Since the early years of virtual reality, futurists heralded it as the next transition in the way people would experience media and communicate with one another. VR has captured our imagination for its ability to substitute our physical environment and our sensory experiences.
We have come a long way since Edward Link’s flight simulator and Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, and today’s advances in computing have enabled high-fidelity experiences that were never before possible.
VR in education is not new, but the proliferation of VR headsets in combination with advances in computing have created new opportunities for expansion.
Taking advantage of VR
The benefits of learning in virtual environments are well documented:
- Learners get to have unlimited practice and perform high-stakes tasks without the risks of injury or death.
- Learners can manipulate time and participate in learning scenarios that are impossible to replicate in a physical environment.
You don’t have to look very far to find examples of how VR is being used to expose people to a variety of situations. For example:
- The DuSable Museum of African American History offers a virtual reality exhibition that aims to bring museum visitors into the crowd and up close with Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivers his “I have a dream” speech.
- An Australian skeleton racer uses VR to train for the Winter Olympics, despite residing in the sunny beachside town of Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
- Neurosurgeons practice high-risk and complex surgical procedures before actual surgeries.
Determining whether virtual reality experiences are appropriate and cost-effective for your needs is an important first step.
The examples above are just a small sample of currently available VR experiences. We are at the beginning of a massive investment in an industry that is estimated to grow to $1.5 trillion by 2030. This past holiday season, Oculus devices sold out, and Oculus reported they sold $5 million worth of Quest content in the first two weeks. Experiences will only improve with investments on haptic devices such as the ones that allow users to feel virtual objects. There is an obvious growing market for companies, employers and higher education institutions.
The number of students from younger generations entering college who will demand educational content in VR will subsequently increase. Employers are already embracing the technology for their training needs, and therefore, universities and colleges should start thinking about and executing their immersive learning strategies.
Developing an immersive learning strategy
If you’re an educator or administrator considering deploying VR within one course or across an entire degree program, where do you start?
Determining whether virtual reality experiences are appropriate and cost-effective for your needs is an important first step. Look for opportunities where you want to expose leaners to experiences that are out of reach. From there, work with faculty and other leaders to determine whether VR can improve the teaching and learning experience, and ultimately student success.
Before Arizona State University leaders decided to launch VR simulations in the online biological sciences program, a team spent time working to understand the value that VR experiences would bring to learners. Here are three of the key questions we asked ourselves:
- Would learners benefit from being immersed in these experiences?
- Would learners benefit from being exposed to scenarios that would be otherwise impossible to experience in a regular classroom?
- Does the technology eliminate barriers to access? (ASU’s students are distributed all over the world, for example.)
In short, we answered “yes” to these questions, and our team decided to proceed with the project.
Despite the challenges that come with deploying a new technology—from user training to support processes—the deployment of VR in the biological sciences program was a success. The simulations exposed students to learning scenarios that are impossible to replicate in a physical space. For example, we sent students to an exoplanet to help them understand how the environment influences the distribution of a species. In another simulation, students used confocal microscopes to identify a disease affecting crops in a farm.
In their own words, students described the experiences as a “spectacular representation of being out in the field.” They also reported being more engaged and less distracted by the outside world while experiencing the simulations. Almost all of the students reported that experiencing the simulations in VR contributed to their learning.
Philippos Savvides is the assistant director of learning technologies at EdPlus at Arizona State University, where he focuses on the interaction between learning and technology to deploy meaningful solutions that enable access to education.