The future of education: Smart Stone VR

Started by three Chinese founders, Smart Stone VR is a technology startup that brings virtual reality and augmented reality to the classroom. The company uses VR & AR technology to gamify education for primary schools to create more engaged and happy students.

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Education has been done the same way for thousands of years. Sometimes it’s through speech, other times it’s through drawings and writing. If a new technology comes along that makes communicating ideas more effective, it makes sense to adopt it.

Our kids are also living in a society where they’re using technology right from the beginning. They’re picking up iPads and mobile phones before the age of five, and become comfortable with the internet in a matter of months. As an educator, you want to bridge the gap between information learnt in school and everyday life, and using new mediums helps us do that.

VR makes it easier for children immerse themselves in new experiences and expand their creativity. It also helps teachers better engage their students in class activities. They can elaborate on course material that is typically seen through pictures and text, then bring it to life with a VR headset. It makes the experience of learning more interactive and helps students remember the material.

In December, we undertook our first trial at Kogarah high school. Once they wore the headsets, I heard amazement in the classroom. The content we have can take them anywhere in the world. They can dive into the ocean and watch fish swim around them. They can look inside their bodies and see the layout of a single cell. They can go into space and see the Milky Way. It gives them a visual, tangible way of understanding the world.

In VR, you’re not just absorbing knowledge. You’re involved in it.

Education providers are always looking for ways to improve the quality of their lessons. One of the ways they’ve done this in the past is through using digital media—Youtube videos, interactive websites and first-hand experiments. We think VR should be included in this set of tools.

Before launching Smart Stone VR, we also did research on whether VR was effective in other schools around the world. We read that more than 100 schools in China were already using the headsets for education purposes, and there were pilot programs in America too. We thought if these two countries already found success with their curriculums, we could spread the technology to Australia and help students here too.

The teachers are excited. They’re always looking for a way of increasing student attention. And students want to use the headsets again—it gives them a break from the typical routines in school, and lets them experiment in a different way.

We have a pool of content made by our partners in China that fits into the school curriculum. For instance, there’s a VR version of the water cycle—demonstrating how water evaporates into the air as steam, then condenses into rain. In the past, this would’ve been a difficult subject to depict—weather systems are large-scale and often invisible to the eye. But VR gives students a tangible way of understanding how the system works.

Another piece of content we have is a dive into the Atlantic Ocean. You get to watch underwater rock formations, coral, and animated fish move through a section of the ocean, to understand how marine life functions together.

A last piece of content we have reimagines Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. If you put on the headset, you’re dropped into an idealised version of 19th Century France. You walk the street that Van Gogh painted. You see the swirly blue sky rise high above you. You walk along the houses, seeing their windows and doorsteps, then you float through the window of a house into another painting. It’s extraordinary.

The mindset of teaching is to encourage your kids to discover a problem, then explore a way to solve it. We’re not focused on knowledge. We’re focused on how to turn learning into a consistent life-long habit.

It was by chance. Throughout university I studied marketing, and when I graduated in 2000 I worked in an internet company doing online marketing. But I had always been interested in technology. A lot of my friends in China worked in this area, and I began to understand VR technology as it became more popular in the middle of this decade.

In 2015, I had a friend called Kai Liang who was working on VR content. We had a few discussions on where VR was going and decided to do business together. I bought some VR devices for myself and if I had free time, I would play around with the technology. It was just an interesting thing to do at the time.

When I moved to Australia, I worked in a mortgage company which helped Chinese investors find mortgages. But last year, the major banks in Australia changed their policies on foreign investors and closed itself to overseas mortgages. Business dropped significantly. We didn’t close the business, but I had an opportunity to try something new. Doing this project was a perfect match for me.

In October 2017, we held a lot of meetings and did some research of how VR was used in the global market. At this point, we didn’t know what field we should target, so we experimented with using the headsets for property and entertainment use. But after talking with teachers, we thought education was the best market to target.

In the beginning, we didn’t have an English version of our content. We demonstrated the course content to English-speaking teachers in Chinese. But even with the language barrier, the content was designed to be visual and made those teachers interested in the technology. The feedback was part of the reason why we chose the education sector.

I later met Ye Yan–a community liason officer at Kogarah High School who gave a public talk on the Australian education system in 2017. I was looking for a partner at the time who knew the system well, and talked to Ye for three months before partnering with him.

After pivoting a few times in the beginning, we’re now working on implementing VR for the education sector.

One of the first challenges we found was understanding differences between private and public schools. NSW government schools have a very strong IT team, and they’re training their teachers a lot with computers and technology. But there’s always going to be a delay in adoption. It’s a huge system, and they need to make sure new technologies won’t harm the existing system.

However, some private and Catholic schools have already integrated VR into their school curriculum. Since their business models work on student fees rather than government support, they can afford to try new technologies.

For public schools, we built the new model on the idea of a mobile classroom. Schools could rent the gear and content for a day, and we’d hold classes over a 3-4 year age range so that everyone could use the technology. We bring over the devices, and cover course content consistent with their syllabus requirements in Physics, Biology and Geography. Then after the day ends, we pack up and move onto the next classroom.

For private schools, we sell the full system–a package with thirty VR headsets and licensing for the content. We work with content providers to better integrate the technology into the school curriculum.

Another challenge is understanding the needs of teachers. My business partner Ye had a few decades of experience in the education system and knows how time-strapped teachers are. They need to cover a lot of points in the syllabus, and they need to know your solution matches up to the curriculum. They shouldn’t be the people trying to implement the technology. We try and make it so easy that teachers have confidence we’ll cover all the points for that lesson.

We’re also working with libraries in providing VR services to the general public. They’re interested in our VR classroom concept and we’re planning to build some lessons with them. We’re currently talking with Hornsby and Hurstville libraries and we hope more partnerships will come in the future.

Ethan Ou

Ethan Ou

Ethan Ou is a content creator and an intern at Haymarket HQ, specialising in writing, photography, audio production and video editing. He's obsessed with learning about people and understanding differences in worldview and culture.
Ethan Ou
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