Virtual Reality - The Final Frontier of E-learning?

Virtual Reality – the final frontier of e-learning?

To be transported from the mundane real world of responsibility and hard work to a care-free virtual world of your own imagining – what could be more exciting? Perhaps this is why the idea of Virtual Reality has been so popular since the ‘50s. However, Virtual Reality is equally as infamous for being incredibly difficult to get right as it is famous for its fantastic prospects. Moreover, it is a concept commonly associated with video games and science fiction, so why are we talking about it in the context of e-learning?

Virtual Reality (VR) is once again on the scene, and as VR is a type of electronic media, learning via VR is a type of e-learning. According to a recent report[1], the VR market is expected to grow to $407.51 million and reach more than 25 million users by 2018. With the advent of devices such as the Occulus Rift, which has recently been bought by Facebook[2], it looks like VR could finally fulfil our desires of being immersed in realistic virtual world.

The level of immersion that VR provides for its user is the reason that VR has a lot of potential for e-learning. By immersing learners in their learning experience, the hope is that those learners will become fully engaged with the learning material.

Engagement is often seen as the ‘holy grail’ of e-learning: if a learner is engaged with the learning material then she is interested and invested in it, seeks to understand it, and will try hard to do well. Engaging e-learning is effective e-learning, and so if VR can provide engaging learning, then it can be an excellent next step for e-learning.

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

What is Virtual Reality?

To assess the potential benefits of VR for e-learning it will help to have a clear understanding of what Virtual Reality is.

Virtual Reality is the term for a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person[3]. The more somebody feels like they are inside, or part of, a 3D computer generated environment, the more they are immersed in that virtual world.

Computer games therefore qualify as VR, although they provide little immersion. What more readily springs to mind when we think of VR is someone wearing some headgear, such as the Occulus Rift, to provide them with visual and auditory immersion; partial immersion in their virtual reality. Complete (or at least almost complete) immersion is also possible using a Computer Automated Virtual Environment, which is essentially a room with floors and walls made of screens displaying 3D images[4]. .

Benefits of Virtual Reality to:
  • Current Learning environments
Virtual Reality can enhance current e-learning by making it 3D and interactive. Rather than a group of learners all looking at 2D images of course-content on an interactive whiteboard, they can experience the content of this lesson as occupying space in their classroom and thereby become immersed in learning.

In a VR maths lesson, the variables of a sum are no longer images on a screen with which a learner’s interaction is mediated by the use of a mouse or calling out to a teacher. Instead, they are physical things which are immediately present to learners and with which they can directly interact. For example, a learner can manipulate the sum by moving the variables with their hands, doing so until they have found the correct arrangement of variables to solve the sum. The activity itself is tactile and so learners can learn by doing. This enables kinaesthetic learning – learning by doing. We all to a certain extent learn kinaesthetically, and this is the primary mode of learning for 5-20% of the population[5]. By enabling learners to directly interact with their learning materials, VR makes courses immersive and entertaining, thereby increasing engagement and motivation to learn, and also appeals to different types of learners in a way that standard e-learning does not.

In 2011 a project which used virtual worlds technology (VR) to support teaching was carried out in Irish primary schools. A report on this project by University College Dublin found that VR in classrooms resulted in student’s understanding of topics being deeper and the retention-levels of information being higher than in a traditional learning environment; that new channels of interaction and dialogue opened up between students and between teachers; that learners were more motivated learners because VR made learning fun; that previously unconfident students became confident because they were able to interact with learning materials in new ways and because physical characteristics such as race, gender and weight didn’t affect a learner’s acceptance by other leaners, and that the learning experiences of learners at either ends of the ability spectrum – gifted learners and learners with special needs – were improved[6].

All of the advantages that the report found are in areas that are key to the effectiveness of e-learning: engagement, understanding, motivation and interaction. Transforming current learning environments using VR is therefore a great way to do e-learning. However, VR is not only beneficial through its enhancement of current learning, it can also be used to create new learning environments which were not previously possible.
  • Potential Learning environments
Virtual worlds are physically risk free. If when you are learning virtually you spill some virtual hazardous waste, crash a virtual lorry or blow up a virtual building then there is no real consequence. However, if any of these things were to happen in the real world then there certainly would be consequences!

When learning via VR, then, learners can do things which are not possible (or practical) in the real world. This means that new types of learning environments become available: one can take a course which involves working in dangerous or high-risk scenarios, such as working with hazardous waste, working in an operating theatre, or even learning how to dispose of a bomb.

There are already some examples of this, such as flight simulators which enable would-be pilots to learn how to fly a commercial plane without the possibility of endangering the passengers!
Not only can VR make these courses possible, but it gives learners the freedom to fail. This means that learners can experience the (virtual) consequences of their actions, and learn from their mistakes in a way that is not possible with real-world learning. Because of the undesirability of these types of consequences in the real world, when learners take ‘real’ course they can only be informed of failure indirectly, by being told about it or by watching a video, for example. With VR, when a learner is immersed in the learning environment, they can experience the consequences of failure: by experiencing what it would be like to crash a lorry on the motorway learners can become emotionally invested in the learning experience and so the rewards of success, and the incentives to avoid failure, become tangible, and the overall learning experience is enhanced. Learning from mistakes also means that experiments in high-risk scenarios can be carried out, and previously unavailable innovation can occur.

VR therefore makes previously impossible learning environments possible. By doing so, it opens up previously inaccessible learning environments and topics. It also enhances this learning by making it realistic and immersing the learner in real-world situations, giving the learner motivation to seek success and avoid failure in a way which will surely benefit them when they come to apply their learning in the real world.


With the advent of the Occulus Rift there has been a recent surge of enthusiasm for Virtual Reality. However, it is still a possibility rather than a reality, particularly when we are thinking of implementing VR at a consumer rather than a developer level. The costs and implications of implementing VR in more than a minority of learning situations also seem unfeasible. This, however, does not detract from the potential benefits of VR to e-learning.

We have seen how VR can change current learning environments in to exciting, fun, sociable environments in which learner engagement, understanding, motivation and interaction is vastly increased through immersion in learning. We have also seen how VR enables us to create previously impossible learning environments and thereby explore previously unavailable topics, in which people can learn from failure and make innovations which will hugely benefit them and others in real-life situations. Learning via VR therefore offers a plethora of exciting and new opportunities for e-learning. However, not everyone can take advantage of these opportunities just yet.
[5] The Blended Learning Book, Josh Bersin
[6] MissionV Schools Pilot Programme,  A Note on Key Findings by Dr Conor Galvin.


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