VR in Education: Three Ways Virtual Reality Upstages Face-to-Face Learning

Written by JC Gonzalez

Education is Ripe for Disruption

Why is VR in education a hot topic today? Because higher education, in particular, has been ripe for disruption for decades – from teaching methods to technology tools to the bloating price tag. Concerning technology, the variety of new software and devices creates a silver platter of options for educators. This assortment is significant when educating digital natives. One of the most promising technology trends is Virtual Reality (VR). 

Here’s why.

In Nick Babich’s article entitled, “How VR in Education Will Change How We Learn And Teach,” on Adobe.com, he suggests that there are two significant problems in education today: 1) relying on retention and regurgitation, and 2) information overload (thanks to the Internet). I agree with Babich. However, given my personal experience, I would like to expand upon the list of problems that pertain to higher education, to include the following:

  • Universities and colleges that rely on textbooks, lectures, and rote exams to ‘teach’ are not preparing students for contemporary careers. These modes are all outdated, not to mention boring. 
  • Today, traditional college students are digital natives, and they are more comfortable with and more well-versed in technology than their professors. 
  • Educators don’t give students enough opportunity to tread water in the unknown and to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers in their own right.

Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce acknowledges the skills gap and scrutinizes the traditional college experience. Students – conventional and non – really need more hands-on learning opportunities in relevant subjects and skillsets. Reading about, listening about, talking about, and being tested on the subject matter isn’t enough to prepare students to ‘do’ these tasks in the ‘real world.’ The lack of experiential learning and gaining in-demand skills continues to fuel the skills gap year after year. 

How Virtual Reality Promotes Learning by Doing

Indeed, every person has their preferred learning style, and being in a fully immersive learning environment amplifies the experience, engagement, and learning retention for all learners. Moreover, students don’t have to memorize what they’ve experienced themselves. Recently, a CircuitStream blogger noted that VR provides a way for people to learn motion, impact, and scope. It’s hard to wrap your head around that, but that is precisely where VR and AR are taking learners. You can’t obtain equivalent learning experiences and outcomes from a textbook or sitting in a classroom.

If educators genuinely want to elevate the student experience to ensure retention and maximize learning outcomes, I suggest referring to Edgar Dale’s theory from 1946: The Cone of Experience. As indicated in the chart below, it is evident that learning ‘by doing’ trumps all other forms of learning activities and results in optimal learning outcomes.

Now, with Virtual Reality, we can amplify the opportunity ‘to do’ even when it might not be accessible or feasible in the real world. For example, a student who lives in a remote area with no access to an internship or the opportunity for on-the-job training can gain new skills and deliver tangible results without ever leaving their home, opening up a whole new avenue that brings relevant education to anyone. And I believe education is the golden ticket to upward mobility and opportunity. 

Imagine the possibilities for learners at all stages in life. Learning any subject or skill can – and should! – be fully interactive and engaging. Imagine the confidence this builds as learners gain new skills and expand their creative capabilities in both thought and action.

In January 2021, Edstutia ran a pilot program to test out VR with students and instructors. We ran three modules with over 25 students who got to experiment with the functionality of VR. One particular module, Cross-Cultural Competence, was led by Dr. Yogini Joglekar and Divya Varkey of world-renowned Hofstede Insights. The instructors resided in Germany and The Netherlands (respectively) and taught a group of students that spanned every time zone in the U.S. To understand cultural differences, Joglekar and Varkey took students on ‘field trips’ to market places around the globe – from Marrakech to Barcelona to Mumbai. These events allowed everyone to go beyond observation and become immersed in these different cultures to understand what each one feels like. Such experiences enabled students to internalize their discoveries which reinforced their understanding of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. 

How VR Fosters Collaboration

One of the great things about VR in Education is that it provides an entirely new dimension where students can collaborate. Pandemic or not – students can continue learning and working together with their peers in VR from every corner of the globe. Not only are students able to learn and discover, but they can also socialize and develop soft skills. To further support this new breadth of learning, we at Edstutia learned that our students also needed a place to network and socialize beyond the classroom. Thus the world’s first fully immersive campus in Virtual Reality was born. 

See it here.

Why am I so bullish on VR in education? Well, after teaching for nearly two decades – twelve of which I was a business school professor – I’ve seen how disconnected and unengaged students can be. I’ve seen how slow higher ed is to adapt to new technology. I’ve seen many of my colleagues subscribing to the traditional classroom scenario that began in the early 16th century: subject matter expert in the front lecturing to a group of students sitting at desks. Snore.

Embracing VR for Impact

VR blows traditional, in-class learning out of the water. Therefore, I cannot emphasize enough that educators and students alike should ‘lean in’ (thank you, Sheryl Sandberg) and embrace new technology. It is our responsibility as educators to be on the cutting edge of teaching and learning, especially when students are more knowledgeable about and comfortable with technology than their teachers. Sadly, it is a bit of the tail wagging the dog. So rather than hold on to familiar ways of teaching and learning, dive in and discover all the ways that VR can enhance the learning experience. Here are a few examples that demonstrate the impact that VR can have on education:

  • Virtual Reality engages students because they are learning by doing things themselves. They are actively involved and are way more likely to remember personal experiences vs. lectures and textbooks. And as the Cone of Learning indicates, experiential, hands-on learning helps students retain information well beyond the end of a course or project, especially when grasping complex topics or situations. I often use the analogy of learning to swim. You will never fully understand or know what it feels like to swim by watching others do it, by reading about it, or listening to Michael Phelps tell you how he swims. You have to jump into the deep end of the pool and figure it out yourself. What does it feel like to tread water or float? How do I move my body to reach the other end of the pool? When it is impossible to get to an actual pool or access a real data center, or travel to another country, VR provides unlimited scenarios to students to ‘learn by doing.’

  • Virtual Reality breaks down borders to reach learners anywhere and anytime. The confinements of geography and time are no longer barriers. Yes, learners will need to invest in a VR headset, but that one-time investment is money well spent compared to expensive, outdated textbooks – which are typically updated every 3-5 years. Access to education can have a profound effect not only on people’s lives and communities, but on our economy as a whole. Given the toll the pandemic has had in the U.S., a VR headset and a contemporary learning platform like Edstutia can be a game-changer for so many individuals looking to launch or enhance their careers.

  • Students are not only learning IN Virtual Reality; they are learning how to experiment with the technology to apply in the real world as they embark on or enhance their careers. VR not only creates a unique space for discovery and learning, but it goes one step further by enabling students to apply what they’re learning and reflecting on that experience in real-time. This fuels creativity and critical thinking. How else could we use this technology? What if we did this instead of that? The more we can prepare students for tech-driven jobs that deal with lots of ambiguity, the more successful they will be. Virtual Reality is already at the forefront of elevating healthcare, manufacturing, data analysis, and media capabilities. Learning how to develop and utilize VR in any industry will catapult these students to the head of the pack.

The Potential of VR in Education

While the capabilities of VR across the board are nascent today, the possibilities of VR in education are endless, and frankly, sometimes difficult to comprehend. But what better way to inspire the love of learning? Learning should be fun, intriguing, engaging. Unfortunately, too many schools and universities continue to rely on outdated teaching methods that often don’t inspire students, leading students to dislike school and learning. Full stop. That’s a lost opportunity that certainly doesn’t help our communities or the overall economy. By utilizing technology tools, such as Virtual Reality, we can light the fire in every student’s belly to re-discover the love of learning and prepare them for this tech-driven world we live in.