nt. J. Innovation in Education, Vol. 4, No. 4, 201
Copyright © 2017 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
Virtual reality in education: a tool for learning
in the experience age
Elliot Hu-Au* and Joey J. Lee
Department of Communications, Media,
Learning Technologies Design,
525 W 120th St. New York, 10027, USA
Abstract: Educators face major challenges as a result of the shift from the
Information Age to the Experience Age (Wadhera, 2016). For example, students
are passive and disengaged (Capps and Crawford, 2013) and may struggle to
see the relevance of what they are learning to their lives (Gee, 2009); also,
important skills needed for 21st century learners – such as empathy, systems
thinking, creativity, computational literacy, and abstract reasoning – are
difficult to teach (Smith and Hu, 2013). Virtual reality, an immersive, hands-on
tool for learning, can play a unique role in addressing these educational
challenges. In this paper, we present examples of how the affordances of virtual
reality lead to new opportunities that support learners. We conclude with a
discussion of recommendations and next steps.
Keywords: virtual reality; virtual environments; experience age; education;
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Hu-Au, E. and Lee, J.J.
(2017) ‘Virtual reality in education: a tool for learning in the experience age’,
Int. J. Innovation in Education, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp.215–226.
Biographical notes: Elliot Hu-Au is a Doctoral student in Instructional
Technology and Media at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has over
10 years of experience teaching high school physics, biology, and mathematics.
He was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area where he taught in
urban public schools as well as spent four years founding a charter school.
His current research field is virtual reality and its possible uses in educational
Joey J. Lee is a Lecture Professor of Technology and Education at Teachers
College, Columbia University and Director of the Games Research Lab.
He designs, develops, and studies games and game-like experiences for
education and social impact. His projects include both digital and non-digital
games for climate change education, science education, motivation, identity
formation, and cross-cultural education.
216 E. Hu-
We are now in the Experience Age – where 92% of teens are online daily, playing games,
livestreaming memorable experiences, sharing ephemeral moments on Snapchat, or
posting pictures of exciting daily occurrences on Instagram (Wadhera, 2016). Both
informal and formal learning, as a result, have shifted again: from an Industrial
Revolution model of education, where a teacher transmitted information to students via a
‘one size fits all’ mentality; to an Information Age model, in which access to and
accumulation of information was the highest priority; and now onto the Experience Age,
in which the ubiquity of interconnected mobile devices, gaming and social networking
software have led to sharing and experiencing new points of view. By creating, sharing
and participating in technology-mediated experiences, young people are becoming
accustomed to rich new learning environments.
At the same time, formal education faces three major challenges in adapting to this
shift to the Experience Age. First, teachers often still rely on transmissionist methods
such as lectures, leading to passive, disengaged students (Capps and Crawford, 2013).
Learning in this manner, when knowledge is isolated from context, causes many students
to struggle to see the relevance to their lives (Gee, 2009). Second, authentic learning
contexts require many factors that are either difficult to attain or simply absent from
traditional teaching methods (Hill and Smith, 2005). Third, important skills needed for
21st century learners such as empathy, systems thinking, creativity, computational
literacy, and abstract reasoning are difficult to teach (Smith and Hu, 2013). Each of these
challenges is significant and though it may have been acceptable to ignore them in the
past, will grow as obstacles if not addressed for the current generation of students.
Technological advances like tablet computers, Chromebooks, student-response-
systems (i.e., ‘clickers’), and smartphones have made incremental progress in keeping
education and its tools relevant. One technology that is pushing its way into the
mainstream is virtual reality (VR), defined as immersive, realistic, three-dimensional
environments that involve visual feedback from body movement (Aarseth, 2001). VR
technology is poised to be disruptive and vastly influential – projected to be a trillion-
dollar industry by the year 2035 according to market researchers (Boyle, 2016). Already,
developers have created compelling experiences allowing people to travel through the
cells of the body, to explore the Solar System, and to encounter recreations of ancient
battles in history (Hayden, 2015; Hamilton, 2016; Bienz, 2016). VR promises to provide
more immersive, engaging experiences, with applications in many domains, including
shopping, entertainment, training, and education.
There is evidence that VR can address the above educational challenges in the
experience age (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010; Psotka, 2013; Bailenson et al., 2008). In
particular, VR can: lead to increased student engagement; provide active, constructivist
learning; increase frequency of authentic learning experiences; allow for empathetic
experiences; enable students to exercise creativity; and provide an arena for visualising
abstract concepts concretely. In this paper, we start with a brief overview of VR
technology. Next, we present examples of how the affordances of VR lead to new
opportunities that can address the three major challenges to formal education described
above. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of recommendations and next steps.
Virtual reality in education: a tool for learnin
2 Overview: the evolution of virtual reality
The concept of VR is not new; in the early 1990’s speculation on its potential already
existed. VR promised to bring an exciting future – where everyone would wave their
hands to travel through strange neon geometric places, converse with virtual people, and
experience adventures in perfectly simulated worlds or times (Steinicke, 2016). However,
at the time, VR did not go far. Other than primarily military and industrial uses such as
combat training and 3D visualisations (Cruz-Niera, 2016; Pollack, 1989), it was
uncomfortable, not realistic, expensive and required immense amounts of computing
power to render.
Today, we are greeted with a very different landscape; the technology that once was
too expensive or impractical for consumers is now readily available. The popularity of
several mainstream consumer products like the Google Cardboard, Daydream View,
Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, Playstation VR, and Microsoft HoloLens
(Figure 1) are evidence that technical developments have finally resolved many of the
problems that previously doomed VR. In addition, the ubiquity of smartphones – used by
65% of the American population (Statista, 2017) – and their rapidly increasing
capabilities has expanded VR’s reach to more consumer bases. Development and
investment in VR – including key players Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google
(Mason, 2016) – totalled over $2.3 billion in 2016 alone (Digi-Capital, 2017). Many are
optimistic that VR/AR can transform several industries, including education,
entertainment, healthcare and corporate training.
Figure 1 Microsoft HoloTours, a virtual field trip experience (see online version for colours)
Source: Used with permission from Microsoft
VR is a part of a larger family of technology-mediated experiences involving a varying
degree of blends of reality with virtual components. Related areas along this continuum
of reality and virtuality are augmented reality and mixed reality (Figure 2).
218 E. Hu-
Figure 2 Milgram’s reality–virtuality continuum
Source: Milgram et al. (1995)
Augmented reality (AR) can be described as an integration of digital information onto a
view of the real-world environment, such as using a smartphone camera to view a live
translation of characters into a foreign language or scanning a QR code on a card to see a
3D image of an animal. Mixed reality, in between a real and virtual environment, is an
overlay of synthetic content onto the real world that is anchored to – and interacts with –
the real world, such as interactive holograms. In this paper, we are primarily concerned
with the affordances of VR, any form of digital media that creates a 3D visually-
immersive experience simulating a different reality.
In the following sections, we describe how past research in VR supports new
affordances that can address major educational challenges. We also highlight current
examples of how VR can create new learning opportunities.
4 Problems in education and opportunities in VR
4.1 Problem: traditional methods of teaching lead to a lack of student
A widespread problem in education is that traditional methods of lecture-based education
lead to disengaged students (Delialioglu, 2012). This lack of engagement is considered a
major reason for many unfavourable behaviours hindering student success, including
dissatisfaction, negative experience, and dropping out of school (Delialioglu, 2012).
If students’ engagement with academic activities is increased, so does the students’
learning and personal development (Delialioglu, 2012; Winn et al., 1997). In this section,
we describe two learning opportunities provided by VR that can complement traditional
forms of teaching.
4.1.1 Opportunity: virtual reality leads to increased student engagement
Several characteristics of VR provide an opportunity to boost student engagement. As a
hands-on, interactive, immersive experience, it provides a novel way of learning for
students, delivering powerful new experiences they may not have encountered before
(Bricken, 1991; Crosier et al., 2000; Eschenbrenner et al., 2008; Winn et al., 1997;
Johnson and Levine, 2008; Lau and Lee, 2015). For example, Google Expeditions allows
teachers to transport students to virtual field trips to Mars, the bottom of the ocean, and
many other settings, which can spark new interest in subject matter, provide a shared
experience for better classroom discussion, and improve overall engagement (Ferriter,
2016). Experiences like these provide unique and fresh learning moments that draw in
students and pique their interest as they actively explore and exercise their curiosity. This
increased engagement can be an opportunity for addressing typically boring or low
Virtual reality in education: a tool for learnin
appeal subject areas. For example, Costa and Melotti (2012) found that VR exhibits
increased interest in archaeology, especially where interest was low in the past. The
novelty and entertainment value of VR can be used strategically to draw in the attention
of lost and disinterested students, including in subjects that some students may usually
find boring or irrelevant. From there, VR-specific pedagogy, which will be discussed
later, can maximise the learning potential of these experiences.
VR also boosts engagement by providing students with a strong sense of presence and
immersion compared to traditional learning environments (Bailenson et al., 2008;
Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). Different kinds of classroom experiences have varying levels
of presence: reading literature in a classroom; passively watching videos; watching
performance theatre; and the most interactive, actually embodying actors and objects in
VR. (Aylett and Louchart, 2003). By enveloping a student in an authentic, multi-sensory
experience, VR makes a subject area come alive. For instance, students have the
opportunity to navigate inside the human body’s bloodstream as a red blood cell in
The Body VR (The Body VR, n.d.). The ability to simulate an environment and increasing
a student’s sense of presence is one of the most important opportunities of VR to create
more engaging educational experiences.
4.1.2 Opportunity: virtual reality allows for constructivist learning
VR also provides an opportunity for constructivist learning, i.e., allowing students to
construct their own knowledge from meaningful experiences. In these types of
experiences, students engage in authentic problems, exploring solutions and perhaps
collaborating with others. In research on virtual world-building simulations,
low-performing students improved academically more than those learning through
traditional methods, even more so than their high-achieving counterparts (Winn et al.,
1997). Furthermore, in introductory astronomy courses, VR activities where students
built 3D Solar Systems supported greater understanding of astronomical concepts
(Barnett et al., 2005). This affordance of VR gives students the ability to construct visual
and manipulable objects to represent knowledge, an affordance that traditional learning
methods lack. Fantastic Contraption is another example that uses constructivist theory to
reinforce principles of physics, where the player builds a machine and if it does not work
properly, he or she uses problem-solving skills until it functions correctly (Porter, 2015).
These types of experiences hold great potential for utilising the constructivist principles
of authentic activity and knowledge-creation environments (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010;
Driscoll, 2012; Bailenson et al., 2008). Thus, VR has great potential to enhance the
educational landscape by making immersive learning environments customisable,
actively engaging, and self-paced for student success (Smith et al., 2014).
VR also provides an opportunity for training, therapy, or simulation in situations
where repeated practice and a safe space to fail are present. This can be useful as spaces
for therapy for students with disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder, or social anxiety.
The virtual environment allows students control over their learning in a consequence-
free, explorative manner, through which they become empowered and more engaged
(Crosier et al., 2000; Standen and Brown, 2006). VR applications such as VR Language
Learning and Public Speaking VR, give students a way to practice public speaking
without fear of serious consequences from their mistakes (Virtual Speech, 2016). In
essence, VR allows for practice in environments that are highly immersive and closely
parallel real-world situations.
220 E. Hu-
4.2 Problem: it is difficult to deliver authentic, highly relevant contexts
Students often find classroom-based learning to be irrelevant; there is a disconnect
between content learned in textbooks and authentic practice in the ‘real-world’.
Gee (2004) describes this as education lacking ‘situated’ learning (p.38). Correctly
implemented, situated learning in the example of biology allows students to learn terms
while seeing the broader applicability, instead of simply memorising biological facts
isolated from context. Virtual reality can provide an environment for situated learning
that is relatively easy to access. Through the increased relevance and situated nature of
virtual worlds, students can learn academic content in contexts that increase the potential
for learning (Gee, 2004).
4.2.1 Opportunity: virtual reality provides authentic experiences to impact
VR makes it possible to visit any location, time, or person in a relatively inexpensive way
via virtual field trips. This creates powerful learning opportunities for experiencing
historical contexts, scientific environments, and personally meaningful moments. Already
the immersive nature of VR is allowing assisted-living elders to visit their childhood
homes (Conti, 2016), the human body to be explored through the blood vessels (The
Body VR, n.d.), and battles from the 1500s to be reenacted in great detail (Bienz, 2016).
In classroom settings, the immersive nature of virtual field trips has enabled students to
have ‘authentic and powerful’ experiences in Colonial Williamsburg (Stoddard, 2009,
p.431) and increased attention and retention of information on Mexican immigration
Perhaps equally important is the opportunity to impact student identity – for example,
can students be given experiences to inspire them to enter STEM careers? Virtual field
trips already exist that permit students to experience life in a professional’s workplace or
to learn from a mentor. Google Expeditions, for example, contains ‘career expeditions’
experiences where students can ‘shadow’ a scientist or professional in their laboratory or
office (O’Brien, 2016). This can be encouraging for students, especially minority
students, to pursue academic interests or occupations in fields in which they are
historically underrepresented (Butler, 2003). In addition, the existence of social VR
applications such as Rec Room and Facebook Spaces also provide channels for more
intimate and immersive communication. Already, scientists like Bill Nye have entered
into these virtual spaces to interact with the public. Opportunities like this, in schools
where low resources or time constraints limit going out into the field, are excellent
examples of VR’s potential benefits (Lacina, 2004; Placing and Fernandez, 2001; Tuthill
and Klemm, 2002). By delivering these first-hand experiences, VR increases the
possibility that students can adopt new identities that can impact their career trajectories.
4.3 Problem: teaching 21st century skills in a traditional classroom setting
A third problem in education is that today’s workforce increasingly demands 21st century
skills such as creativity, empathy, critical thinking, and technological literacy (P.21,
2015) but these kinds of skills are difficult to teach and are not emphasised. This is
Virtual reality in education: a tool for learnin
because of several reasons, most notably that technology is frequently used to simply
increase the effectiveness of traditional teaching methods (Dede, 2010). In this section,
we describe below two opportunities provided by VR that provide 21st century skill
4.3.1 Opportunity: virtual reality affords new perspective taking and empathy
VR excels at providing opportunities for new perspective taking, empathy, and the ability
to visualise difficult models. For example, when students were given a VR experience of
being an elderly person their empathy towards older generations significantly increased
(Bailenson et al., 2008). Chris Milk (2016), one of the foremost 360° film directors,
argues that VR makes anyone and anywhere feel local. In his VR film, Clouds Over
Sidra, Milk creates a compelling experience where the viewer is transported to a refugee
camp in Jordan. He uses this medium, where empathy with the subject is engendered by
immersing the viewer in a realistic experience of becoming a refugee. Another powerful
VR experience of this nature is the simulation Outcasted. In Outcasted, the player gets to
experience true stories of how people become homeless. VR builds empathy as the player
begins to experience the social rejection that many homeless people face (Priestman,
2015). One of the strongest arguments for VR as a learning tool is this ability to create
empathy in students and to change perspectives (Bailenson et al., 2008); this opportunity
is especially important in a divisive age in which understanding another’s point of view
can be essential to find solutions and ways to compromise.
4.3.2 Opportunity: virtual reality affords creativity and the ability to visualise
VR also enables students to create anything from their imagination and to easily visualise
and manipulate objects to make difficult concepts easier to grasp. Inside creation-oriented
or world-building virtual environments (e.g., a tool such as CoSpaces (Figure 3) that
permits coding and easy VR creation), students can easily reify abstract ideas and
demonstrate their mental models (Winn et al., 1997). This ability to physically gesture to
create and its link to increasing cognitive learning is supported by the theory of embodied
cognition. This advantage of embodied learning through VR carries great potential in
expensive, dangerous, or spatially creative tasks (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). For example,
Tiltbrush by Google is a VR application that encourages creativity and artistic
expression. Using Tiltbrush (Figure 4), students can paint, sculpt, and design life-sized
three-dimensional objects and landscapes using imaginative – and impossible materials
such as fire, snow and stars – and share them with others.
VR’s affordance of transferring perspective is not just limited to social or artistic
contexts. Winn et al. (1997) have also seen the advantages of VR in making abstract
concepts into concrete objects in science curricula. They posit that virtual environments
‘can represent in directly visible and manipulable forms concepts and procedures that are
intangible and invisible in the real world’ (p.2). In the realm of mathematics, VR offers
great possibilities in using technology to help students represent hard-to-visualise and
complex concepts. Students using a virtual environment to learn about surface area and
composite solids were seen to exhibit better performance on immediate and maintained
learning tests (Sung et al., 2015). This use of VR had an especially large impact on the
attitudes of low- and moderate-math level students, where ‘the concrete, individualised,
222 E. Hu-
and feedback-available environments mentioned above may have compensated for the
limited learning abilities’ (Sung et al., 2015, p.133). Thus, VR shows promise that it can
improve general learning contexts as well as bring important new strategies to reach
students who need the most support.
Figure 3 CoSpaces, a world-building tool for 3D and VR environments (see online version
Source: Used with permission from Delightex GmbH
Figure 4 Tiltbrush, a VR app for drawing in 3-dimensions (see online version for colours)
Source: Used with permission from Google
As educators who teach in the experience age, we must embrace and leverage better
methods to deliver the most effective learning experiences. Educators have begun to
embrace VR and its wide possibilities for learning as the technology rapidly moves to the
mainstream. As discussed above, VR is especially useful for providing several
opportunities: increasing student engagement; providing constructivist, authentic
experiences to impact student identity; allowing for new perspective taking and empathy;
and supporting creativity and the ability to visualise difficult models.
Virtual reality in education: a tool for learnin
A strong reason for utilising VR as a learning tool is that it meets young students
experientially, a way that they prefer (Wadhera, 2016). Our current education system
needs engaging, authentic experiences that will drive successful learning. VR can provide
this and offers potential to expose students to worlds and people that are normally
inaccessible (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). For example, a deliberate use of the social
affordances of VR could connect students with role models, thus encouraging greater
participation by students who typically shy away from certain fields, i.e., STEM fields
and minority and female students.
It should be pointed out that VR is no silver bullet; we must be wary of the tempting
novelty of technology and its initial hype – which is often followed by disillusionment.
Thorough research and practice are necessary to explore the full potential of using VR in
educational settings. As Lau and Lee (2015) warn against replacing real-world
educational experiences with virtual reality, they also emphasise that “the best way to use
virtual reality in learning is to create experiences that help students to understand the
learning context better” (p.15). A pedagogy based on the unique affordances of VR is
what is needed. A wrong way of implementing VR in education would be simply to
replicate face-to-face, didactic experiences of learning.
Instead, we should design creatively while building on how we know students learn.
Since VR is an excellent medium for constructivist learning experiences (Dalgarno and
Lee, 2010), pedagogy targeting its use should be founded on constructivist learning
models. Problem-based learning, anchored instruction, cognitive apprenticeship, and
intentional learning environments are all effective models founded on constructivism
(Wilson, 2012). VR has the potential to enrich these methods with interactive simulations
and stunning visuals that immerse students in authentic learning experiences. It can push
the boundaries of the traditional classroom to be engaging, creative, and responsive to the
needs of the student. As such, overlap with game design principles is likely and ideal. VR
is a medium where limits are still being explored, so likewise, why limit the possibilities
of how education can be delivered? With sound pedagogy and innovative experiences,
virtual reality is a gateway for educators to enter the Experience Age.
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