The Role of Virtual Reality In Online Learning

Published on: August 18, 2022

Although virtual reality has been around in some basic form since as early as the 1970s, it has only recently begun to be taken seriously by the mainstream. The clunky and cumbersome VR headsets that saw widespread commercial releases during the nineties did little to endear the technology to users. In fact, it wasn't until the release of the Oculus Rift that people began seeing that virtual reality isn't just a cheap gimmick. Since then, the technology has grown in leaps and bounds while becoming more affordable to users. As a result, more people also realize the potential for virtual reality outside of entertainment, and it has the potential to revolutionize online learning. While it is still a long way from replacing traditional learning methods, VR is steadily gaining a foothold and becoming more accessible to a broader audience. Of course, there are still a lot of limitations to the technology, and it isn't suitable for everyone, but there's no doubt that VR has an important role to play in online learning.

What Is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality as a phrase has been used as early as 1958, while artificial reality was coined in the 1970s. However, it wasn't until the 1980s that virtual reality was used in a science fiction context, and business-grade hardware started appearing. In addition, films such as Lawnmower Man also popularized the idea of using computer hardware to enter virtual worlds. Simply put, virtual reality is the use of three-dimensional, computer-generated environments that users can interact with using specialized hardware. When done correctly, it can be a very immersive experience and can make users feel like the environment around them is real instead of being projected onto low-persistence displays inside a headset.

What Are The Components That Make Up Virtual Reality?

The three key components of virtual reality are movement, vision, and sound, which, when combined, provide users with a completely immersive experience. Unfortunately, early VR headsets were not only bulky but struggled with tracking movement. These days many VR headsets are able to track both the head and eye movement of users. Some even feature cameras that can be placed in stationary locations around the user to track their movement more accurately. 

For the visual component, VR makes use of separate images displayed at the optimal distance from each eye to create the illusion of a three-dimensional view with depth. This provides far greater immersion than viewing flat images on a phone or computer screen. Finally, virtual reality setups typically include headphones, which are usually built into the headset to block out outside noise and play immersive audio.

What Are The Benefits of Virtual Reality In Online Education?

Social Wellbeing

Online learning can be a very isolating experience, and even the use of video conferencing tools doesn't provide the same sense of social interaction as being present in a physical class. However, with VR, it is possible to create collaborative spaces for students where they can feel more present and even interact with their peers. 

Virtual Tools

When studying online, there tends to be very little interaction beyond passively watching, listening, or taking notes. Using virtual reality to make the experience more immersive also means that students could potentially make use of virtual tools while learning. Things like virtual microscopes or scalpels allow students to experience what it would feel like to use the tools of the trade, but without any of the associated risks. 

Virtual Tours

Many industries use field trips as part of their curriculum, allowing students to connect their classroom learning with real-world experiences. Research has shown that these types of activities can also be very effective when done in virtual reality (https://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0035/792449/VFTs_Final_Report_2019.pdf). Students reported that virtual field trips reinforce their course content and add to the learning experience. Virtual tours also allow students to visit or experience locations that would be expensive or impractical in real life. 

Inclusivity

For students with disabilities, it can be challenging to participate in certain learning activities with their peers. Online education has made learning more accessible for many students, but virtual reality could potentially level the playing field even further. 

What Are The Drawbacks of Virtual Reality In Online Education?

In addition to the obvious drawbacks, such as high costs, it is also unfortunate that virtual reality is currently inaccessible for people with blindness or visual impairments. Because of the way that the technology functions presently, it is difficult or even impossible for some people to experience virtual reality. However, research into ways to bypass the eyes entirely and process signals directly to the visual cortex might one day be possible. Finally, some people experience motion sickness in VR, while others can become addicted to the virtual world if they are not careful. 

Conclusion

In all likelihood, it will still take a while before virtual reality becomes a more dominant force in the field of education. Education is already increasingly shifting to online spaces, but cost remains a significant factor in using VR. However, as the technology becomes more powerful and affordable, it will begin to see more widespread adoption across all sectors. It will also allow learners to experience the best of both worlds by combining the benefits of online learning with the advantages of in-person classes. Using virtual reality in their education will also help prepare students for the workforce, as many companies are also turning to VR as a training tool.

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