Digital White Paper

This paper defines virtual reality (VR) and discusses the many affordances of using VR in an educational setting, including its alignment with different learning theories that promote differentiation and diversity among learners. I give examples of how VR is currently used for learning purposes and credit researchers who have created existing software for this. Additionally, this paper discusses the common constraints with using VR and ways to minimize these constraints.
In the realm of education, Virtual Reality (VR) has emerged as a transformative tool with the potential to revolutionize the learning experience. One of its compelling motivations lies in the immersive simulations it offers, enabling participants to engage in lifelike experiences that would be otherwise impractical or perilous in reality. This essay delves into the multifaceted applications of VR in educational settings, exploring its role in simulations for subjects like history and emergency drills. Beyond simulations, VR serves as a powerful training tool, facilitating experiences for diverse fields such as aviation, medicine, and chemical engineering. Moreover, VR aligns seamlessly with various learning theories, including Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and the constructivism learning theory. Despite its myriad advantages, the widespread adoption of VR in classrooms faces challenges, notably the substantial cost associated with hardware, software, and training. Additionally, concerns about minor physical side effects and ethical considerations surrounding privacy further contribute to the ongoing discourse on the integration of VR into educational practices. This essay critically examines the potential of VR in education while addressing the barriers and ethical considerations that educators and institutions must navigate to harness its full potential.
One of the many motivations behind using VR in an educational setting include the simulations it provides. VR provides the possibility for participating in lifelike simulations/virtual explorations that would otherwise be infeasible or too dangerous to undertake in reality (Kavanagh, et. al., 2017). For instance, if students are learning about ancient Egypt, a simulation that takes them through an Egyptian temple or pyramid would provide students with experiences that would be otherwise impossible. The HDM would provide the visual experience, and with the use of a joystick, students can freely explore the environment, asking questions and discovering new information as they go. Similarly, there are many situations in schools, like fire-drills, earthquake drills, etc., where practicing with the real thing is either dangerous or impossible. It would be impossible to create a real-life earthquake on demand, and it would be dangerous and life-threatening to use real fire to practice for a fire drill. Virtual reality systems would allow schools to virtually simulate these events so that staff and students may practice the valuable skills that would be necessary in a real-life catastrophe. Students would be able to practice where to go for safety, how to detect if smoke is on the other side of a door, etc., all while in a safe environment.
VR is also a great tool for training purposes. Some common training simulations, in addition to the previously mentioned simulations involving fire and earthquake drills in schools, include flight simulations for pilots, medical simulations for using surgical tools, and other medical activities like rehabilitation. For example, in the Themes in Science and Technology Education Journal, a Dr. Nolon is credited for creating a virtual classroom to facilitate the rehabilitation of children with attention deficit disorders, while Dr. Chang is credited to have investigated the potential VR holds to motivate patients suffering from Cerebral Palsy (Kavanagh, 2017). Both virtual reality experiences provide medical professionals the chance to learn and practice without putting any patients at risk during the learning process. Similarly, a comparison study from the university of Gothenburg discusses a study in which chemical engineering VR was used to develop virtual chemical plants to learn about the technology and how effective it is. The main goal of the project was to create virtual lab accidents to show users the consequences of not following the safety procedure (Hussein, et al., 2015). Again, virtual reality is providing students safe environments to practice skills without endangering any students or patients. It also provides opportunities for them to apply their theoretical knowledge to a real industrial problem without exposing anyone to danger.
One other motivator for using VR in education settings is that it provides educational experiences that align with many learning theories, like the theory of multiple intelligences and the constructivism learning theory. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences states that there are 8 main learning styles and that people learn best in one of those styles. The 8 styles include visual learning (learns well with pictures), linguistic learning (good with words), logical-mathematical (good with logic and numbers), body-kinesthetic (handles objects skillfully), musical (understands music), interpersonal (works well with people), intrapersonal (very self-aware), and naturalistic (understands nature). For instance, visual learners do best when they watch something being modeled or have picture instructions before they attempt the skill on their own. “Instruction designed to help students learn material in multiple ways can trigger their confidence to develop areas in which they are not as strong” (, 2020). VR meets the needs of all 8 different intelligences. For students who are visual learners, VR provides a completely visual experience. For body-kinesthetic learners, students use their bodies in simulated environments by virtually opening doors, and using their bodies for other physical activities in the virtual environment. Musical learners can experience musical experiences virtually. Naturalistic learners can experience nature simulations in environments all around the world that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to, like standing next to a life-size Redwood tree. Interpersonal and intrapersonal learners can also experience simulations where they interact with either simulated people, or avatars of real-life users.
Learning Theories
Constructivism learning theory states that the learner constructs new knowledge as part of a group or independently, based on prior knowledge and experiences, by participating in a situation rather than passively absorbing information (Marougkas, 2023). In other words, being exposed to a situation will promote learning retention rather than reading about it in a book and hearing about it in a lecture. According to the journal, Amazonia Investiga, “The most important concept in virtual reality is that it gives the feeling that it is real. From this perspective, virtual reality is a three-dimensional simulation model that gives participants the feeling of being real and allows them to communicate with a dynamic environment created by computers (Serin, 2020). Virtual reality provides these experiences which not only aids in learning retention that is much stronger than traditional learning models, but it also provides more exciting and engaging experiences for students which motivates them to participate and want to learn, a challenge that is seen in many of the traditional models of learning.
Despite the many benefits of VR, one of the most common reasons why virtual reality has not been adopted into classrooms around the world, is the cost. The cost for implementing virtual reality in classrooms includes but is not limited to what it costs to purchase the equipment, both the hardware and the software, what it costs for maintenance and replacement parts, and what it costs for training. Furthermore, according to the journal, Themes in Science and Technology Education, many creators are not willing to produce and manufacture virtual reality software and hardware without a high demand for it. The journal states, in reference to a game called Arden, The World of Shakespeare, and the $250,000 grant that was given to produce it, “users did not enjoy the game, and while $250,000 may sound like substantial investment, the authors stated that it was a ‘drop in the bucket’ in comparison to the funding that is required to produce the published games users are probably familiar with” (Kavanagh, et al., 2017). This means that unless schools are responding well and there is a high need for software, creators are most likely not willing to produce virtual reality games. With a limited supply of virtual reality games and educational applications, the price for this software must stay considerably high. Of course, there is always a market for educational virtual reality applications like Arden, The World of Shakespeare, in non-school settings like museums and art galleries that could encourage the production of more software, but again, the demand for this software would have to be high enough to make the cost of production justifiable to some creators.
Another common concern about the use of virtual reality in the classroom are the minor physical side effects it could cause. For instance, in a study from the university of Nicosia, some reported issues included neck fatigue from the prolonged wearing of the head mounted devices (HDM) because the HDM’s have weight to them. There have been vast improvements in the size and weight of the device since earlier models, but because the device must wrap around the users eyes, and is powered with hardware, there is still a weight to the devices that users are not used to. Another issue related to the prolonged use of the HDM is “that of eye strain resulting from poor adjustments of the optics and other effects such as flicker in the display” (Christou, 2010). Again, this issue is only significant after prolonged use of the device and can be avoided with frequent breaks. Another side effect that was reported from a study in the journal, Virtual Reality, was cybersickness. “Cybersickness is a condition that indicates symptoms of nausea, disorientation and oculomotor during and/or after experiencing virtual environments in head-mounted displays, large screens, and curved screen systems” (Kaimara, et al., 2020 ). When studying these effects of adolescent age children, researchers had children play the same exact game on a 2-dimensional screen without a head piece. The feedback was that students experienced much higher levels of dizziness with the virtual reality version of the game than with the 2D version.
Ethical Concerns
In addition to the minor restraints that surround virtual reality in the classroom, ethical concerns are also often up for discussion. In a world where using the Internet is a common part of daily life, people are familiar with the risks associated with data storage and privacy. The way data is stored has a direct impact on privacy. If personal information is not stored securely, it becomes vulnerable to unauthorized access, breaches, and misuse. With any digital tool that relies on the internet for its general function, ethical dilemmas like privacy will present itself. It is no different with virtual reality. Two of the major ethical concerns with VR are the threats to informational privacy and physical privacy.
Informational privacy involves protecting users against third-party access to various aspects of an individual's information, including their thoughts, expressions, communications, as well as financial, medical, and educational records (O’Brolcháin, et al., 2016). Informational privacy is threatened by the expanding digital footprint, including personal features, emotions, psychology, location, and physical environment, which can be accessible to hackers, identity thieves, businesses, and governments. For instance, virtual reality visits with a doctor require users to release their personal medical information, and with the added features provided by virtual reality social networks (VRSN) including facial recognition, eye movement, etc., it makes hacking someone’s personal information much easier and more accessible from anywhere in the world. In 2014, the “Heartbleed Bug” was used by hackers to steal data, eavesdrop, and impersonate users without being detected (O’Brolcháin, et al., 2016). This was ten years ago. In that time, VR technology has grown and features that detect personal and unique information, as previously mentioned, such as eye movements, emotions, and facial expressions, amplify the risk to a concerning degree.
Physical privacy concerns involve the ease with which individuals can be observed without their knowledge due to the ubiquitous presence of recording devices in VRSN (Spiegel, 2018). This means that the GPS systems, cameras and microphones in our smart devices that can detect sounds, locations, and physical surroundings can be accessed to provide precise physical locations of users, jeopardizing their privacy. In a virtual classroom setting, in order to create life-like avatars, it will be essential to use a recording device for students to realistically represent themselves. Most recording devices are controlled by the user and must be turned on and off, physically. In fact, many modern day laptops come equipped with closable shutters for the cameras. However, these devices that are often still accessible and possibly activated through the Internet makes it, in theory, possible that a third party could activate the device outside the control of its legal owner (Spiegel, 2018). For instance, it is legal in some emergency circumstances for the FBI to turn on a person’s camera on their smart device without their knowledge. The concern is that if the capability exists, then the risk of someone else, like a hacker, being able to access this information, becomes much more prevalent.
Minimizing Constraints and Ethical Concerns
Although virtual reality proposes potential threats to privacy, there are a number of ways to minimize these concerns. First, it is very important that all virtual reality software comes equipped with guidelines, regulations, and warnings to users. According to James Spiegel in his journal, The Ethics of Virtual Reality Technology, “(these regulations) ensure that the public is properly educated about the potential dangers of VR technology and informed as to how VR companies will use data gleaned from consumers” (Spiegel, 2018, P. 1540). In other words, some virtual reality software, especially VRSN’s, will have to access user’s personal information in order to provide the necessary functions. For instance, in a virtual classroom, where users are expected to accurately represent themselves, video recording software is necessary. If users are aware, and of an appropriate age (or with parental consent) of the data that is being used, then they can make a conscious decision toward using the software or not. The good news is that using VR in education as a supplemental tool does not generally require this kind of personal information. Users can stay anonymous and do not need to provide any sort of data to experience most simulations. A virtual field trip to the zoo, for example, would not need any sort of personal information from the user minus the detection of which direction the user is facing, in order to provide the most realistic movement experience through the zoo, but cameras would not be necessary, education or medical records would not need to be released, etc.
In addition to VR companies being transparent as to what they need to access from users, another way to minimize privacy concerns is for users to minimize VR use. Plain and simple, avoiding situations that could access your personal data is the most effective way to avoid privacy invasion. In the classroom, VR software will use minimal personal data as it is, but other low-tech solutions to protect privacy include blocking cameras on phones and computers, while some high-tech solutions include using purchased software (often already purchased by school districts for all internet use) to block cookies and other trackers. Furthermore, large organizations, like school districts, can purchase encrypted VRSN that are similar to encrypted email services to ensure data protection. All in all, with any new and emerging technology, threats to privacy will occur. By taking a few basic precautions, schools can ensure the safety of their students while enjoying the many benefits of VR educational technology in the classroom.
In conclusion, virtual reality (VR) holds immense potential as an innovative educational tool, offering lifelike simulations that enhance learning experiences and align with various learning theories. Simulations ranging from historical explorations to practical training scenarios provide students with unprecedented opportunities to engage and learn in ways that were once unattainable or unsafe. Despite the numerous benefits, challenges such as cost, minor physical side effects, and ethical concerns, particularly related to privacy, have hindered widespread adoption in educational settings. The cost of VR implementation, potential physical discomfort, and ethical dilemmas surrounding data privacy are significant considerations. However, with proper guidelines, transparency from VR companies, and proactive measures to protect privacy, these concerns can be addressed. As technology continues to advance, careful integration of VR into education has the potential to revolutionize learning experiences, providing students with immersive, engaging, and safe environments that foster enhanced understanding and skills development.
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