The power of VR: learning in a new reality

Imagine a world in which students can visit any landmark in the world without leaving the classroom – virtual reality technology is turning that vision into an actuality

The theory behind virtual learning

Using virtual reality (VR) technology in learning isn’t a new concept. The technology’s first major application was in the 1970s, when it was used to simulate complex working environments, such as factories, hospitals, cockpits and military training. However, recently and with the pandemic putting emphasis on new applications of technology, we have started to see VR being introduced into mainstream education, bringing with it a myriad of interesting opportunities and questions.

So, what makes VR such an engaging learning tool?

As educators, we understand the value of experiential learning. A student, who has the opportunity to engage in a ‘direct, purposeful experience’ also has the opportunity to retain up to 90% of the knowledge gained – compared to only 10% from reading a book. In this regard, VR can allow someone to experience things they would usually not be able to experience. This, however, is only one of the benefits of integrating virtual reality into a classroom. Barney Dalgarno and Mark J. W. Lee considered VR’s unique characteristics and corresponding learning affordances and identified five key benefits of 3D virtual learning environments: collaborative learning, contextual learning, spatial knowledge development, engagement and experiential learning.

VR in the classroom

What experiential learning in VR offers – which textbooks do not – is the chance for students to fully immerse themselves in the concept and ultimately approach it in a more meaningful way. Even abstract or difficult to visualise concepts can become accessible to students. This certainly helps to hold their interest and make the learning process enjoyable.

But, more than that, it helps learners engage on an emotional level. This encourages students to be more reflective, flex their thinking beyond their habitual processes and draw their own conclusions based on the experience. As a result, the memory created is much stronger, enabling them to recall the learning in greater detail and for a longer period of time.

“What experiential learning in VR offers – which textbooks do not – is the chance for students to fully immerse themselves in the concept and ultimately approach it in a more meaningful way”

These benefits combined make virtual reality more effective than a textbook or PowerPoint presentation ever could be.

Early peer review studies have already shown the positive impact of VR learning in test results – and the difference in performance levels is substantial. Studies indicate that students who use VR outperform those using traditional learning methods in tests by a ratio of 90:68%. It seems that students using VR are able to concentrate six times better than those in traditional classes, helping to account for their elevated performance.

Findings like these suggest that VR should be given importance not just while dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. In fact, VR produces tangible results and schools and universities should be seriously considering its integration into their pedagogical approach.

Although still in its infancy, VR is starting to be introduced to some curriculums around the world with great effect.

In Taiwan, for example, Tapei University built a VR-enabled classroom which allowed students to visualise the human body’s functions in ways that were previously unobservable. VR has also been used to simulate surgeries, helping medical students gain greater surgical competency in a safe and ethical environment.

Meanwhile, at Northwestern University in Qatar, we have started using VR as a collaboration tool in the classroom. Instead of meeting in person or on Zoom, students meet in virtual reality, where they are able to externalise and express their ideas through 360 images, 3D sketches or 3D models. This form of collaboration allows learners to interact with concepts and communicate these with their peers in a more accessible way. Additionally, the university has been encouraging media students to experiment with VR as part of the story development process. Projects have already transported viewers to the war-torn city of Sana’a in Yemen, a court hearing, and the middle of the desert, to name just a few.

Making education more equitable

Arguably the most exciting element of VR is that it pushes us closer to more equitable learning opportunities for students around the world.

In his book Experience on Demand, Professor Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford University argues that VR can help democratise education by allowing students to access spaces that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. Take school trips, for example; one VR headset costs today far less than taking a full class to another country and enables the whole class to enjoy the experience, regardless of the students’ individual financial circumstances.

Tech companies such as Google and Discovery Education are already working with educators to send millions of students on school trips to places such as Mount Everest and the Louvre, which would be logistically and economically challenging for most schools.

VR is also a valuable tool for teaching students with learning difficulties and has been found to be particularly effective for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The simulations can help autistic children cultivate social skills and cues in a low-pressure environment, without the outside stimulus that can be challenging for them.

Evolving practices

The last year has thrown education inequalities into sharp focus and, as we look to the future of education, it’s clear that VR has a vital role to play in addressing this.

Yet, what’s also exciting about this technology is that many of its potential applications in the classroom are still to be discovered. To date, we have only taken the first steps towards integrating VR into education, and this has only happened at select institutions. As VR is increasingly leveraged, we will see new, creative applications emerging. As the trend moves on, we can soon expect it to become a tool that enables teachers around the world to engage students in ways that they previously didn’t think possible in a classroom.

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