The introduction of virtual reality technology in K-12 began in the early 1990’s with projects such as Science Space, Safety World, Global Change, Virtual Gorilla Exhibit, Atom World, and Cell Biology (Youngblut, 1998).
Designers of these projects used various peripheral devices such as head-mounted display gear, data gloves, and body suits for a fully immersive learning experience. However, the literature around this new technology reported many practical concerns that would ultimately restrict widespread dissemination of this technology into a K-12 environment. Despite the limitations of the early days of VR, modern advancements in areas such as the processing power of the headsets and curriculum-alignment of content, has recently led to the deployment of immersive tools in schools.
With greater acceptance of such tools in the classroom, educators and practitioners are curious to know if immersive learning environments can really empower both students and teachers, and usher in a new way for students to interact with concepts and topics.
The objective of immersive learning is to create an experience where natural behaviors will surface time and again through multiple iterations, which is subsequently followed by reflective conversations that trigger a greater awareness, or understanding.
An immersive learning environment enables hands-on learning for students, which leads to observation, reflection and a desired action, yet at the same time protects them from possible inherent dangers, by keeping learners safe, in a controlled environment.
The theory of constructivist-based learning, according to South African educator Dr. Seymour Papert, “is grounded in the idea that students learn by actively constructing new knowledge, rather than having information ‘poured’ into their heads.”
For example, in traditional learning, knowledge and meaning are transferred to students by their teachers. However, when a student is immersed in an interactive VR module we often hear, “NOW I understand what you are saying about chloroplast!” This is where constructivism plays a vital role as knowledge and meaning is coming from the student’s experience.
Research suggests that immersive learning strengthens the connection between a student and a concept, therefore possibly heightening retention.
When students are in an immersive environment, they are far less prone to distractions such as classmates, phones, and so on. They are left to concentrate on that core concept.
It is about participating in the learning process and having actual/virtual experiences, and enjoying the process, which in turn should increase engagement and motivation within students.
Immersive learning in a VR can assist teachers to attend to different learning styles and make necessary additions to the curriculum, and possibly change their pedagogical methodology. But this can only happen if the VR simulations are designed to bring the teacher into the loop, such as by tracking student usage. Teachers can track student understanding of the topics being taught, using analytics and the reporting of student data from within the VR environment.
As properly produced, interactive VR encourages active participation, it becomes easy for teachers to identify possible gaps in understanding and attend to those issues in a timely manner, only if they are afforded that kind of data. Retaining VR assessment and activity data allows the teacher to effortlessly access, monitor, and analyze each student’s progress, and provide instant guidance and feedback.
There is a frequent misconception that immersive learning in the VR will make the teacher’s job redundant. Far from it! One of the key components of immersive learning is that it allows the instructor to act as facilitator, freeing up time to work with struggling students, one-on-one. Allow students to connect with these difficult situations or concepts on their own, constructing their own pathways to understanding. Watch for and identify gaps in that learning path, and catch them should they fall. As teachers, that is all we want.
The practical use of VR in the classroom is often a concern raised by teachers. Can VR provide the element that is missing from traditional teaching methods? Dave Dolan, a teacher and advocator for VR, highlights the misconceptions, changes, and benefits of the use of VR in modern day classrooms. He breaks down how this type of immersive learning has a potential for assisting teachers to provide a more active, hands-on environment for students, which has the potential to ultimately heighten retention, engagement, and motivation.