Using virtual reality in teaching and learning is not new. U.S. armies have been using simulators to train the soldiers for many years.
In the online oxford dictionary, Virtual Reality (VR) is defined as a “… computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.”
In recent years, VR has become a popular discussion in education.
Can immersed virtual reality environments such as Second Life be introduced as an alternative learning environment? Is there any benefit to using an immersed virtual environment?
VR is often used in vocational training aimed to adult workers; it’s especially effective when learners cannot be physically present outside of virtual reality. Many universities have been exploring the possibility of using VR as a formal teaching tool (Freina & Ott, 2015).
A research conducted by Freina and Ott (2015) showed an interesting graph in regards to the use of immersed virtual reality environments in different disciplines.
Figure 1 Immersive Virtual Reality Education-number of papers per subject area
As shown in the chart, the computer science and medical fields have been taking advantage of this new tool. Some examples being mentioned include: medical training in a virtual hospital, medical professional training, a surgical education system that uses a head mounted display and finger tracking to show the practitioners the exact movements of the expert’s fingers during surgery.
Many challenges educators face in online teaching can be addressed by using VR. For example, one of the biggest challenges is promoting student interaction and collaboration. The typical solution is to introduce discussion boards; however, this is not quite as effective as real-time discussion (Miller, 2014).
A great example of using VR in teaching and learning is Learn It Town which is developed by Shelwyn Corrigan and her business partner. The main purpose of this learning VR environment is for students to learn English and Spanish. For English learning, there are several levels of classes given in this town, ranging from beginner English to advanced and proficient English. All the lessons are broken up into specific topics, which makes it easy to follow and practice. Some examples of the courses they offer are:
Public speaking; Art Talk; Social English; Orientation practicum; TV talk; Stories and Literature; Stylize your English. There is a day to day calendar posted for all the courses.
There are many locations in this town such as the bank, bar, beach, cinema, gallery, gas station, hospital, hotel, ice cream parlor, office, park, pizzeria, police station, supermarket, theater, residential building, and library. The instructors can take the students to a location and conduct “lessons”. When I visited the ice cream parlor I met a couple of students there who are from Hungary and Russia. We had a great discussion regarding practicing English in Second Life and how effective it is and how it carries to their real life environment. Both of them have been learning English in Learn it Town for over two years.
Leveraging VR in teaching and learning is not without challenges. In order for a VR environment to be successful it will require support from all of those involved, especially from faculty members. As they will need to lead and facilitate such activities and deliver instructional content effectively in this environment. All the instructors do not have the same comfort level to facilitate lessons in the virtual environment. Technology also needs to be developed so that VR is easy to use and easy to navigate and the technology must be accessible by all students (Palloff & Pratt, 2007). The Learn it Town environment was developed in over 7 years. According to its website, Learn It Town is managing 60,000 students from 121 countries.
Overall, VR can provide learners with an immersed environment where otherwise students couldn’t access. It provides educators with an alternative tool in online education. It reaches a broader population both in terms of instructors and students.
Freina, L., firstname.lastname@example.org, & Ott, M., email@example.com. (2015). A Literature Review on Immersive Virtual Reality in Education: State of the Art and Perspectives. eLearning & Software for Education, (1), 133–141. http://doi.org/10.12753/2066-026X-15-020
Miller, R., firstname.lastname@example.org. (2014). The Application of Virtual Reality in Higher Education Distance Learning. Journal of Applied Learning Technology, 4(4), 15–18.
Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: effective strategies for the virtual classroom (2 edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.