What can virtual reality do for learning?

In 1962, Morton Heilig, a cinematographer and inventor, produced a prototype machine called the Sensorama Simulator (pictured above). It was a machine that played 3D films enhanced by stereo sound and effects such as a fan-generated breeze and a series of chemical scents emitted from vents.  In the Sensorama you could feel like you were really riding a motorcycle! While the Sensorama did not make it past the prototype stage, it laid the foundations for some important thinking on what simulating reality (and creating new realities) might involve. This included the potential for technology to transport a person into another realm, elicit powerful feelings of ‘being there’ in that virtual environment, and allowing people to experience things that they might not be able to do in real life. These are some of the affordances of virtual environments.

Affordance is a tricky term because it can mean both how people use the properties of a technology for a particular purpose and how the actual properties of a technology allow for a range of uses (Hammond, 2010). So what are some of the affordances  of 3D virtual environments that can make it a valuable learning tool?  These include:

  • Allowing learners to enhance their knowledge of an environment or object through spatial interaction or manipulation in a fully-realised 3D way (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). An example of this would be rotating a virtual human cell and resizing it to get a better or more detailed view of its specific structures and how these relate to each other. You might also put a simulation of a human cell beside a plant cell and interact and manipulate with these for comparative purposes.
  • Facilitating experiential learning for tasks or activities that are impractical, impossible or unsafe in the real world (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). For example, it would not be safe or practical to experience an active volcanic eruption. A simulated virtual experience could allow you a close-up view of the event, provide a deeper understanding of the phenomena and explore its aftermath. Virtual reality, using head mounted displays (HMDS), has provided field trips through the human body to educate on health, been used to gauge the behaviours of children in road safety scenarios, and train astronauts in repairing equipment. At its best, the skills learnt in the virtual environment can be readily transferred to real world situations.
  • Increasing motivation and engagement in learning tasks through a ‘flow’ state that results from intense feeling of presence or ‘being there’  (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). Using the plant and human cell example cited above, learners may become drawn into the immediacy and intrinsic interest of the task in cognitive and embodied ways. Indeed, there is increasing interest in immersive virtual reality as a tool to explore embodied cognition (Jang et al., 2017). Furthermore, if it is possible to interact with others to do the task in a virtual environment then the educational and social benefits of cooperative learning can become apparent.
  • Allowing profound flights of the imagination. Leaving aside the magic of virtual field trips on and off the planet and back in time, there are a growing number of tools that allow users to create in and customise virtual environments with extraordinary results (eg Tilt Brush). And, there are current explorations of immersive virtual reality as an ‘empathy machine’ that allow people to step into someone else’s shoes and perhaps even change their belief system (Maister et al., 2015). Another immersive technology, 360° video, has been used to provide a window into the lives of people living with autism.

The affordances of virtual environments have enormous potential to enhance learning but require more research on specific applications, groups of learners and in diverse educational settings. This is especially true of highly immersive virtual reality mediated though head mounted displays (HMDs). Some key questions are:

How do the affordances of highly immersive VR, mediated through HMDs, enhance, alter or add to learning experiences especially when compared to desktop virtual environments?

What are the pedagogical implications of these affordances and what should teachers know and do in relation to this?

These questions are central to the VR School project.

References

Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3‐D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology41(1), 10-32.

Hammond, M. (2010). What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education? Education and Information Technologies15(3), 205-217. http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/34602/1/WRAP_Hammond_9870626-ie-030511-hammondaffordancejuly09.pdf

Jang, S., Vitale, J. M., Jyung, R. W., & Black, J. B. (2017). Direct manipulation is better than passive viewing for learning anatomy in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment. Computers & Education106, 150-165.

Maister, L., Slater, M., Sanchez-Vives, M. V., & Tsakiris, M. (2015). Changing bodies changes minds: owning another body affects social cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences19(1), 6-12. https://neiljh.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/the-troublesome-concept-of-technological-affordances/

 

Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Education and someone who wishes she could have tried the Sensorama!

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