Immersive Virtual Reality in Education: A Call to Action 

By Rob Theriault MET, BHSc., CCP(f)

The pandemic of 2020 caused a tectonic shift in education - for better or for worse, here we are. Students, especially in higher education, are learning remotely using a combination of asynchronous and synchronous online learning. Teachers were effectively dragged, some kicking and screaming, into the 21st century and were forced to do emergency remote teaching, something most educators had never done before, in order to reduce the spread of Covid19. In the span of just weeks, classroom teachers learned to teach synchronously and asynchronously online. They learned to screencast, videoconference, flip the classroom, conduct electronic polling, and to use technologies they had never used before. But to be clear, this is remote teaching in its simplest form, quickly adopted in response to a crisis. Scholars would argue that online teaching requires a greater level of rigor to develop and deliver effective and evidence-based online learning.1

Designing for online learning is a significant undertaking that requires careful human-centered design and planning, using a systematic model for design and development.2 Preparing and delivering online learning also requires more work from the teacher. However, traditional online learning is mostly asynchronous. This is an isolating experience for students that deprives them of the social interactions that are helpful to learning and that give them a sense of community and belonging. In this sense, emergency remote teaching is pushing new boundaries for synchronized online learning, which gives students a greater sense of connection. The result of this experience may be that a greater number of asynchronous online courses will now have a synchronous component.

Had the pandemic occurred in 2030 instead of 2020, we might be looking at a very different set of educational technology tools, especially for hands-on learning. Virtual, mixed, and augmented reality have a long history, but they have only recently achieved a level of functionality that makes them viable for early exploration in education. Most colleges and universities are exploring VR that requires a connection to a gaming computer, or PCVR. PCVR has been largely put on pause since the pandemic to reduce the risk of infection from the sharing of headsets. The other challenge for schools considering VR is that, while there are “enterprise” models for immersive virtual reality, a viable and affordable education model is still lacking. Mixed and augmented reality are still in an incubator stage and are at least 5-10 years away from becoming mainstream in education.

The future for immersive virtual reality (iVR) looks bright. What sets iVR apart from other educational technologies is that there are applications across the psychomotor, affective, and cognitive domains. This makes iVR unique in that there is no other educational technology that can be used to enhance learning in all three domains.


Psychomotor domain

Colleges and universities were able to transition to emergency remote teaching for theory-based subjects in 2020, albeit with many challenges. However, addressing hands-on learning presented a crisis for schools, the likes of which we’ve not experienced. Student cohorts were reduced for labs. Distancing, masking, frequent hand washing, and other infection control measures were put in place to enable hands-on learning while reducing the risks.  While iVR is still somewhat nascent, this is the ideal time for schools to begin exploring and researching the potential of iVR, at a distance, for experiential learning - not as a replacement, but as a supplement. We need to ask the questions: Can iVR shorten the learning curve? Can it improve performance? Can it reduce the time needed for face-to-face, hands-on learning? For learning tasks, iVR provides the user with agency, i.e., the ability to perform tasks using your hands: picking up and using tools, be they surgical or construction tools; moving or connecting objects; operating machinery; welding, cutting, or assembling. Nursing students can operate and troubleshoot an intravenous pump or practice the steps of urinary catheterization and do so repeatedly with better outcomes than students with only lab practice.3 In one study, a group of second-year medical students were randomized to “standard learning” of a surgical procedure versus training in virtual reality.4 In the latter group, the percentage of steps completed correctly was significantly higher, 63% vs. 25%, and the knowledge retention of the surgical instruments was 50% for those trained in virtual reality vs. 11% in the control group.5 The addition of haptics in iVR, or sense of touch, is still crude; however, it will continue to improve and enhance the sense of realism. 

Affective domain

One of the greatest challenges in education is to change what learners believe, value, and reflect in their character. The ability to share and understand the feelings of another person is a prerequisite to empathy, and this is what teachers try to instill in students. But changing perceptions and values sometimes requires “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Jeremy Bailenson, Director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, once said that “virtual reality experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others, increase empathy, and lead to new forms of interaction.”6 Your avatar is your digital representation and taking on an avatar is known as “embodiment,” or acknowledging the existence of your body in the virtual reality experience. Banakou, Hanumanthu, & Slater (2016) stated that the embodiment of light-skinned participants in a dark-skinned virtual body significantly reduced implicit racial bias against dark-skinned people, in contrast to embodiment in light-skinned or purple-skinned bodies, or with no virtual body.7

iVR can also be used to help people feel what it’s like to be elderly, suffer from macular degeneration, be homeless, or experience the world through the eyes and ears of someone on the autism spectrum. iVR has the potential to be far more powerful for changing perceptions and values than class discussion alone.


Cognitive Domain

The three domains are rarely taught in isolation, and iVR applications often provide experiential learning across the three domains. A virtual experience in which you’re simply performing a task(s) repeatedly with the goal of mastering the task would be an example of local agency with no change in the outcome and would fall under the psychomotor domain. In contrast, global agency in iVR is an experience in which what you do affects the outcome and would fall under the cognitive domain, with perhaps a psychomotor component. If your role in iVR, for example, is that of a health care provider who must assess, diagnose, and treat a patient with the right drug in the right dose, then there will be an outcome. The outcome is that the patient’s condition will improve or deteriorate. If you’re working on an electrical panel in iVR and your job is to wire everything correctly and safely, then you’re making assessments, making decisions, and performing tasks that ensure the outcome is a safe building in which everyone can work or live. A good iVR application will incorporate analytics to provide the student with feedback on what they did, when they did it, and whether they missed a step or did something correctly/incorrectly. The ability to practice critical thinking skills repeatedly, be they in the sciences, business, the trades, or the creative world of the arts, is an exciting and promising opportunity.  

Call to Action

This is the decade for educators to take a serious look at what experiential learning with immersive virtual reality has to offer. There are many areas of study where iVR is ideal - from the Trades to the Fine Arts. Consider any learning that might otherwise be impossible, difficult, impractical, dangerous, or expensive.  At Georgian College, iVR is integrated into curricula in some programs and is being piloted in several others, mostly at a distance using stand-alone VR headsets. Georgian’s Architectural Technology students (Video) have been using immersive virtual reality for about four years.


Architectural Technology at Georgian College. Image courtesy of the Author.

Students learn to design and construct homes and buildings in a 3D space using Revit. Our Indigenous Studies students are meeting in virtual worlds such as AltspaceVR and EngageVR to provide context for language learning (video).  Our Veterinary Technician students are using surgical instruments in iVR to dissect animals with VictoryXR, and they are studying life-size canine and bovine anatomy using an open source app from Virginia Tech University. Our Biotech Degree students plan to examine and manipulate atoms, proteins, and other molecules in Nanome and study anatomy with 3D Organon. Our Advanced Care Paramedic students will be learning pediatric resuscitation in iVR with HealthScholars. The iVR app employs voice recognition and artificial intelligence to enable the student to assess and diagnose the patient and command the team to perform life-saving procedures. Our Events Management students will be learning how to organize and run iVR events in VirBELA, AltspaceVR, and EngageVR. Finally (well, for the moment), our Tourism students will be exploring the world and creating tours using Wander, Alcove, National Geographic VR, and other applications.

Colleges and universities are undergoing a significant digital transformation. Even after the pandemic is over, learning will likely never return to what was once “normal” - nor should it. We have an opportunity not only to explore new technologies but to explore new and flexible student-centered delivery models. Students, where fiscally viable, should be able to choose between in-class, online, synchronous, asynchronous, virtual, mixed, or augmented reality, while harnessing artificial intelligence, analytics, and adaptive learning.

Rob Theriault, MET, BHSc., CCP(f), is the Immersive Technology Lead for Georgian College in Ontario, Canada.


Notes

1. Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., Bond, A., (2020). The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning; Zimmerman, J. (2020). Coronavirus and the Great Online-Learning Experiment. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/coronavirus-and-the-great-online-learning-experiment/ 

2. Branch, R.M., Dousay, T.A., (2015). "Survey of Instructional Design Models," Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT).

3. Smith, P. C., & Hamilton, B. K. (2015). The Effects of Virtual Reality Simulation as a Teaching Strategy for Skills Preparation in Nursing Students. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 11(1), 52-58. doi:10.1016/j.ecns.2014.10.001

4. Blumstein, G., Zukotynski, B., Cevallos, N., Ishmael, C., Zoller, S., Burke, Z., Clarkson, S., Park, H., Berthal, N., Soohoo, N. F. (2020). Randomized Trial of a Virtual Reality Tool to Teach Surgical Technique for Tibial Shaft Fracture Intramedullary Nailing. Journal of Surgical Education. doi:10.1016/j.jsurg.2020.01.002

5. Blumstein, G. et al. 2020.

6. Mason, L. R. (2019). Immersive Virtual Experiences w/ Jeremy Bailenson. Retrieved from https://futurespodcast.net/episodes/08-jeremybailenson

7. Banakou, D., Hanumanthu, P. D., & Slater, M. (2016). Virtual Embodiment of White People in a Black Virtual Body Leads to a Sustained Reduction in Their Implicit Racial Bias. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00601