In biology classes at the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China in Beijing, students don't use pictures, videos or even microscopes to learn about the structure of blood cells in circulatory systems.
Instead, each student puts on a headset to visualize its structure as if they were walking inside a cell, an immersive experience realized only thanks to the rapidly developing technology of virtual reality.
Nian Weifeng, a biology teacher with the high school, says this fresh experience intrigues students and helps them to better understand abstract concepts like the structure of a molecule.
"It's good for those with poor spatial abilities," he says.
Nian started offering the 10-minute VR lessons as part of his class for K-11 students two years ago. It's a totally different way of teaching from his previous experience. The school added VR to its list of elective courses in 2012. To apply it to the teaching of basic courses is still a very recent and innovative step.
In fact, many schools in China have already set up VR classrooms to join the growing trend of the "next evolution in education" after the central government widely promoted and encouraged use of the cutting-edge technology, which is said to be one of the key future revolutions in technology along with big data and artificial intelligence.
Zhou Mingquan, director of the Virtual Reality Application Engineering Research Center of the Ministry of Education, says that the ministry has issued a host of regulations to support VR applications in schools and colleges in recent years. It has written VR into its 10-year plan from 2011 to 2020, including the goal to establish 1,000 VR rooms in colleges by 2020.
Primary and middle schools in Qingdao and Weihai in Shandong province began to set up VR classrooms in 2016 to allow students access to the technology. About 2,000 schools in Zunyi in Guizhou province will be equipped with VR classrooms by the end of this year.
"It's an inevitable trend in this era of information. People are excited to embrace eye-catching technology in education," said Zhou at the education forum of the 2018 World Conference on the Virtual Reality Industry held from Oct 19 to 21 in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, a city that aims to build the biggest virtual reality hub in China. The forum attracted many school directors and teachers from around the country.
Zhou, who's also a professor at Beijing Normal University, jokes that many of the students in his class are easily distracted by their smartphones, a phenomenon that may highlight how the current methods of teaching don't always meet students' desire for interactive teaching methods, which are now being realized by virtual reality.
Luisa Caldas at the University of California, Berkeley, who attended the recent education forum in Nanchang, talked about how her classroom teaching experience has been enhanced by the use of VR technology.
Students in the architecture class she teaches at UC Berkeley have been proactive in applying VR technology to building design, which allows them to view 3D architectural forms from a 360-degree perspective and assess the different effects to the building caused by changes in the surrounding environment.
Caldas says that her students embraced the opportunity to try out VR technology and generally found that it helped them with their work. She plans to promote these kinds of VR classrooms to more subjects.
"It's an immersive learning tool that changes the way we study," she says.
In China, many colleges and vocational schools are embracing VR technology by applying it to disciplines like medicine－allowing students to practice performing surgery in the virtual world－psychology and machinery.
Xu Qinghao, vice-president of Vivedu, a Beijing-based company that provides VR classroom systems and content for schools, says the company has offered tailored VR classes to lots of schools and universities in the past two years.
Most recently, they equipped a university classroom with a VR system to support research on a new engine.
Each part of the engine can be clearly seen and moved by students using VR headsets. All the 84 parts can be assembled and separated in seconds.
Xu says the ultra-high definition of each part makes them appear "more real than the real thing. You don't have the chance to see them in such a detailed way in reality."
Vivedu was set up in 2016, a year that is seen as the start of the VR industry's boom. Now, the company offers more than 200 courses for schools and can provide a VR classroom accommodating up to 500 students.
A physical aid
Psychology is another VR application.
The Ministry of Education has listed high on its agenda the need to push schools and colleges to set up psychological-treatment rooms.
Xu cites the example of using VR to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. Wearing the headsets, students can speak on a simulated stage surrounded by an audience that can respond to the speaker as in a real-life situation while the speaker's reactions are recorded.
VR can also be used to treat people with suicidal tendencies, insomnia and depression.
"There is much demand among schools for this kind of VR room for psychological treatment," Xu adds.
Although the advantages of VR learning are obvious－it enables students to study in immersive environments that they would not be able to access in reality－creating content for VR lessons is still difficult for teachers, says Cheng Cong, an expert on VR education.
Cheng says that out of 400 schoolteachers from Beijing and Shanghai undergoing training on creating VR content for lessons this year, about 100 gave up and left the program after a few days. Most told Cheng that they couldn't handle it.
"Most VR classrooms in schools now work as experience centers for students to learn about the technology. It takes time to apply it to lessons," says Zhou, a professor at Beijing Normal University, who has focused on VR education for 20 years.
Zhou says it has taken about 20 years for people to accept and use classrooms equipped with computers for online learning. VR learning is still in its infancy, and it will take time for teachers and students to get used to it. However, the time frame for its adoption is likely to be shorter.
It will complement existing learning tools rather than replace books, videos or computers, says Zhou.
"A future array of educational tools is coming, and we teachers are striving to take the lead in this field."