Virtual reality makes learning more engaging

January 25, 2021

VR lessons might be as effective as real-life ones, according to a new study. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Education tools based on virtual reality and mixed reality technology produce higher student engagement than traditional learning methods and are just as effective, according to new research.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Educational Computing Research on Jan. 13, a team of researchers from the U.K. examined the effectiveness of these new technologies in higher education. 

Mixed reality merges the real and virtual worlds to produce interactive environments and visualizations, while virtual reality is a computer-generated 3D experience that visually replaces the real world. Both are typically experienced by using headsets.

Devon Allcoat, the lead author of the study and a teaching fellow at the University of Warwick in England, told The Academic Times that the team found that virtual reality and mixed reality both performed significantly better than traditional learning approaches in terms of student engagement. The researchers also determined that learning in both virtual and mixed environments resulted in similar levels of performance compared to traditional learning. 

A sample of 75 students and faculty members at the University of Warwick were recruited for the research. They were split into three groups to learn about solar panels using either virtual reality, mixed reality or traditional materials on a desktop computer. The learning material from a real class was adapted for virtual reality and mixed reality simulations. 

Participants were first tested on their knowledge of the subject with eight questions, and they then interacted with the material in their assigned learning environment for 10 minutes. Their knowledge of the subject was then tested again. 

The knowledge tests were marked with scores between 0-8. The virtual reality group scored an average of 1.96 on the pre-test, and improved to 5.30 on the post-test. Mixed reality users improved from 2.25 to 4.45, and computer users improved from 1.80 to 4.48.

The team used the WBLT Evaluation Scale, which measures the efficacy of web-based learning tools for education on a 1-5 scale, to evaluate engagement with the materials. The virtual reality and mixed reality groups reported being significantly more engaged than the traditional group, rating their engagement at 4.0 and 4.1 versus 3.4, respectively.

“Both virtual reality and mixed reality can be useful tools for education, with each improving student engagement. This can be applied to both the classroom and distance learning,” Allcoat said. “Furthermore, if the software is well-designed, the technology can be user-friendly, with good system usability and user acceptance, as well as no simulator sickness,” referring to physical discomfort that can sometimes occur when using virtual or mixed reality headsets. 

Other research has shown the benefits of virtual reality-based learning over traditional methods, but very little previous work has considered the benefits and costs of learning in mixed reality environments, according to the paper. 

Based on the knowledge test scores, the study determined that significant learning occurred in all three conditions, and that those students in the virtual reality and mixed reality groups performed as well as those in the computer group. The researchers said that this indicates that virtual reality and mixed reality are viable alternatives or supplements to traditional learning.

“In the same length of time that the traditional group had with standard learning materials, the [virtual reality] and [mixed reality] groups were able to learn to use new equipment, acclimatize to a simulated 3D environment, and learn as much from the material,” the authors said in the paper. 

The research team theorized that this suggests that learning may be improved using the headset technology to surpass traditional learning, if students are more familiar with the equipment.

There also may be an emotional benefit to incorporating virtual reality in education, as the participants in that group reported higher levels of positive emotions than the other groups. Virtual reality also produced higher reports of presence among participants than mixed reality, “suggesting that being in an enclosed virtual environment leads to higher levels of immersion,” the authors said. 

And neither the virtual reality nor the mixed reality technology caused simulator sickness in the study, making them likely safe to use for education purposes in the short term, the researchers noted.

“Often there is little focus on the human aspect of technology. Technology is made by and used by people, so we need to consider the impacts of this technology on the individuals using it,” Allcoat said. “Hopefully, this research will inspire future technology-focused studies to consider more human components, such as user acceptance and simulator sickness.”

For further research on this topic, the authors of the paper suggested longer durations using the headsets, as well as investigating the longitudinal impacts of the use of this technology.

The study, “Education in the Digital Age: Learning Experience in Virtual and Mixed Realities,” was published in the Journal of Educational Computing Research on Jan. 13. Devon Allcoat, a teaching fellow at the University of Warwick, was the lead author. Tim Hatchard, Freeha Azmat, Kim Stansfield, Derrick Watson and Adrian von Mühlenen, all of the University of Warwick, served as co-authors. 

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