone vs. your left, interaction becomes very comfortable and natural. 

6. Integration with Facebook's Social Network. One of the special features of Facebook Spaces is it's deep integration with Facebook. With over a billion people on Facebook, the infrastructure needed to connect people together is already in place. Ideally, Facebook will see the value in fully immersive educational connections and add more tools to invest in this area.

Personally, I would love to Teach and Learn in VR. How about you? Is this something you think will catch on? Let me know in the comments below. 

-Corey Engstrom

Teach in VR Community Manager

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Corey Engstrom

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