Memorial University of Newfoundland
The Covid 19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of education. With the stay-at-home response to controlling the spread of this virus, many are learning online. The opportunity for educators and learners to embrace technology has become a priority. Two technologies that have the potential to create a feeling of presence for students who cannot attend the traditional brick and mortar classroom are virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Recent research suggests that the K-12 educational system has yet to embrace VR/AR. This literature review provides a brief insight on why VR/AR has not gained acceptance in the classroom by exploring the potential and challenges of using it. The role of the teacher as a possible contributing factor is also considered. The paper concludes with VR/AR applications recommended by educators that can be used as a starting point for those wanting to take a gradual approach to incorporating VR/AR in the classroom. While more research is necessary to keep up with evolving technology, we can learn from what we already know. There is a place for VR/AR in education. The underlying question is not when, but how?
Augmented reality, head mounted devices, immersive virtual reality, mixed reality, virtual reality,
The Covid-19 pandemic is changing how teachers deliver instruction. Classroom-based education has shifted to an online and blended approach to learning, leaving many to wonder if this will persist post pandemic. As a result, teachers are experimenting with digital tools to adapt to a new learning environment. Two of the latest technologies showing significant potential to enhance instructional processes and impact student learning is virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) (Estes et al., 2016). VR and AR affords learners the opportunity to visit and interact with people and places in a pandemic-safe environment. The following review of literature takes a closer look at VR/AR in the education system. It aims to provide relevant questions that can assist educators in making informed decisions about incorporating VR and AR to instructional design. What are the benefits and concerns of VR/AR and how does it relate to learning? What is the role of classroom teachers in VR/AR technologies for learning? This review will also provide educator-recommended classroom applications of constructivist- oriented VR/AR programs for encouraging active and engaged students.
There is some ambiguity in research regarding the definition of augmented reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). While both are part of the virtual learning technologies, they are different in their level of immersion. AR uses technology to superimpose digital elements such as images, texts, and sounds to the world using a tablet, smartphone, or smart glasses (Kodgule et al., 2019). The popular Pokémon Go (Nintendo, 2021) game of 2016 is an example of AR. Estes et al., (2016) defines Virtual Reality (VR) “as a computer-generated environment designed to stimulate three-dimensional (3D) physical environments that provide user interaction” (p.277). Oyelere et al., (2020) note that desktop virtual reality and immersive virtual reality are often used interchangeably. To this review, VR, AR, and immersive virtual reality (IVR) will be included.
The Potential of VR/AR
Immersive Virtual learning (IVL) technology has the potential to transform education. At a time when most students are learning online, with no clear indication of when in-class sessions will resume, having a sense of presence in a virtual/augmented reality environment is more important than ever before. Being present in a virtual world in the embodiment of an avatar (3-D representation of self) that allows for interaction and modification of the environment, is particularly useful for developing advanced learning processes such as problem solving (Russell, 2019). VR/AR provides opportunities for collaboration within these environments, which according to Domingo and Bradley (2017) is especially beneficial for reducing social anxiety in students. Dalgarno and Lee (2010) also point out that VR environments can enhance spatial knowledge; improve transfer of knowledge and skills learned in virtual environments to real situations; can increase motivation and engagement in learning and lead to richer collaborations. To be able to create environments in the virtual world that would be logistically impractical, or that students would have great difficulty seeing and experiencing in real life, is a feature of VR that proves one of the most significant benefits. For example, Southgate (2018) points out the potential for IVR to act as an ‘empathy machine’ suggesting that swapping perspectives by way of using an avatar, has the potential to challenge stereotypes and bias. It can provide the allusion of embodying a person from different identifying features such as age, gender, ethnicity, culture, or religion.
A Constructivist Approach
The benefits of VR in education align with the constructivism school of thought, which says that knowledge is constructed from experience. Oyelere et al., (2020) agree saying “constructivist theory advocates that learning through interaction with sensory data allows knowledge construction from experience for which VR is suited” (p.3). Through IVL, Learners can immerse themselves in distributed, synthetic environments, as avatars who actively experience the learning (Walker, 1990 as cited in Southgate, 2018). Southgate (2018) goes on by providing examples of first order (person) experiences that support the social constructivist learning approach and provide opportunities for deeper understanding of complex concepts. For example, IVR creates the ability to manipulate angles before learning of the symbol or its relevance to mathematics; to have the ability to manipulate size and scale of objects and to be able to interact with them, such as going into an atom; working with abstract ideas such as travelling with a virus as it mutates and spreads within a population; and being able to “feel” data that would extend beyond what our experiences could offer, such as a simulation of whale migration paths that allow the learner to follow paths of different species. The depth of learning that VR/AR can offer in this context have been especially useful in the fields of medicine and engineering.
The potential for VR/AR gaming has been shown to have benefits to learning. Russell (2019) points out that educational games when designed from a constructivist learning approach, using a problem-based model that moves passive learners to more active engaged learners, resulting in a rich meaning making experience. Domingo and Bradley (2017) extend on this thought adding that when students navigate these virtual spaces, they do so at their own pace and ability, which results in student-centered environments where the teacher is more of a facilitator. If Russell’s (2019) prediction is correct, gaming that is built into VR/AR worlds where learners interact with tactile and visual devices, will result in a paradigm shift in education.
Concerns of Using VR/AR
Before educators consider incorporating VR/AR in classrooms, it is important to examine the challenges and concerns of its use. Technical difficulties, which include lack of sufficient computer hardware and technical support, is the most cited concern reported in this review (Domingo and Bradley, 2017). Crowe and LaPierre (2019) add that compatibility with older computer equipment in the classroom is a factor that prohibits classroom use. Hartley et al., (2015) suggest that these issues, as well as the learning curve involved with the introduction to new programs, can cause frustration to educators and students, which could impact student ability to reap the educational benefits of using IVR.
Health and ethical concerns are also cited by several authors. In a study conducted at the University of California at Los Angeles, the effects of using virtual reality could result in a term known as cybersickness (Aghajan et al., 2015). Cybersickness causes a person to feel motion sickness due to a mismatch between the sensory input to the inner ear and the eyes (Rebenitsch & Owen, 2015). Southgate’s (2018) report on a study conducted by the Australian VR School research team, which includes teachers, recognized the need to develop a health and safety screening protocol for parents, caregivers, and students, which resulted in resources to educate students about cybersickness. Southgate (2008) also point out that exposure to VR in young children raises questions about the ethics of creating false memories for children who are developmentally unable to distinguish between reality and VR. Most IVR programs recommend that children between 12-13 years of age or over have adult supervision and that users take frequent breaks.
Southgate (2018) cited the results taken from an international survey of the learning affordances of wearable technologies, such head mounted devices (HMD) and noted reoccurring the following reoccurring concerns: learner distraction and the possible shift in focus from pedagogy and learning design; the cost of equipment; and lack of easily attainable software for educational purposes. Oyelere (2020) believes that a lack of know-how by learning technologists and experts to design learning solutions with VR has contributed to the lack of use in mainstream education. Domingo and Bradley (2017) agree, adding that educators may not have the technical skills required to assist students using VR.
Estes et al. (2016) point out that when using technology in the classroom, it is usually the teachers who will figure out how to use it and apply to student learning. That is why according to Umbach and Wawrzynski (2005), the behaviours and attitudes of teachers greatly impact those of their students. This suggests that teachers may play the single-most important role in student learning. Estes et al (2016) also note that when teachers are using technological innovations that they have limited knowledge of or are not confident in using, it is less likely the technology will be used. Therefore, effective use of technology will be dependant upon the interactions among technology, content, and pedagogy. Teachers’ pedagogical knowledge of using technology such as VR/AR in a specific context is important in establishing learning outcomes. To do that, according to Estes et al. (2016) teachers must be given opportunities for professional development that includes ongoing resources and support.
To use VR, head- mounted displays (HMD) are usually required for tracking a person’s movement. To manipulate things in the VR environment, the user will require handheld controllers. Brands such as Oculus Rift (Facebook Technologies, n.d.), Sony (2021) PlayStation VR, and HTC (2021) Vive VR are some of the well known and generally more expensive products on the market (Oyelere, 2020). To access content, some HMD’s either have their own app store where content can be downloaded or is accessible from a computer browser. More budget friendly headsets such as the Samsung (2021) Gear VR, and Google (n.d., a) Cardboard work by mounting the device to a smartphone. App store purchases that support android phones and iPhones can be used on these devices, which may prove to be a more affordable classroom purchase.
AR does not require dedicated hardware like VR, which makes it more widely accessible. AR devices such as smartphones, tablets, and hand-held devices can be used alone or may be used with HMD, or AR glasses such as Microsoft (2021) Hololens, Magic Leap (2021) One and Google (n.d., b) Glass Enterprise Edition.
The following section suggests educational resources that can be used with VR/AR devices. It is important to consider that technology is always evolving, and as quickly as software and apps are created, there are also newer, upgraded versions to follow.
Veative (2021) offers an immersive VR/AR experience for the K-12 STEM and ELL curriculum. There are more than 500 virtual tour modules, many of them free of charge during the Covid-19 pandemic. The modules are designed for HMD and can also be used on a computer browser with a keyboard and mouse. The Veative VR Learn app is available on Android and supported by HMD.
VR Lessons by ThingLink
Thinglink (2021) is a collection of interactive, 360° image and video journeys on a variety of topics including science, language, and arts. The app is designed for elementary school students, their teachers, and parents. Thinglink can be used on iPad and iPhone and the full virtual experience can be used on Google cardboard or a VR headset. This is free for teachers; however, a subscription purchase offers additional content and supports. The ThingLink basic education subscription is free for teachers.
Lifeliqe (2021) is a digital curriculum program that offers interactive 3d and AR models for STEM learning with emphasis on middle and high school. Users must have a Lifeliqe account with an active license and there is a 14-day free trial. A lifeliqe app is available with a Microsoft account and models and lesson plans can be shared through Microsoft Teams. This program can be used with a desktop or with a HTV Vive head mount for a full virtual experience.
Google (2021) Expeditions is an immersive education app that allows teachers and students to explore the world through over 1000 VR and 100 augmented-reality AR tours. Both mobile devices and VR viewers can be used. There is an option to purchase a kit, or an app can be downloaded. The VR videos can be experienced through a mobile device or desktop when paired with a VR headset. This app also offers VR training for educators.
Catchy Words AR
Catchy Words AR (Revkov & Simanovick, 2021) is an immersive experience in which students can learn how to spell by catching airborne letters with an iPhone or iPad. This is appropriate for all ages, especially young learners. The app is free and can be downloaded from an app store.
Minecraft for Education
Minecraft for Education (Minecraft, 2021) is a game-based learning platform that engages students across subjects and bring abstract concepts to life. It provides lessons and STEM curricula, how-to-play tutorials, and inspiring build challenges. The app can be downloaded through an Office 365 Education account if the school has a subscription and can be played on desktop computer, Chromebook, and Apple products.
There is a significant amount of research on the pedagogical benefits of VR/AR, However, as Freina & Ott (2015) found, even with the commercial availability of VR, there is still limited research on classrooms application. In my search of available literature, considerable findings included VR/AR use for learning in the medical field as well as engineering and science. However, the k-12 school system, particularly the elementary grades, are limited. With VR as a relatively new technology, the lack of studies on the health impacts of use, specifically with children, could be the biggest contributing factor for the reluctance of educational stakeholders to fully endorse it in classrooms. AR, however, provides a more affordable, and safer choice in mixed reality technology.
Until there is a shift in priorities within the education system, it will often be the classroom teacher who will decide the extent that technology will be incorporated in the classroom. Educators have a responsibility to keep up to date with technological advances to meet the growing demands of today’s young learners. School administrators must prioritize professional development for educators, and governments must provide the necessary financial resources to make technology a priority in all classrooms. As technology continues to evolve, and as new and improved products enter the consumer market, many of the concerns and challenges of VR/AR today, will be resolved.
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Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. (2009). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(1), 10–32. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01038.x
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