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Virtual Reality in Higher Education: Preliminary Results from a Design-Science-Research Project

Authors:

Abstract

While researchers' interest in the educational use of virtual reality (VR) has generally increased , only a few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of VR in higher education. This research-in-progress paper presents an overview of an ongoing design-science-research (DSR) project that will (1) develop a conceptual framework for the design and use of VR in higher education, and (2) evaluate the framework by means of a series of field experiments. In addition, the paper presents preliminary results from a literature review, so it provides a foundation for framework development. Specifically, we identify several VR design elements (e.g., interaction, feedback, and instruction) and discuss what they can contribute to the acquisition of procedural and declarative knowledge and to the development of skills such as problem-solving, communication, and collaboration. We conclude the paper with an outlook on our research agenda.
28TH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON INFORMATION SYSTEMS DEVELOPMENT (ISD2019 TOULON, FRANCE)
Virtual Reality in Higher Education:
Preliminary Results from a Design-Science-Research Project
Isabell Wohlgenannt
University of Liechtenstein
Vaduz, Liechtenstein isabell.wohlgenannt@uni.li
Jennifer Fromm
University of Duisburg-Essen
Duisburg/Essen, Germany jennifer.fromm@uni-due.de
Stefan Stieglitz
University of Duisburg-Essen
Duisburg/Essen, Germany stefan.stieglitz@uni-due.de
Jaziar Radianti
University of Agder
Kristiansand/Grimstad, Norway jaziar.radianti@uia.no
Tim A. Majchrzak
University of Agder
Kristiansand/Grimstad, Norway timam@uia.no
Abstract
While researchers’ interest in the educational use of virtual reality (VR) has generally in-
creased, only a few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of VR in higher education.
This research-in-progress paper presents an overview of an ongoing design-science-re-
search (DSR) project that will (1) develop a conceptual framework for the design and use
of VR in higher education, and (2) evaluate the framework by means of a series of field
experiments. In addition, the paper presents preliminary results from a literature review, so
it provides a foundation for framework development. Specifically, we identify several VR
design elements (e.g., interaction, feedback, and instruction) and discuss what they can
contribute to the acquisition of procedural and declarative knowledge and to the develop-
ment of skills such as problem-solving, communication, and collaboration. We conclude
the paper with an outlook on our research agenda.
Keywords:
Virtual Reality, Immersive Systems, Higher Education, Design Science, Con-
structivist Learning.
1. Introduction
Virtual reality (VR) has enjoyed increasing popularity since 2016 when the gaming
industry released affordable head-mounted displays (HMDs) like the HTC Vive, Oculus
Rift, and Sony’s PlayStation VR [6]. Accordingly, VR’s market revenue in the United
States alone is now about nineteen times higher than it was four years ago, having grown
from $ 62.1 million in 2014 to $ 1,160 million in 2018, and experts predict the market
revenue will increase another six times in the following four years [43]. VR has gained
popularity not only because it enhances the gaming experience but also because it is ver-
satile. In recent years, VR labs have emerged for target groups like astronauts [54], soft-
ware engineers [10], real estate agents [29], and students in primary education [19], sec-
ondary education [36], and higher education [42].
WOHLGENANNT ET AL. VIRTUAL REALITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Especially in the area of training and education, VR offers a variety of promising ap-
plications. While companies like the United Parcel Service and Walmart have started to
train staff using VR [48,55], schools and universities are increasingly using VR as well.
For example, the platform Virtual Reality for Education, which informs educators about
how to organize VR field trips and VR tours, refers to numerous application scenarios in
areas like astronomy, physics, engineering, biology, and aeronautics and aerospace [51].
In addition, VR offers educators such opportunities as interactive introductions to philo-
sophical theories [39], architecture design education [7], and distance education that feels
closer to reality [34].
In terms of higher education, researchers have pointed at the importance of construc-
tivist learning approaches, experiential learning in particular [25], for which VR may con-
stitute a valuable teaching tool [21]. Since the development of complex skills requires more
than just passive learning, as addressed by experiential learning [25], educators are increas-
ingly looking for ways to redesign their curricula. Because of its high fidelity, VR would
allow learners to feel part of the learning environment and to actively participate rather
than passively observe [30], but educators barely implement VR into their curricula stating
time constraints or a shortage of support staff [20]. In the context of these challenges, the
development of guidelines on how to design and use VR in classrooms is critical, which
requires researchers to study the usefulness of VR design elements and to develop an un-
derstanding of which elements can help to develop which competences.
While education researchers have started to conduct design-oriented studies on VR-
enhanced learning, artifact evaluations primarily consist of usability assessments
[e.g., 23,37]. One of the primary goals of the Information Systems (IS) discipline is to
research the design and use of information technology, so IS researchers are challenged to
determine how to properly implement and use VR in higher education. While Walsh and
Pawlowski described VR as “a technology in need of IS research” [5 7, p. 297] more than
a decade ago, a search forvirtual reality” and “education” in the AIS electronic library
returned only eight results for peer-reviewed conference papers and journal articles.
1
From
these publications, only Walsh formulated design propositions for VR-based learning [56],
but in doing so, he focused on technical aspects like bandwidth, noise, and their influence
on learning, so social or organizational research on VR is still scarce [57].
Against this backdrop, this research-in-progress paper reports from an ongoing design-
science project that aims to develop a conceptual framework for the design and use of VR
in higher education and to evaluate the framework by means of a series of field experi-
ments. We present preliminary results from the project and identify and categorize the most
commonly used design elements for educational VR applications based on a literature re-
view. In addition, we discuss the extent to which these elements contribute to acquiring
competences such as procedural and declarative knowledge, problem-solving, and com-
munication.
Section 2 reviews related work and constructivist learning theories, particularly expe-
riential learning theory, which provides the kernel theory for the design-science project.
Section 3 uses Peffers et al.’s guidelines for design-science research to present a project
outline [31]. Section 4 summarizes preliminary results and discusses these results from a
constructivist learning perspective. Section 5 concludes the paper and provides an outlook
on future research.
2. Background
2.1.
Related Work
Researchers have been using the term “virtual reality” to refer to multiple technologies,
such as virtual worlds where multi-user games are played in online environments [47],
desktop VR where screens display 3D environments [35], cave automatic virtual environ-
ments where projections surround the user [17], and so-called immersive VR where users
wear head-mounted displays (HMDs) [44]. The first to conceptualize HMDs was Suther-
land [46] and, today, researchers primarily mean immersive VR and HMDs when they
1
We conducted the search in August 2018 and searched within titles and abstracts.
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refer to virtual reality, and so does the present research project. For half a century, immer-
sive VR was mainly available in labs [38] because consumers of HMDs faced high prices
and technology-induced issues like motion sickness [49], but the technology has matured
and the gaming industry has released affordable HMDs, so VR is increasing in popularity
and receiving increasing attention from researchers.
Domains other than the gaming industry have also discovered VR. For example, re-
search in medicine, one of the pioneering domains in the use of VR, has demonstrated that
staff training, including trainings for surgeons [40] and nursing staff [41], can be imple-
mented in VR without risking harm to patients. Similarly, staff training in high-mainte-
nance industries (e.g., aircraft) and high-risk industries (e.g., mining) is less costly and less
risky in VR than are traditional forms of training [50,53]. Companies have also started to
use VR to train employees in interpersonal skills. For example, Walmart’s employees re-
ceive VR training that prepares them to handle customers [55] and Anders Gronstedt, the
founder of the digital training agency The Gronstedt Group, suggests training managers in
VR while referring to the technology as “the ultimate empathy machine” because it allows
users to experience situations from other individuals’ perspectives [13].
Recent developments in the education domain also reflect VR applications’ potential
in transferring knowledge and practicing skills. Freina and Ott’s literature review [18]
showed that most studies in this area have investigated VR in higher and vocational edu-
cation but focused on a very specific application domain [18]. Besides medical education
[e.g., 40], VR has primarily found application in anatomy education [e.g., 24], engineering
education [e.g., 2], and foreign language education [e.g., 9]. Some studies have also inves-
tigated the effects of VR on learners, suggesting that VR enables faster and more creative
learning [1], increased motivation of learners [28], and better learning conditions for indi-
vidual learners [5].
Although researchers have stressed VR’s potential for constructivist learning [21] and
the development of highly demanded 21st century skills [22] such as communication, col-
laboration, and problem-solving skills [14], educators have barely implemented VR into
their curricula stating time constraints, shortage of support staff [20], and a lack of own
digital skills [52]. As Chen argued, research needs to identify appropriate theories and
models for the design of educational VR applications and investigate how these applica-
tions are able to support learning and how they affect learners [12]. Against this back-
ground, the design-science project described in this paper explores how to effectively de-
sign and use VR in higher education. The following section provides a theoretical founda-
tion for the project.
2.2.
Theoretical Background
Theories about learning either concern what learners learn or how learners learn. For
the question what learners learn, different classifications for competences exist and the
most popular classification is Bloom’s taxonomy [8]. According to the revised version of
Bloom’s taxonomy, learners pass through the following levels: remembering facts, under-
standing facts, applying rules and concepts, analyzing connections among ideas, evaluating
stands and decisions, and creating new knowledge [4]. Another classification is the skill-
acquisition process, which consists of the declarative stage (remembering and understand-
ing facts), the procedural stage (applying rules and concepts), and the self-regulatory stage
(analyzing, evaluating, and experimenting) [3]. That is, learners first have to acquire
knowledge, so they can then acquire actual skills. In the preliminary literature analysis, we
followed the skill acquisition process model and distinguished between two broad types of
knowledgedeclarative and procedural knowledgethat are necessary to acquire skills
[3] such as communication and collaboration skills and problem-solving skills that are rel-
evant to higher education [16].
Considering how learners learn, a paradigm shift of educational designs took place
around three decades agoaway from behaviorism (learning through consequences and
reinforcement) and cognitivism (understanding cognitive processes) towards constructiv-
ism (constructing knowledge through experiences and social interaction) [15], which is the
WOHLGENANNT ET AL. VIRTUAL REALITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION
prevailing paradigm since then. Accordingly, research on VR in education builds primarily
on constructivist learning assumptions [e.g., 21]. A common constructivist-learning theory
is the discovery learning theory, which suggests that learners are most likely to remember
facts that they have discovered themselves [11], so exploring and evaluating ideas are cen-
tral elements of this theory. Another constructivist learning theory is the situated learning
theory, which emphasizes the need to embed learning into authentic contexts in which
learners collaborate on common objectives [27], so context and surroundings are central
elements of educational designs that follow the situated learning theory.
While the discovery learning theory and the situated learning theory focus on certain
aspects of educational designs (i.e. discovery and situatedness), the experiential learning
theory considers learning a […] holistic process […] [that involves] thinking, feeling,
perceiving, and behaving” [25, p. 194]. Consequently, the underlying aspects of both, dis-
covery learning and situated learning, are present in experiential-learning designs as well.
According to Kolb, the experiential-learning process has four iterative steps: concrete ex-
perience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation
[26]. In other words, experiences lead to observations and reflections from which learners
derive implications that they test, leading to new experiences.
Stieglitz et al. have developed a framework that specifies two dimensions that classify
learning arrangements in virtual worlds: the degree of interaction and the degree of immer-
sion (Figure 1) [45]. Against the background of the experiential learning theory, the frame-
work suggests that only with high degrees of interaction and immersion can experiential
learning take place. However, if the degree of both interaction and immersion is low, learn-
ing is primarily auditory and textual, and therefore passive. If interaction is high and im-
mersion is low, as they are likely to be in virtual classrooms, we suppose that the minimum
conditions for discovery learning are fulfilled. In contrast, if interaction is low and immer-
sion is high, as they are likely to be in virtual tours, we suppose that the minimum condi-
tions for situated learning are fulfilled.
high
Discovery
learning
Experiential
learning
Degree of in-
teraction
Passive
learning
Situated
learning
low
low
Degree of immersion
Fig. 1.
F
ramework for virtual learning arrangements (adapted from [45])
Although Stieglitz et al. have developed their framework particularly for virtual worlds,
the framework should also apply to other kinds of immersive systems, including VR. Ac-
cordingly, both Stieglitz et al.’s framework and the experiential learning theory provide
the foundations for our design-science project.
3. Research Project Overview
In the course of our research project, we will follow the main phases of the design-
science-research methodology proposed by Peffers et al. [31]. If necessary, each phase will
undergo several iterations.
Identify and motivate the research problem.
Any DSR process begins with the iden-
tification and motivation of the research problem [31]. Researchers have stressed the need
for a systematic presentation and evaluation of VR in higher education [57], so we aim to
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emphasize this need through a thorough literature analysis, which is the focus of the present
paper. Our literature analysis followed Webster and Watson’s guidelines [58] and helped
to identify VR design elements that have been used for educational purposes. Since the
offers on the market are ahead of research, we plan to enhance our findings from the liter-
ature review with a market analysis, which will consist of an exploratory search for internet
resources like whitepapers, newspaper articles, blogs, and product websites. We plan to
synthesize our findings from the literature review and the market analysis using Stieglitz
et al.’s framework.
Define the objectives of the solution.
To identify the concrete objectives (i.e. target
competences) and requirements for implementing VR in class, we will conduct three work-
shops, each at a different university, with six to eight lecturers from different faculties.
These workshops will build on the workshop design proposed in the Joint Application De-
sign (JAD) method [59]. In these workshops, we will present concrete scenarios identified
from the literature review and market analysis, and the lecturers will evaluate their mean-
ingfulness and feasibility. The lecturers will also derive target competences and require-
ments for the VR applications and evaluate their applicability in the lecturers’ courses. We
will pay particular attention to the requirements so the scenarios meet the conditions for
experiential learning. Thus, the workshop will result in a set of scenarios that include target
competences and requirements.
Design and implementation.
The design and implementation phase contains two ma-
jor steps. First, we willtogether with the lecturers from the expert workshopsselect six
courses (i.e. two courses per university) that qualify for VR support. While we aim for a
variety of subject areas, we will select the courses based on the implementability of VR,
possibility to use experiential learning methods, and class size. Second, we will select ex-
isting VR applications for the courses based on the target competences and requirements
that the lecturers have defined during the workshops. If necessary, VR-software developers
will develop the applications together with the lecturers, as proposed by the JAD method
[59]. At the end of this phase, we will derive a first version of the framework, which will
be the main artifact of this DSR study.
Demonstration and evaluation.
In the demonstration and evaluation phase, we will
use the selected VR applications in class and conduct a series of field experiments [32],
each with a 2x2 mixed factorial design [33, p. 84], to evaluate the framework. For each
class, we will randomly assign students to four groups: Group A will have their lesson
following a passive learning style in class; Group B will have the same lesson following a
passive learning style in VR; Group C will have the same lesson following an experiential
learning style in class; and Group D will have the same lesson following an experiential
learning style in VR. Before and after the lessons, we will evaluate the students’ compe-
tences with a pre-test and a post-test, which both are the same for the whole class. Based
on whether VR lessons supported students at least as well in acquiring competences as
compared to in-class lessons, we will evaluate the success of the selected scenarios and
update the framework correspondingly. For ethical reasons, the lessons will not cover
graded content.
4. Preliminary Results
To kick off the first phase of the DSR process, we conducted a literature review fol-
lowing Webster and Watson [58]. The literature search reported in this paper involved a
keyword search on ProQuest, but we plan to extend the search in the further course of the
project. We conducted our search by combining the search strings (“virtual reality” OR
VR), (educat* OR learn* OR train*), and immers* using a Boolean AND operator. The
keyword immers*” was applied to all search fields, while the others were applied to title,
abstract, and keywords only. The search results were limited to peer-reviewed scientific
journal articles written in English and published after 2010. We decided to look for articles
starting in 2010 because although HMDs became commercially available in 2016, an ear-
lier explorative search revealed that several relevant articles were published between 2010
and 2015.
WOHLGENANNT ET AL. VIRTUAL REALITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Our search in August 2018 returned 724 unique articles. Two researchers read those
articles’ titles and abstracts independently to separate relevant from non-relevant articles.
We considered articles as relevant to our purposes only if they empirically investigated one
or more VR applications for education, so we were able to extract the major design ele-
ments of these applications. As we did not want to omit any potentially relevant articles,
we performed this activity generously by considering all articles that looked relevant to at
least one of the researchers and eliminating only articles that were obviously irrelevant
(e.g., articles about VR’s technical features). After reviewing titles and abstracts 41 rele-
vant articles remained. We read all 41 articles and eliminated another 15 that did not allow
us to extract any design elements.
Using the final set of 26 articles, we created a concept matrix, as Webster and Watson
proposed [58], that contained concepts related to competences and design elements. We
coded four different competences: declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, prob-
lem-solving skills, and communication and collaboration skills [3,16]. Declarative
knowledge includes all kinds of facts that learners need to memorize like factual
knowledge, abstract concepts, and scientific principles; procedural knowledge includes all
kinds of tasks that foster practice and internalization of processes like steering a robot,
playing an instrument, and performing a surgery; problem-solving skills include all kinds
of skills that are related to complex tasks like solving business cases, performing risk as-
sessments, and making complex decisions; and communication and collaboration skills
include interaction with others in tense situations, presenting, and working on tasks collab-
oratively.
The design elements were obtained inductively in the process of reading the articles.
(When our opinions about the design elements varied, we used a clinical approach and
discussed until we reached consensus.) We found the following ten design elements in the
articles: passive observation (i.e. virtual tours in which learners cannot intervene), explo-
ration (i.e. moving around and interacting with virtual objects), interaction with other users
(i.e. discussing and visiting other users’ spaces), interaction with virtual agents (i.e. avatars
that are steered by artificial intelligence, not by users), immediate feedback (i.e. immediate
haptic, audio, and visual feedback), virtual rewards (i.e. badges, awards, and virtual relax-
ation areas), realistic surroundings (i.e. surroundings that simulate the learning context like
laboratories), instructions (i.e. tutorials, audio guides, and textual instructions), repetition
(i.e. practicing handles and processes), and assembling (i.e. provided set of objects so users
can create or assemble new objects).
Table 1 maps the four competences with the ten design elements and shows the ratio
of VR applications that targeted a certain competence using a certain design element. (For
example, two out of seven applications that targeted declarative knowledge used passive
observation, resulting in a ratio of 29 percent.) The analysis revealed that the most fre-
quently used design elements with regard to the four competences are: exploration (71%),
instructions (57%), and immediate feedback (57%) for declarative knowledge; instructions
(77%) and realistic surroundings (69%) for procedural knowledge; realistic surroundings
(86%) and interaction with other users (71%) for problem-solving skills; and realistic sur-
roundings (83%) and interaction with virtual agents (67%) for communication and collab-
oration skills.
For three out of four competencesprocedural knowledge, problem-solving skills, and
communication and collaboration skillsrealistic surroundings is one of the most im-
portant design elements, which includes all surroundings that simulate the learning context,
such as laboratories and construction sites. Accordingly, realistic surroundings is a key
indicator of a high degree of immersion and situated learning. For declarative knowledge,
exploration and immediate feedback are among the three design elements implemented
most frequently. While exploration allows learners to interact with virtual objects, imme-
diate feedback simulates consequences of actions. Accordingly, exploration and immediate
feedback are key indicators of a high degree of interaction and discovery learning. In con-
trast, passive observation, a key indicator of low degrees of interaction and immersion,
rarely appears in the analysis.
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Table 1.
Mapping of competences and design elements
Competences
Declarative
knowledge
Procedural
knowledge
Problem-solv-
ing skills
Communication and col-
laboration skills
Design elements
Passive observation
29% (2/7)
23% (3/13)
29% (2/7)
17% (1/6)
Exploration
71% (5/7)
23% (3/13)
43% (3/7)
Interaction with other users
29% (2/7)
23% (3/13)
71% (5/7)
50% (3/6)
Interaction with virtual agents
15% (2/13)
29% (2/7)
67% (4/6)
Immediate feedback
57% (4/7)
46% (6/13)
17% (1/6)
Virtual rewards
17% (1/6)
Realistic surroundings
43% (3/7)
69% (9/13)
86% (6/7)
83% (5/6)
Instructions
57% (4/7)
77% (10/13)
43% (3/7)
17% (1/6)
Repetition
46% (6/13)
33% (2/6)
Assembling
29% (2/7)
14% (1/7)
Most applications that target problem-solving skills and communication and collabo-
ration skills focus on both, a high degree of interaction (interaction with other users/virtual
agents) and a high degree of immersion (realistic surroundings), which are the conditions
for experiential learning [45]. However, the results for applications that target declarative
and procedural knowledge look different. For example, applications that target declarative
and procedural knowledge seem to rely on action-feedback cycles rather than on interac-
tions between other users or virtual agents. Accordingly, the results show that current ap-
plications that target complex skills follow an experiential learning approach, while appli-
cations that target knowledge fulfil only one of the two conditions for experiential learning.
Nevertheless, the results confirm that most applications follow a constructivist learning
approach and the sparse use of the design element passive observation strengthens this
finding.
5. Summary and Outlook
VR is a young, but promising technology. Because it is highly versatile, VR offers a
variety of promising applications, so VR is enjoying increasing popularity among practi-
tioners, and various disciplines have started to study its potential. However, although IS
researchers have identified research gaps related to the design and use of VR [e.g., 57],
they have rarely investigated VR. In particular, only a few researchers have actually eval-
uated educational VR applications with regard to the acquisition of competences, whereas
educators remain reluctant to use the technologyeven though VR has much to offer, es-
pecially from a constructivist learning perspective. Thus, our research project pursues two
goals: First, we will develop a framework for the design and use of VR in higher education,
and second, we will evaluate the framework using a series of field experiments.
This research-in-progress paper presented preliminary results from the literature re-
view, so it addresses the first goal of the research project. We conducted a literature search
(in so far only one scientific database) to identify educational VR applications across dif-
ferent academic disciplines. The results show which design elements have been used to
train and develop which competences. Accordingly, we not only identified the design ele-
ments that have been most commonly used and studied, but also the design elements that
have not yet received much attention from researchers, so our results can also provide a
foundation for future research. However, as this is research-in-progress, our results can
only be considered preliminary, so we will perform a more comprehensive literature anal-
ysis using other scientific databases, such as the AIS electronic library, IEEE Explore, Sci-
ence Direct, and Scopus. We will also revise our concepts by comparing them to related
work and elaborate more on the theoretical classification of our findings.
In the further course of this research project, we will enhance our findings from the
literature review with a market analysis and expert workshops, resulting in a set of VR
WOHLGENANNT ET AL. VIRTUAL REALITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION
application scenarios that include target competences and requirements. These target com-
petences and requirements will determine which VR applications we will select for imple-
mentation in class. Together, the literature review, market analysis, and expert workshops
will provide the foundation to develop the conceptual framework and experimentally test
its usefulness in various educational settings at our universities. For educators, particularly
those in higher education, the framework will offer guidance to integrating VR into classes
in a feasible and meaningful manner. For researchers, particularly IS researchers, the re-
search project will address the research gaps that other researchers have identified
[e.g., 18,57] and add to the literature on the design and use of VR. In particular, future
research might use the framework to evaluate the usefulness of one or more design ele-
ments to acquire certain competences.
Acknowledgements
This research is part of the Erasmus+ project "Virtual Reality in Higher Education:
Application Scenarios and Recommendations" funded by the European Union (Grant No.
2018-1-LI01-KA203-000107). This article reflects the views only of the authors, and the
Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information
contained therein.
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... The authors provide a systematic mapping of fourteen design elements implemented to teach different types of learning content [12]. Both, Wohlgenannt et al. [11] and Radianti et al. [12], suggest to extend their work by conducting a comprehensive market analysis of educational VR apps. ...
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... As in the learning framework, the design elements of VR for education also emerged from articles during the review process. Some of the categories had previously been proposed by Wohlgenannt, Fromm, Stieglitz, Radianti, and Majchrzak (2019) but our work, as listed in Table 8, provides an extensive update. ...
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