Virtual reality is becoming widely regarded as a novel and exciting technology which has some great potential for deeper and more engaging learning. However, that novelty can also be a barrier to the real needs and objectives of a learning piece, and you may find that a ‘good’ idea for VR is actually cheaper, and better achieves its learning outcomes when presented in another format such as video.

These questions are meant to serve as prompts when thinking about the suitability of a learning activity within VR to help you form a basic understanding of some of the affordances and constraints of using virtual reality as a medium for learning. It is important to note that they are not comprehensive and they only cover the most important points worth considering in a very specific context, so their suggestions should not be taken wholesale but rather as a principle of good practice.

Note: These prompts are not intended as a guide to suitable Augmented Reality (AR) use, and they don’t reference directly the affordances of mixed reality and its emergent hardware, though many of these considerations can be applied to these areas as well.

 

Does your learning experience require an immersive environment?

 

‘Immersive environment’ refers to a tangible environment within the virtual world which can be interacted with. It ultimately boils down to whether the learning is in some way connected to the environment you have created; the weaker this connection, the weaker the case for VR (also bear in mind that while important to VR, immersion alone doesn’t increase understanding and should not be used in place of learning content).

 

Good Example Bad Example
First person navigation and exploration of Mars’ topography

Mars is a place students can’t otherwise visit, and it has great immersive potential, made even more so when combined with practical applications of theoretical learning.

Getting students to look at a map of Mars’ topography

In this case, Mars is still the environment in question, but immersion no longer plays a part in student understanding. Presenting the map (even an interactive one) on screen or printed out may be a better option.

Immersive

Will students be interacting with the environment?

 
‘Interacting’ includes any form of dependency on the environment. This interaction needn’t just be physical either – simply looking at the environment is enough to meet this criteria as long as the students are learning something by doing so. This question can often lead into another which is just as important: “Can your experience be achieved just as well, or even better, in another format?”
 

Good Example Bad Example
Giving students the opportunity to operate a virtual crane

Practising how to operate a crane safely in a facsimile of the real world will allow students to practically translate their virtual experience into something workable with real cranes.

Getting students to read a crane operator’s manual

Aside from large pieces of text and extended prose not displaying well in VR, this example makes little use of VR’s practical potential. Although text can be interacted with, assimilating its content would be easier on screen or in print.

Interactive

Is student understanding contingent on the accuracy of the environment?

 
Accuracy is mostly problematic when working with 3D models, especially if students are being asked to learn from them. If you have access to a 3D modeller or bespoke model creation then you are in a good position to ensure the consistency and quality of your assets, though you should be mindful of the costs and lead times involved with this approach. If you haven’t got access to bespoke assets, or don’t need them, then off-the-shelf options can be useful for keeping time and costs down, but they could be potentially inaccurate.
 

Good Example Bad Example
Giving students a virtual tour of the Pyramids of Egypt

When working with rich environments, there is a tendency to put immersion above all else, and while this plays well to VR’s strengths, it can come at the expense of robust pedagogy. An alternative format or a simpler objective can help mitigate the potential weaknesses in the learning.

Asking students to study hieroglyphics at the Pyramids of Egypt

In VR, learning opportunities are made better by being tied to the physical environment, but in this example you must think carefully about whether you can acquire or accurately replicate the hieroglyphics.

Accurate

Is your learning experience an experiential one?

 
This question is concerned with applied knowledge. Experiential activities tend to spread the cognitive load during study, and lend themselves to VR experiences where the student has an opportunity to apply theory to reality.
 

Good Example Bad Example
Allowing students to recreate chemical experiments

This example allows students to not only apply their externally acquired expertise in a safe environment, but also gives them the opportunity to learn through trial and error without the potential cost implications and dangers of actual experimentation.

Showing students the results of chemical experiments

The difference between this example and the one above, is mostly a matter of interaction. True to experiential learning, students in the good example are able to learn by proactively seeking answers, whereas in this example, students are merely shown the answers.

Experiential

Is your learning experience studied as part of a larger activity?

 
Some educational experiences can still be viable in VR even if they fail to tick most boxes, but only when they are used as supplementary pieces to more thorough pieces of learning.

A good standalone experience would allow students to complete their learning with little need to reference external sources of information (external to the VR environment, i.e. the real world). While dipping in and out of VR during an experience is doable, it is certainly not desirable. It is important to understand the physical relationship between the learning objects as well as the pedagogical relationship.
 

Good Example Bad Example
Getting students to focus on conversational fluency in a language learning environment

Conversational fluency requires practice and repetition, and the student has the opportunity to do this solely within the VR experience. If further understanding is needed, extra learning content can be studied asynchronously through other formats.

Getting students to focus on conversational accuracy in a language learning environment

A student will develop accuracy by referring back and forth between the experience and their notes and/or dictionary to reinforce their understanding.

Reflective

Can students evaluate their learning solely within the experience? (Importing and exporting information)

 
Many topics are best understood by a student after a period of self-directed evaluation. This may be as simple as taking notes and reading them back later, or as complex as creating bespoke artefacts which are meaningful to the student. It is currently difficult to take notes and export materials from VR into the student’s study domain.
 

Good Example Bad Example
Allowing students to practise public speaking skills in front of a live, virtual audience

This is an activity where there is little reliance on study aids, and the immersion is the driving force behind achieving the learning outcome.

Getting students to watch a 360′ video lecture on how to improve their public speaking skills

This format contains too much information to be processed at once, and creates a disconnect between theory and practice. A student may feel inclined to make notes in this type of scenario but a clunky attempt to allow this in VR would become a barrier to the immersion and fluidity of the experience.

Self-contained

 

 

 

VR headset comparison

High-end headset Mid-range headset Budget headset
Examples

Oculus Rift (pictured)

HTC Vive

Playstation VR

Samsung GearVR (pictured)

Google Daydream

Cardboard headsets (pictured)

Pros
  • Offers best graphics and processing capabilities

  • Touch and motion inputs for even greater interaction and immersive experiences

  • Better suited for prolonged immersion compared to lower-end headsets
  • Offers good compromise on quality versus cost

  • Touch inputs and motion detection are being developed for greater interaction and control options

  • Relatively cheap and comfortable to wear

  • Good build quality with better responsiveness and optics compared to the same device in a cardboard headset
  • Very cheap

  • Doesn't rely on a computer to operate

  • Easy to transport and brand

  • Works with any smartphone and operating system
Cons
  • Considerable cost implications: the headset is expensive and requires a powerful PC rig in order to operate

  • Not mobile and difficult to transport
  • Only works with specific handsets which tend to be expensive

  • Technology in these headsets and phones develops quickly so may be harder to keep up to date
  • Uncomfortable and not particularly well suited for prolonged immersion

  • Cheap materials means less durability and build quality

  • Lowest graphical and processing capabilities

  • Limited control options (one button select is standard)