Virtual reality in education may sound like science fiction, but these two industries go hand in hand better than you’d think. The growing field of VR has potential to enhance learning by providing students with access to virtual environments where they can engage with immersive content from a range of subjects, such as art, geography, biology and chemistry.
What Is Virtual Reality in Education?
Virtual reality in education can be used in K-12 classrooms, for vocational training and in higher education settings. Since virtual reality allows users to interact with computer-simulated environments, it can enable virtual field trips, immerse students in historically significant events, simulate laboratory environments and build meaningful connections among instructors and peers despite the distance between them.
The virtual reality market size is expected to grow from less than $12 billion in 2022 to more than $22 billion by 2025, according to data from Statista. One of the factors motivating growth in the VR industry has been the demand for solutions to combat feelings of isolation during virtual, distanced learning.
VR classrooms have been able to give students opportunities to raise their hands, ask questions in an organic way and generally feel more directly invested. That’s in comparison to what CEO Mat Chacon of VR company Doghead Simulations described as the "pretty flat experience" of traditional online courses.
Doghead co-founder Chance Glasco said he had “no doubt” that online classes will one day be replaced by virtual reality.
“No one builds memories of online classes,” he told Built In in 2019. “It’s just data being fed to your brain in the most boring way possible.”
A 2022 National Research Group report on VR technologies revealed just over 60 percent of consumers who participated in the study “think that VR and AR will be a useful learning tool for children.” Another poll indicated 67 percent of U.S. high school educators surveyed said they want to see extended reality technologies like VR used regularly in schools. The majority of those teachers said the technologies have the potential to help students develop career skills, build social and empathy skills and stay more engaged and motivated in the classroom.
How Does Virtual reality in Education Work?
Virtual reality in education often involves viewing or interacting with learning content using a VR headset along with any associated hardware, such as controllers that can let the user navigate and manipulate a simulated reality. VR headsets use screens, lenses and other advanced technology like sensors that are designed to wrap the viewer in a 360-degree view of a virtual setting.
Some companies produce VR learning content that can be accessed on a desktop, laptop or tablet. In those cases, the content is not fully immersive, but students are still able to participate in simulated environments without the extra costs that can come with VR headsets, which can be a barrier to adoption.
While the science is still out on whether VR is more effective than other immersive-media learning tools, it appears to hold real pedagogical promise. A study by Stanford researchers looked at VR field trips about climate change and found that “participants who explored more of the virtual space formed deeper cognitive associations with the science content and could learn, recall and retain the causes and effects of ocean acidification better than those who did not explore the underwater world as much.”
Benefits of Virtual Reality in Education
Virtual reality has capabilities that could turn it into a valuable asset for education. For example, research out of Penn State University showed that students who used immersive virtual reality to accomplish a task did so more than twice as fast as students who used traditional computer programs.
Social VR applications like rumii from Doghead can also help tackle the challenge of sky-high dropout rates for online courses by helping remote students feel more connected and less isolated. Doghead partnered with Full Sail University to deploy rumii in online coursework to “make students and professors feel like they are in the classroom together.”
Rumii has also been used to facilitate collaboration among students on different continents. A group of anthropology students — half studying at Harvard University and half at Zhejiang University in China — were able to work together as avatars in a VR-equipped classroom to study ancient characters scrawled along a tomb atop the Giza Plateau in preparation for a trip to Egypt. The students were strapped into VR headsets as their professors launched the lab and loaded up 3D models of the Sphinx and one of the tombs, which the teams could then grab and move around in the virtual learning space. Other features of the experience included live HD video streaming and screen sharing.
“It was just this natural conversational immersive interaction that made their trip to Egypt a lot more valuable because, when they were there, they could hit the ground running,” Chacon explained.
Another VR advantage is the comforting semi-anonymity that avatars afford. There’s reams of research about the so-called Proteus Effect, or how a virtual reality user's behavior might be subtly affected by their avatar's characteristics. But Doghead believes those alterations have been positive in rumii.
“You get the comfort of being in person with someone because you feel present with them,” Glasco said. “But you feel safe behind a VR headset, behind this avatar, which represents your body language and your audio.”
How Virtual Reality Is Used in Education and Schools
Virtual Field Trips
Discovery Education has reached millions of students with its virtual field trips, focusing on aerospace (a virtual behind-the-scenes tour of the Johnson Space Center), health (a VR-powered look at the science behind opioid addiction), technology (a multi-part series on agtech) and more. Along with Google Arts & Culture Expeditions — a VR app with more than a thousand educational tours — it's one of the leading distributors of educational VR field trips.
“Blue-Fall,” a 1966 painting by Abstract Expressionism pioneer Helen Frankenthaler, is housed in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s permanent collection, but you don’t have to trek to Wisconsin to experience it. Any VR user can virtually zoom in on Frankenthaler’s bold, cobalt monolith — and even listen to author Neil Gaiman play docent as he lends art-historical context and detail.
Gaiman is an advisory board member of Boulevard, a New York-based art-education VR company that brings the museum and gallery experience to virtual reality. Experiences range from a survey of pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti to a sample of Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry’s 2015 solo exhibition. Another notable example of the growing virtualization of the art experience is The Kremer Museum, which arranges 74 paintings of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters in a virtual gallery.
A Virtual Lab Environment
Between 2021 and 2031, the number of STEM occupations in the United States will grow by nearly 11 percent in comparison to less than 6 percent for all other jobs, according to forecasts from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But state-of-the-art labs where so much hands-on STEM learning takes place can be difficult and costly to access. Labster democratizes the process with virtual lab environments for more than two dozen course packages, including high school physics, biosciences for nursing, animal physiology, advanced biology and engineering. The labs — which can be accessed via a web browser without downloading or installing additional software — allow students to culture bacteria, track cellular respiration during an exercise routine, even conduct an ultrasound exam on an expectant mother — virtually speaking, of course. Labster also owns UbiSim, a VR training platform for nurses that lets learners participate in risk-free clinical scenarios using VR headsets and controllers.
Lifeliqe develops immersive simulations for workforce training, preparing professionals for in-demand careers in fields like healthcare and advanced manufacturing. The company’s programs involve exploration of the work environment and responsibilities, VR models of necessary tools, training simulations and assessment’s to aid in tracking student progress. The current product offerings from Lifeliqe include courses for dialysis technicians and certified nursing technicians, but the company also has training programs in the works for manufacturing and HVAC technicians.
The Future of Virtual Reality in Education
Despite virtual reality’s ever-widening footprint in the education sector, some challenges persist. Pre-undergraduate education isn’t exactly flush with dollars, so it can be difficult for forward-thinking startups to get a proverbial foot in the door.
“When you’re dealing with education, especially K-12, funds are limited,” Glasco said. “You have to get to buyers at the right time, or you might be talking to them for a year before they sign on to a license. There is money in education; you just have to stick around long enough to be able to tap into it.”
And even though the technology is advanced enough to be a powerful educational tool, some experts say improved curriculum development is key to making VR an appreciably more effective tool than interactive 2D content.
The XR Association and International Society for Technology in Education’s survey of more than 1,400 U.S. high school teachers on their attitudes toward extended-reality technologies like VR showed that the majority believe virtual learning experiences provide quality information. Yet more than half also see the costs associated with these technologies as having the potential to widen equity gaps. And 94 percent agreed curriculum associated with technology such as VR needs to be aligned with academic standards.
"I think the developer community and the education community need to walk down this road very hand-in-hand," Chacon said. "Then we can start bridging social classes and removing all of these barriers to education."
He noted that leaps in digital lightfield technology are steering virtual reality toward a distinctly Holodeck-like future — no wearables required.
“It seems like it's really far in the future,” Chacon said, “but it's already happening.”