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Virtual Reality (VR) in Education: A Complete Guide

Here’s everything you need to know about virtual reality and augmented reality in education, including use cases and benefits.

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Would you rather read about the moon landing or see for yourself what it was like to walk on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin? Believe it or not, experiencing the latter is just as possible as the former, thanks to the rise in virtual reality (VR).

The days of learning being restricted solely to reading textbooks and listening to boring lectures are numbered, and when they’re gone, students won’t miss them. Research shows that textbooks don’t generally improve student achievement and traditional stand-and-deliver lectures in universities lead to higher student failure rates than active learning methods. 

And while there are plenty of active learning techniques to choose from, including simply asking students questions or arranging students for group work, more and more educators are seeing VR’s true potential. According to a recent survey of teachers and students, 90% of educators believe VR may help increase student learning. Perhaps more importantly, the survey also found that 97% of students would attend a class or course with VR, which could significantly decrease dropout rates. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that education is one of the largest sectors for VR investment. Indeed, industry forecasts predict that VR in education will be a $700 million industry by 2025. But is VR in education all that it’s cracked up to be? Let’s find out.

What is virtual reality (VR) in education?

Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that creates the immersive illusion that the user is somewhere else. 

Instead of looking at a screen in front of them, VR allows people to interact with an artificial three-dimensional environment through electronic devices that send and receive information like motion sensors and movement trackers. 

The most essential VR device is the headset, which generally looks like a pair of thick goggles. Fitted out with a unique screen and motion sensors, a VR headset tracks the user’s movement and changes the angle of the screen accordingly. Optional accessories can enhance user experience and include things like:

  • Hand gloves. Wireless controllers that capture full hand and finger action in virtual reality and provide the user the sensation of touch.
  • Treadmills. A mechanical device that looks nothing like the gym equipment you’re used to, a VR treadmill translates your real-life body movements into virtual motion.
  • Vive Trackers. Small hockey puck-esque devices that bring physical objects you own into the virtual world.

Examples and applications of virtual reality in education

Below are just a few examples of how students and educators use VR at all education levels, including K12 education, higher education, vocational training, and special education.

K-12 education

At the K12 level (kindergarten to 12th grade in the US), virtual field trips are among the most common ways educators use VR. For example, in 2019, the Schaumburg School District 54 in Illinois utilized virtual reality kits in each of its 28 schools to bring students on virtual field trips to the moon, World War I battlefields, and the Great Hall at Ellis Island.

The enthusiasm from kids has been overwhelming, said Associate Superintendent Nick Myers in an interview with EdTech magazine. “We’ve seen truly emotional reactions to it because the students can see it, they can navigate through and be part of the experience they’re learning about.”

VR field trips are becoming so popular in education because, in addition to providing immersive and engaging experiences, they’re also accessible. Not every student may be able to join their classmates for a real-world trip to a museum or another country, whether because of a disability or expense. With VR, every student can go on the same trip at no cost. Because they don’t require expensive transport and logistics, virtual field trips are more cost-effective for schools.

Other uses of VR in K-12 education include language immersion and virtual lab simulation. Language immersion allows students to connect with people all over the world. On the other hand, virtual lab simulation gives STEM students the option of experimenting in million-dollar labs or mixing different chemicals in a virtual chemistry class without fear of blowing anything up in real life.

Special education

For students with special needs, VR creates new opportunities to safely explore the world and practice real-world skills, like obeying traffic signals or interacting with police officers, in a no-risk environment. 

For example, Danvers Public Schools district in Massachusetts used VR to introduce new students to the district’s middle school building in advance, something that was particularly helpful for students with disabilities.

Higher education

Choosing the right university can be a daunting and exhausting experience. With VR, applicants can go on virtual reality campus tours to see what it would be like to attend a college or university in another city or even another country.

For example, the University of Michigan athletic department uses VR technology to give potential recruits the chance to see and feel the campus and the athletic facilities from wherever in the world they may be.

But with VR, you may not even have to attend a physical university. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Steven Hill, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ditched Zoom lectures for a virtual 3D version of his classroom. Students can walk around the classroom, talk to each other at different gathering spaces, and even break into groups.

Of course, VR is useful for learners who attend physical institutions, as well. At the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, students use VR to learn acupuncture. In the UK, the University of Westminster has implemented a virtual training center that allows criminal law students to investigate potential murder scenes.

Vocational training

Unfortunately, vocational training is often seen as a second choice — something that students do when they can’t get into a university. Some trade schools are trying to change this by using VR technology to give prospective students a glimpse into a vocational graduate’s daily life.

In addition to attracting new students to trade schools, VR can also give trainees more opportunities to practice essential skills in a safe environment. For example, electricians can rewire a house with fewer safety hazards. Moreover, because trainees work with virtual materials, trade schools can save tons of money on physical materials.

Benefits of using virtual reality in classrooms

According to one study that looked at 1,000 students in three universities, the implementation of VR in classrooms led to students improving by a full letter grade. One of the main advantages of using VR in education is that it raises students’ grades.

In another instance, a hospital found that using VR to train medical students increased their retention rate by 80% a year after the lecture compared to 20% a week after when they didn’t use VR. This boost in retention isn’t so surprising when you consider that VR promotes student curiosity and keeps them engaged even when learning challenging topics.

For example, Barbara Mikolajczak, who runs VR camps and classes in Boston, was surprised to see how motivated her students were when working with other students from Australia when building a virtual version of a Boston church. “The students were so excited about converting meters to feet,” she said. “They realized that the doors wouldn’t be in the center, so that evolved into a lively discussion about what’s more important: the pure numbers or the symmetry of design. You wouldn’t have seen that in a normal lesson about the Old North Church.”  

Other benefits of virtual reality include increased collaboration, cultural competence, and fewer distractions. VR can also help students build better habits. Indeed, according to recent research, after using VR, people have been found to exercise more as well as show more empathy, among other things.

What about augmented reality?

Augmented reality (AR) differs from virtual reality. With AR, students can see digital assets in the real world rather than being hosted in an entirely virtual space as they are within VR.

In practice, this usually involves using a phone or tablet equipped with a camera and AR capability that can display a digital creation in a real context — imagine looking at your phone and seeing a 3D shark swimming around your living room. For educators, this technology has tremendous benefits.

By allowing students to view things like life-size dinosaurs or a model of the solar system in the classroom or in their own homes, AR technology can bring academic subjects to life for younger learners. AR technology such as Google’s enterprise-grade AR glasses also allows workers to see instructions for complex tasks appear right in front of their eyes.

By creating a seamless connection between interactive digital content and the real world, augmented reality can increase information retention for students and make digital instruction a more tangible experience.

What is the future of virtual reality in education?

By adding a new dimension to the learning experience, virtual reality can revolutionize education across every level. We are currently only seeing the early stages of an educational paradigm shift being created by virtual technology.

As VR technology develops even further with better eye tracking and motion sensitivity, it will create new layers of immersive experience. In the future, this means that learners will fully live out and understand learning experiences and educational moments.

Another part of the future of virtual reality in education is greater accessibility. As headsets and software become cheaper, virtual reality will ultimately become a ubiquitous part of education.

As hinted at by the popularity of Google Cardboard (the official VR cardboard case costs just $14.95), VR’s rise will change aspects of how teachers and educators work, too. However, the core tenants of education will remain the same. A powerful tool, VR will make great educators even better by giving them the means to engage new generations of learners like never before.