Learning Science and Augmented and Virtual Reality

Learning Objective

 Identify learning contexts where AR or VR would be a suitable learning format.

Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) are a great tool for educators and trainers – but they’re just that, a tool. Just like any other instructional technology, they will not achieve learning miracles on their own. However, they do offer new opportunities for learner engagement and have been found to positively impact learning when used effectively. In this section, we’ll talk about some of the learning science related to VR and AR.

It is a core tenet of learning science that learners learn best when they are motivated and engaged (Voke, 2002). Attention is necessary to the learning process. Learners must be present cognitively to process new material.

Both AR and VR learning activities have been found to increase learner motivation, presence, engagement, and self-confidence. Students were more likely to recall topics covered when they were engaged (Poitras, Harley, & Liu, 2019), and were shown to have learned more after using an augmented reality learning activity (Garzón & Acevedo, 2019). Math students’ anxiety was lowered, and their motivation increased through AR math activities (Chen, 2019). Dental students reported increased self-confidence after using VR teaching material for home dental practice (Takagi, et al., 2019).

The novelty and interactivity of AR and VR are two possible reasons for higher learner engagement. The capabilities of these immersive digital formats to teach abstract concepts is another. Learners may also be more engaged because they are more likely to focus when using virtual reality headsets, as the headsets exclude external light and sound. “By blocking out visual and auditory distractions in the classroom, allowing a learner to focus intensely on a structured virtual learning experience, virtual reality programs can help students deeply connect with the material they’re learning in a way that hasn’t been possible before” (Gadelha, as cited in Putman & Id-Deen, 2019).

Virtual reality and augmented reality offer greater ability for instructors to teach abstract concepts. “Some studies have demonstrated that using virtual reality improves students’ ability to understand abstract concepts by making those concepts more concrete” (Passig, Eden, & Heled, 2007, as cited in Putman & Id-Deen, 2019). For example, virtual reality was used

“to teach students skills of distance measuring, directionality, and map skills. The default way to teach distance has been with a flat map or a grid on which students count the blocks—but this doesn’t truly represent the distance. A 2D map can be challenging to make sense of, since the idea that miles of distance can be represented by an inch on a map is a symbolic concept. Instead, students can enter a virtual environment and actually ‘travel’ a longer distance, walking through the environment for miles, passing landmarks and changes in scenery, feeling how far the distance truly is (as they can’t do inside a classroom, obviously)” (Putman & Id-Deen, 2019).

However, virtual reality may inflict a high cognitive load upon learners that detracts from learning (Makransky, Terkildsen, & Mayer, 2019). Students were found to have higher presence and motivation when using a VR science simulation, but overall did not learn as much as students learning the same content in a non-VR format. Researchers suspect the novelty of being immersed in a detailed virtual world overwhelmed the learners and diminished the learning experience.

There are technological drawbacks to AR and VR that limit their use for learning. Virtual reality is a good format for transferring knowledge, but not for transferring skills. This is due to the limited interactivity possible with VR with present technology. A VR experience is immersive, but interactivity is limited because of lack of haptic controls. That is, hand controls for VR are in their infancy. No good gloves exist yet for use in VR, even for high end products and in VR research labs (Seaton & Bentovim, 2019). The hand controls that ship with high end units like the Oculus are basically equivalent to being able to use your fists to interact clumsily in VR, but not your fingers (speaking from personal experience!).

All of that said, almost any instructional topic might benefit from including VR and AR learning activities. AR and VR may be used to teach historical empathy (Sweeney, Newbill, Ogle, & Terry, 2018). Garzón & Acevedo found that the field of engineering benefitted most from including AR instruction, though arts and humanities were the runner-up in showing a large learning effect (2019). As noted above, dental students embraced VR study materials (Takagi, et al., 2019). The fields of art, astronomy, biology, environmental science, history, language, communication, counseling, math, science, and geography all offer possibilities for AR and VR learning (Grodziak & Morgan, 2019).

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