To avoid a VR hype cycle, learn from edtech


Gartner’s Hype Cycle, depicted above, is a graphic representation of the expectations that new technologies create in the market place. When a new technology is introduced, inflated expectations — either driven by the creator or by the market itself — lead to peak hype, which is then quickly followed by a drop known as the “trough of disillusionment,” and finally stabilizes at the “plateau of productivity.”

Though the hype cycle has been the subject of debate, it remains a useful visual for analyzing the excitement and disappointment that new technologies often bring. But it’s important to recognize that the fluctuation between these two emotions — and, therefore, the size of the peaks and troughs — can be dramatically different depending on the product and how it is launched.

Virtual reality has found itself near the beginning of this cycle. The excitement over the potential uses for VR pioneer Oculus Rift in the classroom dates back to at least 2014, but the headset — along with others like the HTC Vive — have only recently made their way into the hands of educators and students.

For those of us working on cutting-edge technology like virtual reality, the hype cycle is a double-edged sword. The public awareness gained through a high “peak” may not offset unhappy customers and, ultimately, the undersized revenue caused by a low “trough.” By leveling out these highs and lows, we can more quickly get to the plateau of productivity, and to effective implementation of new technology.

As virtual reality begins its journey into the classroom, it is worth reflecting on some of the lessons from previous waves of much-hyped educational technology to better understand how we can offer products that solve real problems experienced by students and teachers. While we can work to temper the hype, we should also work to live up to it.

Empower teachers: Much of early edtech focused on developing tools for perceived problem areas for educators rather than on cultivating and enabling great teaching. The tools have leaned toward delivering content instead of helping teachers find the best ways to teach. Savvy companies have begun to push for a more teacher-centric approach built on the assumption that the best source of content for technology in the classroom comes from teachers. VR should follow suit.

Solve real problems: Some of the disappointment with early educational technology stemmed from educators realizing the products didn’t solve a problem that actually existed in their classrooms. Designers should include educators in the creation and implementation of their products. Teachers are the experts. They know what they want and need, and tools that don’t engage them early and often will almost inevitably fail to live up to the hype.

Design for the medium: When learning first moved online, the initial wave of products simply digitized otherwise analog practices. Lectures were recorded and uploaded to learning management systems. Paper multiple-choice exams became digital multiple-choice exams. This was still an improvement because it enabled students to “attend” a lecture from almost anywhere, but these changes didn’t take advantage of the incredible power of the internet and our connected devices. The second wave of edtech learning experiences are digital-first, interactive, simulative experiences. Similarly, virtual reality is different from any medium that we have designed for in the past, and we should take advantage of its unique features.

Use best practices in learning design: Some early edtech solutions were more focused on the “what” than the “how.” They were focused on content, not learning design. It is no surprise that when poor teaching strategies are replicated for a different medium, they do not have any better impact on learning. The best technology solutions are those that allow instructors to amplify their own approach or pedagogy and to scale their best teaching. We know that when you focus on creating an active learning experience, you can improve student outcomes.

Expect the cycle to move much slower in education: Some edtech companies have exploded onto the scene, only to burn out in a couple of years. This echoes the typically short cycle of product development that has proven successful for many direct-to-consumer products originating in Silicon Valley. But the education industry moves at a glacial pace. Sales cycles are extremely long, and there remains plenty of skepticism among teachers and administrators over new products. Right now, we should focus on the learning value of the virtual reality medium in education. Once the learning value of the medium has been established for teachers, demand for VR education products will follow.

Jacqui Hayes was a finalist in the Department of Education’s 2017 EdSim Challenge to develop virtual reality education simulations. Her focus is in active learning in science education, and she manages the Inspark product suite of Smart Sparrow’s next-generation science courseware, including BioBeyond and HabWorlds.