July 13, 2018

Virtual Reality and eLearning: How Immersive Tech Improves the Way We Teach

Written by
Shel Gatto
Tags: HR

Virtual reality isn’t a new concept. In fact, the ideas for the technology we have today were inspired by the earliest beginnings of photography. The stereoscope from 1838 is credited as one of the first incarnations of what would eventually become a world-changing invention. Around a century later, we were introduced to the View-Master, taking us another step down the VR timeline.

The term virtual reality wasn’t used until the 1980s. At the time, founder of VPL Research Jaron Lanier was working on special gloves and goggles that were used to experience something he called “virtual reality.” Each of these developments was important, but seem quaint compared to what we have now. It is no surprise that modern VR technology has entered the world of eLearning in such a big way.

Virtual Reality Applications in eLearning

When you can completely design an environment and everything in it from the ground up, there are no limitations to what you can teach. Virtual reality gives us a blank slate that opens up any possibility. And it does so without the need for tangible structures and objects. We can put people in a situation without safety risks and allow them to practice a job or task as many times as they need.

Scenario-Driven VR Training

One of the most exciting applications of virtual reality in eLearning is scenarification. This term refers to creating scenarios that teach learning content. It’s a great way to provide instruction on situations that are impossible or impractical to simulate in real life.

An example of scenarification in action is STARS (Situational Training and Response Simulator) used by the Monmouth County, New Jersey police. This training facility has two parts. The first is anchored in real life with a training environment that uses non-lethal rounds, fire alarms, strobe lights, smoke, and more. The second is made up of VR training. Five screens are used, giving trainees a 300-degree view.

Pre-recorded situations are presented so that the trainee can learn how to react to and handle different encounters. These can range from domestic violence incidents to an active shooter. Each situation has 10 to 15 possible outcomes. An operator in a separate room controls the events to make each experience dynamic.

Virtual Reality Journeys

Virtual reality can also be used to take learners on a journey. These trips whisk the learner away to anywhere in the world (or off the planet) without leaving their current location. It presents an amazing amount of lifelike detail and does so with realistic immersion. Students can tour the Colosseum during the Roman Empire or view the pyramids of Ancient Egypt. They can also float through space or visit a destination that no longer exists or one that never existed.

360-degree cameras make it possible to capture footage of real places and transform it into a virtual tour. These expeditions allow students to visit sites they otherwise could not due to financial, technological, or political reasons.

While this type of VR application doesn’t usually have the same level of interactivity as scenarification, it makes a powerful supplement to traditional learning. Students can study places, events, or cultures then find themselves there, seeing it virtually, in person.

Long Distance Education

The internet removed the geographic barriers that once separated students and teachers. Virtual reality takes things one step farther with VR classrooms. Instead of sending emails and using discussion boards, students and teachers can interact in a visually-driven virtual space. They can put on a headset and go to class, seeing their teacher, fellow students, and surroundings. In some cases, avatars can be customized to make the experience more fun.

Since virtual reality classrooms do not require physical space, they can be coded any way the teacher wants. Present white walls for minimal distractions or design a setting that matches the subject matter. Educators can even spawn objects to illustrate topics, like a human skeleton when teaching anatomy.

Who Uses VR Technology?

Many organizations and companies are adopting VR technology as part of their training programs or curriculum. A few notable examples include:

Walmart Prepares Employees for Black Friday

VR startup Strivr built a Black Friday rush virtual reality scenario for retail giant Walmart. This was used to prepare employees for one of the most overwhelming shopping days each year in the United States. The Oculus Rift headset is used to put the trainee into a real-life scenario that requires them to make choices and handle a busy working environment.

Kentucky Fried Chicken Trains Cooks

Kentucky Fried Chicken also implemented the Oculus Rift as part of its training efforts. In this scenario, trainees practice cooking the fast food chain’s signature fried chicken recipe. They play as a pair of hands working over a fryer. The scenario requires handling chicken pieces and inspecting, rinsing, breading, racking, and pressure-frying the food.

Volkswagen Shows Employees How to Service Vehicles

Virtual reality isn’t a new tool for trainees at Volkswagen. The company introduced the technology back in 2013. VR studio Innoactive built training experiences that put participants through different activities related to their job roles. They can work through the program at their own pace without slowing down production. Trainees could also go through the steps of servicing vehicles just like they do in the real world.

UPS Teaches Drivers How to Handle Road Hazards

The package delivery service UPS announced on August 15th, 2017 that it would begin training student drivers using VR headsets. The trainee would be placed behind the wheel to experience driving down a city street. This helps prepare future drivers for the obstacles and hazards they may encounter on their delivery routes.

Proving the Benefits of Virtual Learning

All over the world, more companies are discovering the benefits of virtual reality. Studies have shown that aspects of VR tech are beneficial to learners. In 2009, a study was conducted in the virtual world of Second Life. During the study, collaborative activities were used to introduce Chinese language and culture to Australian learners who would be traveling to the country as exchange students. The data found improvements in a number of areas including:

  • Reduced embarrassment and apprehension that impedes activities like role-playing
  • Improved understanding and reinforcement with the ability to repeat lessons
  • Encouraged better interactions between students in the virtual world compared to email
  • Gave students independence in the virtual world as an avatar that they controlled
  • Introduced gestures and non-verbal clues that are a vital part of effective communication

Virtual reality has improved significantly over the years. It continues to shape the way we teach. There are no limits when you can build a custom world with audio, video, and interactive elements. This has also helped pave the way for augmented reality, which keeps the user in the real world but adds digital information and objects to enhance their understanding of it. This technology is already being used by the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, Australia. The future of eLearning is even more exciting with the possibilities that virtual reality brings to it.

Shel Gatto is a writer for LMS.org. She has spent years exploring technology-related topics through freelance writing projects. She resides in Pennsylvania with her husband and beloved canine companions.