Virtual Reality: Revolutionizing Learning

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Virtual Reality (VR) technologies offer exciting experiential learning options that can help speech preparation, augment course material, and provide people with disabilities with a new way to “see.”

The term virtual reality should not be confused with augmented reality, which applies to interactive scenes presented as two-dimensional images over a screen. Virtual reality technology enables users to feel physically involved in a three-dimensional reality, usually through the use of head mounts, such as Oculus Rift or the simple Google Cardboard, and additional equipment, like sensor-equipped gloves.

Students and professionals practicing a speech might don some of this equipment and enter a virtual presentation room with a virtual audience, and maybe even a virtual coach. The coach would help the user feel that he or she is actually giving the speech by providing feedback and instructions on applying techniques in real-time. With VR in this situation and others, the learning and practice are simultaneous, leading to a highly effective retention gain (as high as 2X) when compared to traditional learning techniques.

Similarly, VR’s implementation of asynchronous learning saves time and resources. When executives use VR to undergo media interview training for a section on cable news, for example, a traditional form of practice might involve using a mock studio. As many as four professionals would be needed to facilitate the interview and to operate lights and cameras. Expenses incurred by use of space, time, and people, might be avoided with the use of VR.

Virtual reality also allows for enhanced teaching and instruction. For example, it aims to individualize learning by accommodating each student’s unique learning style and by supporting a learning by doing approach. Automatic tracking in VR ensures that each learner receives feedback on his or her exact behavior, which leads to a customized learning experience. A VR program designed for diverse learners, for instance, could modify instruction for students based on how they progress while learning a particular subject or skill.

At Georgia State University, art history instructor Glenn Gunhouse converted various screen-based virtual spaces to VR-ready versions. Since Gunhouse’s courses focus on city spaces, city architecture, and paintings on the walls of churches, VR technology like the Oculus Rift would help him eventually “send” his students to places like ancient Rome and Greece, either individually or in groups.

Even more exciting is the potential that advanced VR techniques have for enhancing learning for those with disabilities. For blind users, spatialized-sound technology is currently being developed for the Oculus Rift and other head-mounted displays. Audio labels are attached to the objects in virtual spaces, allowing the user to “see” and experience the surroundings through other senses. Research into the use of virtual reality technology by the physically disabled is also in progress, and would allow users to walk around in spaces that would otherwise be inaccessible.

The new models of head mounts are portable, smartphone-powered, and can cost as little as $5. Google Cardboard, for example, offers a small, foldable, corrugated box complete with plastic lenses and Velcro fasteners for $5. Deluxe versions, like the Samsung Gear VR, cost around $99 and have the potential to fit into a shoe box.

VR lets users instantaneously contextualize learning experiences. What’s more, its interdisciplinary nature has the potential to completely revolutionize education. Classroom buildings, libraries, and shared academic spaces may eventually be linked for virtual interaction, allowing us to take trips to remote sites, interact with other cultures, or travel in time. Virtual reality broadens our imaginations and brings together students, faculty, professionals, developers, and even gamers from a variety of fields, allowing us to explore a range of learning experiences previously unimagined.

Can VR be too immersive? Some say it might be. And VR devices come with their challenges–but they’re not insurmountable, as this post at Joy of Android demonstrates.

For a look at Fordham’s foray into augmented reality, which is closely related to virtual reality, see this article by Kristen Treglia, Senior Instructional Technologist at Fordham.

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