Towards a theoretical framework for Virtual Reality in Education

For my current research I broadly explore the potential of Virtual Reality for education. As a part of this I try to form some sort of theoretical framework to describe the unique characteristics of VR as a medium and how it can be used to explain complex concepts and teach different skills.

With some googling you can find quite a few articles (both academic, popular and in-between) that describe the various ways VR could be used in education. There are even a few listicles out there, to use the parlance of our times. Now, who can resist the simplicity of a 5 point overview of this new medium and its role in learning?

Some aspects are often mentioned in popular articles. With a Virtual Reality headset students can explore 3D spaces and experience dangerous, expensive or inaccessible places and events. We can simulate emergencies. You can witness volcanic activity from close-by. You can walk through ancient cities and fly through the solar system. Architecture students can evaluate their buildings in new ways and medical students can learn about the body in 3D.

Low hanging fruit

I think these are all potentially very good use cases of VR. However, I also think these examples are all low hanging fruit and by no means a complete collection of the possibilities of the medium. VR is still very young and there is a lot to be explored. Almost during every brainstorm session a new potential use case of VR arises from the group.

In its ultimate promise, VR offers the possibilities to simulate almost any thinkable experience. Although VR is still quite far from this ultimate promise, the scope of possible Virtual Reality experiences is still huge. Forming a theoretical framework that we can use to categorize different VR experiences and describe the potential uses in education, is for this reason quite a challenge.

During the research course Virtual Reality for Science & Education we needed a practical tool to analyze available VR content. For this purpose I created a question list which, in our experience, served as a good starting point for discussion. In this post I would like to share this list:

Question list for educational VR content

General
  • What is the audience for this app?
  • Is the app domain-specific, or is it a more general, platform-like application?
  • Does the app offer a fun experience?
Immersion
  • How immersive is the experience?
  • Can you imagine a similar experience with a different medium? How different is this from the VR version?
  • Does it use any multi-sensory output?
  • Does the make app make good use of the 3 dimensional space?
Interactivity & embodiment
  • What sort of input does the application use? (head-tracking, positional tracking, controller, hand motions, etc.)
  • Do head movements influence the activities of the content?
  • How interactive is the environment?
  • Does the environment invite you to interact with it?
  • Do you have a body?
  • Do you use your body in a meaningful way? Does it have potential for embodied learning?
Duration
  • How long does a typical experience of the content last?
  • What is the total time of interesting experiences you can have with the content?
 Simulation
  • Does the application simulate a real-life environment or activity?
  • Is there a special reason to simulate this activity? (e.g. dangerous or expensive)
  • Does the application prepare you for a real life activity?
  • Does the application offer a self-contained environment for solving certain problems?
Creativity & Imagination
  • Does the app offer an experience that could not be experienced in reality?
  • Is the user challenged to create new things in the application?
Social & Collaboration
  • Does the app offer in-app social interaction?
  • Does the app induce real-world social interaction?
  • Is collaboration part of the experience?
Freedom & personalization
  • Is the experience clearly directed, or are users more or less free to explore
  • Does the app offer personalized learning experiences?
  • Does the app tailor different kinds of learning?
  • Is the aim of the app to transfer existing knowledge, or could you also discover new findings?
Feedback & rewards
  • How is feedback handled in the app?
  • Are there clear goals and rewards?
  • How are you informed about your progress?
Feasibility
  • Is the experience a first prototype or a finished product?
  • Does it depend on future hardware or does it work with several off-the-shelf systems?
  • How much work was involved in creating the content?
Learning content
  • What could one learn from this app?
  • How valuable is the information or skill that the app teaches?
  • How is the content communicated? Does the application use text, audio or video? How well is this information integrated in the experience?
  • Are there other ways of learning the same as this app offers? Compare this application with those.
Embedding in educational practice
  • Is the application stand-alone or is it embedded in a larger educational program?
  • Could the application be used in a small classroom setting (~10 people), regular classroom (~30 people) and/or a lecture setting (> 80 people). Or does the content require a setup different from commonly found in education?
  • Could the app be used in a form of distance learning?Can you think of a specific use case?
  • Does the teacher have a role? Is he/she a guide, a co-explorer or a more traditional teacher?
  • What kind of hardware would be necessary to use this application in educational practice?
Comparison
  • Compare this application with other, similar VR experiences
Improvements & expansions
  • Where does this app need improvement? How could this be done?
  • How could this application be expanded? What effect might this have?

Suggestions

Do you have any suggestion for this list? Please let me know in the comments!
  • Fred

    @RobindeLange:
    Great list! You could try to ask if the app is primarily about cognitive learning, emotional or even to enhance physical skills (or combinations). Training vs education is tricky to separate, and VR offers the outlook of combining physical work-out with both emotional and cognitive enhancements. Embodied learning goes far beyond head movements, what is the background for this categorization?

    Learning content: Are the improvements measured within the application? Couild be part of the gamification level…

    The horseless carriage syndrome VR is suffering from is very strong felt in the educational domain. FIntech will kill the banks, most people, also in the financial domain understand and accept this. Maybe because ATM’s & internet already changed a lot in how we interact with these institutions. But lifelong learning is relatively new practice and most people spend a very valuable part of their life changing from kid to adult “at school”. Virtual worlds will replace these “centralized physical places where you come together to learn”, called schools. Most of the trainers and teachers can be replaced by intelligent and responsive personalized avatars you will even emotionally bond with. Flexibe time, space, type of teacher and other students and avatars to collaborate with, all that is most effective for that student for that learning task.To experience is the best teacher and virtual environments will be much more suitable for this purpose than 90% of the current “educational practice”. So they do not need to be embedded in these, you could categorize what is replaced and how far VR extends the current practice. Or “how more efficient” the learning method is.

    Just some thoughts…!

    • Thanks for your reply Fred! My aim is more to support the educational system and integrate VR within the educational practice. I think schools are very valuable institutions with an essential role in society. I really like Keri Facer’s ideas about the school of the future: https://www.amazon.com/Learning-Futures-Education-Technology-Social/dp/0415581435

      Although AI is definitely making huge leaps, expecting that these can replace teachers seems like a mistake we have made before: underestimating human intelligence.