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Towards Routinely Using Virtual Reality in Higher Education

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Virtual reality promises to be a tool that can improve higher education. Immersive virtual environments offer the chance to enrich courses with experiential learning experiences. The technological possibilities evolve rapidly and more and more researchers report on adopting virtual reality for learning-albeit such work often has a more or less experimental character. However, the base of knowledge on using virtual reality in higher education is growing; educators who want to employ virtual reality to amend courses, to extend the curriculum with experiential learning, or who want to offer new content enabled through virtual reality, find increasingly rich advice. With this article, we contribute to this advice by providing insights from three research cases. Although these were experimental, their embedding into a larger project enables us to propose recommendations for educators. The ultimate aim of our work is the routine use of virtual reality in higher education.
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Towards Routinely Using Virtual Reality in Higher Education
Tim A. Majchrzak and Jaziar Radianti
University of Agder,
Kristiansand, Norway
{timam,jaziar.radianti}@uia.no
Jennifer Fromm
University of Duisburg–Essen,
Duisburg, Germany
jennifer.fromm@uni-due.de
Michael Gau
University of Liechtenstein,
Vaduz, Liechtenstein
michael.gau@uni.li
Abstract
Virtual reality promises to be a tool that can improve
higher education. Immersive virtual environments
offer the chance to enrich courses with experiential
learning experiences. The technological possibilities
evolve rapidly and more and more researchers report on
adopting virtual reality for learning – albeit such work
often has a more or less experimental character. However,
the base of knowledge on using virtual reality in higher
education is growing; educators who want to employ
virtual reality to amend courses, to extend the curriculum
with experiential learning, or who want to offer new
content enabled through virtual reality, find increasingly
rich advice. With this article, we contribute to this
advice by providing insights from three research cases.
Although these were experimental, their embedding into
a larger project enables us to propose recommendations
for educators. The ultimate aim of our work is the routine
use of virtual reality in higher education.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, VR, Immersive VR
technology, Higher Education
1. Introduction
Virtual reality (VR) comprises ”hardware and
software systems that seek to perfect an all-inclusive,
sensory illusion of being present in another
environment” [
1
]. Compared to other information
systems, VR enables a particularly high level of
immersion, presence and interactivity [
2
]. Due to
these characteristics, VR promises to be a tool that can
improve higher education [
3
]. It is particularly useful for
experiential learning, which can enhance the learning
success of students [4]. Immersive virtual environments
can provide rich experiences and thereby add value to
courses, enabling students to learn in an individual way.
VR has its roots in the field of head-mounted displays
(HMDs) [
5
]. The development of VR technologies in
recent years has been rapid. VR hardware and tools
for creating virtual environments have been enhanced
profoundly. However, current applications of VR in
higher education often have an experimental character [
6
].
There are few guidelines for educators. If a course should
be amended with virtual content, educators often need
to start from scratch, need to overcome technological
hurdles, need to master the technical background by
themselves, and need to factor didactic considerations
and pedagogic value with little external advice.
The base of knowledge is growing nonetheless,
and several studies have looked into benefits and
challenges perceived by educators already. Solomon
et al. [
7
] describe that the following benefits of VR
are perceived by lecturers: it facilitates participation,
students can learn at their own pace, language barriers
can be eliminated, socialization between students
can be enabled, and it is useful for students with
different learning types. However, they also identified
challenges [
7
]: infrastructure and financial aspects, lack
of VR skills, and resistance to change. Fransson et al. [
8
]
studied which pedagogical possibilities teachers name for
HMDs. For example, increased opportunities to visualise
complex processes, and making teaching and learning
more interesting through varied and experience-based
work were identified. The discussed challenges align
with those from the ones named above [8]: 1. economic
weakness and possible problems with the technology, 2.
initial learning barriers (getting used to VR takes time),
3. organization and practical enactment for teaching and
learning (e.g. class size, number of HMDs available),
4. curricula, syllabuses and expected learning outcomes,
and 5. teachers’ competences, professional development,
and trust. Finally, similar barriers to widespread adoption
of VR were identified by Alfalah et al. [
9
]: a lack
of knowledge, additional course preparation time, and
reluctance to integrate new technology into curricula.
Undoubtedly, VR can benefit higher education,
regardless of it being used to merely amend courses, to
extend the curriculum or provide students with additional
learning opportunities with experiential learning, or
offer new content enabled through VR. However, the
challenges need to be overcome. We believe that many
of the above-named challenges would be mitigated or
even removed by providing better guidance for educators.
If we can relieve them of background technological
work – pretty much like we expect no educator to be
able to build a projector to show slides –, creating
virtual worlds could become routine. If we could give
advice on the didactic, pedagogic, and learning-theoretic
underpinnings, educators could decide more rapidly
where to use VR, and how.
We describe in this work three research cases from
different study programs based on our project on VR
in higher education. Although these are experimental,
their embedding in the project combined with prior work
on literature [
6
], learning [
4
], and the market for VR in
higher education [
10
], allows us to draw conclusions.
We offer these in the form of recommendations for
educators, who soon hopefully can routinely use VR
to offer students a richer learning experience.
This paper makes two main contributions. First,
we present research cases of using VR prototypes in
higher education. While these do not seek to advance
technological superiority, they showcase how VR can
be used as a vehicle to create a more motivating study
experience. These provide lessons learned from early
VR applications in higher education. Second, we provide
comprehensive recommendations for educators that keep
pedagogic requirements and didactic considerations in
mind. We thereby support educators who want to add
VR experience to their courses.
The remainder is structured as follows. Section 2
provides an overview of the background work including
a review of relevant literature. We present three cases
of using VR in higher education in Section 3. Then, we
discuss the cases and lead over to recommendations in
Section 4 before we draw a conclusion in Section 5.
2. Status Quo VR in Higher Education
The current literature on VR in higher education can
be divided into three areas. The first stream of research
focuses on the design of VR learning applications and
their evaluation in terms of usefulness and usability.
The second stream tests VR learning applications in
short laboratory experiments, often in comparison with
traditional learning methods and evaluates their learning
outcomes. Only a few studies can currently be assigned
to the third stream, which focuses on student perceptions
of long-term VR experiences in real-world courses.
2.1. Stream 1: Design-Oriented VR Studies
The first research stream consists of design-oriented
studies aimed at identifying innovative VR use cases
within higher education and the technical implementation
of VR learning applications. These studies mostly
involve user testing to gather feedback on the use cases
and usability.
A recent systematic literature review provides an
overview of design-oriented studies on VR in higher
education [
6
]. The review found that most applications
targeted the acquisition of declarative knowledge and
procedural knowledge in engineering, computer science,
and astronomy. For example, a study reported on the
development and user testing of a VR-based training
system allowing engineering students to assemble and
disassemble an engine [
11
]. Another study presented
a VR simulation enabling students to practice robotics
programming [
12
]. Researchers [
4
] developed and
evaluated innovative use cases for VR in higher
education through design thinking workshops and
derived design principles for VR-based experiential
learning applications. A similar approach was taken to
design agents in VR for training games [
13
]. The authors
conducted three design workshops with different groups
of experts and derived a set of design insights that inform
the design of agent-based VR learning environments
from a human-computer interaction perspective.
Furthermore, a recent analysis of VR app stores
provides a comprehensive overview of VR learning
apps already available on the market [
10
]. The authors
concluded that available apps were mostly designed as
short-term learning units that can be used more as a
supplement to traditional lectures. Taken together, these
studies show that a variety of VR application scenarios
in higher education are already known, but existing VR
learning applications are not necessarily designed for
long-term experiences.
2.2. Stream 2: Short-Term VR Experiments
The second stream includes short-term experimental
studies that measure learning outcomes using quantitative
methods such as knowledge tests. A recently published
systematic literature review provides a comprehensive
overview of such experimental studies comparing the
learning outcomes of VR teaching approaches and other
forms of learning methods [
14
]. Most of the 29 included
studies found a positive effect of VR use compared to
non-immersive methods. However, the authors also
emphasized that most of the studies were short-term
experiments focusing on science and engineering
subjects. For example, Detyna and Kadiri [
15
] conducted
three trial runs of earth simulations using high-end VR
hardware. In a survey, the students reported that the
short VR simulations enhanced their understanding of
topography and engagement with the topic. Likewise,
Pande et al. [
16
] conducted a quasi-experiment in a
biology course in which bachelor students viewed a total
of three simulations either as video or with a VR headset.
The comparative study showed a greater increase in
knowledge gain and improved knowledge retention
in the VR condition. In another study, researchers
designed and developed a game-based immersive VR
learning environment to study mathematical topics [
17
].
They integrated knowledge of quadratic functions into
the platform and let seventh graders play the game.
The results of their experiment showed significant
improvements in mathematical achievement and learning
motivation applying the VR game in primary and
secondary education.
2.3. Stream 3: Long-Term VR Experiments in
Real-World Courses
To date, only few studies examined student
perceptions of VR in higher education over an extended
period of time. We identified recent long-term studies in
which VR was integrated into real courses and student
perceptions were collected via observations, reflections,
short surveys, or interviews [18, 19, 20, 21].
Hodgson et al. [
18
] reported on the development,
implementation, and evaluation of immersive learning
experiences using 360
°
videos. One video provided an
immersive view of a patient consultation process and the
second video provided a field trip to a historical site. The
authors emphasized the importance of multiple cycles of
testing to progressively improve the experience.
In a study of an advanced Chinese language class,
students researched information about famous landmarks
and presented them in an authentic environment
using Google Cardboard and Google Expeditions [
19
].
Students experienced a variety of benefits, including an
increased interest in the course content and an enthusiasm
to engage with Chinese culture. However, students also
reported challenges in the form of physical discomfort
and technical difficulties. The authors recommended
that lecturers use an additional router to counteract
connection issues and allow participation via smartphone
(without Google Cardboard) to reduce physical dizziness.
Another long-term study examined regular use of
the HTC Vive over two semesters in a geography class
in higher education [
20
]. During the course sessions,
one student visited various locations in Google Earth
VR and the view was shared with the rest of the class
using a projector. Overall, students were positive about
the technology, but some were anxious to try the VR
headset in front of the entire class. The lecturer reported
logistical problems in setting up the VR hardware in the
classroom. The authors, therefore, recommended that
lecturers address students’ fears and permanently install
the VR equipment in a dedicated room.
In a further study, authors reported experiences with
a computer science lecture in which students participated
from home using VR headsets and Mozilla Hubs [
21
].
Overall, students tended to prefer in-person classes
but rated the VR course significantly better than video
conferencing lectures. Students’ perceptions of the
VR experience were negatively impacted by feelings
of motion sickness, and students encountered technical
issues such as audio and video glitches. The authors also
suggested additional features that could help lecturers
such as the implementation of a clock, duplicate view of
slides, and a virtual notebook.
2.4. Intermediate Conclusion
Our study contributes three novel aspects. First, we
add to the limited body of research in which VR is
used in real-world courses for an extended period of
time. Second, we report on three diverse research cases,
allowing us to address general but also context-specific
challenges and solution approaches. Third, we focus not
only on student experiences but also on our experiences
as lecturers. This results in recommendations to help
lecturers use VR in higher education teaching.
3. Cases
This section compiles three cases of VR application
in higher education. All three have an experimental and
exploratory nature, and seek to motivate students as the
common denominator. A comparison of the cases is
given in Table 1.
3.1. Case 1: VR Flipped Classroom
In the first case, we intended the use of VR to
increase student engagement in online teaching and
create a sense of genuine social interaction in times of
the COVID-19 pandemic. We used VR in a course called
Communication & Collaboration Systems where students
learn about challenges and success factors associated
with adopting such technologies. We used the VR
meeting app Spatial [
22
] in conjunction with a flipped
classroom format where students prepared learning
materials at home and deepened their understanding
through group work during the course session. The VR
experiment also allowed students to learn through their
own experience using innovative communication and
collaboration technologies. Nine students participated
in nine VR course units over a three-month period. The
same course was offered to 28 additional students in the
video conferencing tool BigBlueButton [
23
], allowing
for a comparison of experiences.
Table 1. Comparison of the cases
Case Data Collection Setting Applications Class / subject Participants Used HW (price)
1
Observation notes,
open-ended survey
at home Spatial (free)
Bachelor lecture –
Collaboration Systems
9 students
Oculus Quest (450
C
per piece)
2
Observation notes,
open-ended survey
at home AltspaceVR (free)
Master lecture –
Management IS
19 students
Oculus Quest (450
C
per piece)
3
Observation notes,
open-ended survey
at home /
in class
YouTube 3D (free);
Anne Frank House
(Free); Gadgeteer App
(USD 14.99)
Bachelor / Master
lecture – IS
Cybersecurity
12 students
Oculus Quest (450
C
per piece)
Before the course started, we shipped a standalone
VR headset (i.e., Oculus Quest) and a silicone hygiene
cover to each student. We including a guide on how to
configure the headset and install the app. In Spatial, the
lecturer can choose from predefined virtual environments
to create several spaces (e.g., auditorium, meeting room).
Students and lecturers can upload a selfie to automatically
generate a realistic avatar. The Oculus Quest has an
integrated microphone allowing students and lecturers to
talk to each other. While doing so, the avatars show
the actual gestures of the user and automated facial
expressions to signal who is speaking. Users can teleport
through the virtual environment and switch between
different spaces. Lecturers and students can use the
web app to upload slides, documents, and pictures into
the VR environment. Spatial also offers a wide variety
of features that can be used to brainstorm ideas (e.g.,
whiteboard, sticky notes, scribble, search for images,
and 3D objects). The video conferencing tool offered
similar features (e.g., audio, webcam, breakout rooms,
screensharing, whiteboard).
We devoted the first session entirely to experimenting
with the app features. For each following session,
we compiled a selection of learning materials such
as scientific articles and enterprise blog articles. We
provided the students with guiding questions enabling
them to focus on specific aspects. Each lesson consisted
of three group tasks which were based on Bloom’s
revised taxonomy [
24
]. This hierarchical taxonomy
distinguishes between different levels of the cognitive
domain reaching from recalling information to generating
new ideas. Hence, we started each session with a sorting
task on the virtual whiteboard. For example, students
were provided with statements related to different
theories they read about at home and were asked to assign
the statements to the respective theory. The second task
then addressed a higher cognitive level. For example, the
students had to compare different theories or evaluate
advantages and disadvantages of different technologies,
as can be seen in Figure 1. The lecture ended with a group
exercise in which the students generated new ideas such
as a strategy for the introduction of new technologies or
an improved interface design for workspace awareness.
Overall, student feedback on the lecture was very
positive. The students were surprised that so many things
were already possible in VR and worked better than
expected. We observed that the students did not have any
major problems and were eager to help each other. Thus,
we did not have to take a technical support role and were
able to focus on the moderation of group discussions.
Discussions in the VR course were much more lively
compared to those in the video conferencing course.
Students immediately started to engage in discussions
and enjoyed seeing each other as avatar. In addition,
students already met in the virtual room before the lecture
started and were talking with a ”coffee mug object” in
their hands. Students have thus attempted to recreate the
casual conversations that usually occur before physical
lectures, which we have never observed in our video
conference course. However, it became apparent that the
documentation of results in VR requires more time. Some
participants noted that it took them significantly longer
to write sticky notes using the virtual keyboard although
this improved over time. Nevertheless, we decided to
relieve the students of as much typing as possible by
preparing whiteboard templates.
Altogether, the students enjoyed the lecture and were
willing to participate more than obligatory. They created
their own virtual space called the Chatterbox where
they could meet after the lecture. In the session before
Christmas, they decorated the room with 3D objects.
Even if these activities did not directly result in achieving
learning outcomes, they kept the students motivated and
fostered regular attendance. As a result, the students’
final exam grade point average was better in the VR
version of the course (arithmetic mean = 1.68) than in the
video conference version (arithmetic mean = 2.25), with
1 being the best and 5 being the worst possible grade.
3.2. Case 2: VR-Learning-Game
In the second case, we intended to use VR
applications in order to study course content, for
example, to repeat course content or to prepare for
an exam. We used an interactive digital card game
called “VR-Learning-Game”, which is an extension of
the AltspaceVR [
25
] platform and open-source available
Figure 1. Students compare communication theories
using a virtual whiteboard in Spatial
on GitHub
1
. Digital Card (DC) games are widely used in
different levels of education to offer a more compelling,
personalized, and exciting learning experience [
26
].
Furthermore, DCs are powerful tools for learning
towards school curriculum by game-construction and
gameplay [
27
]. The multi-player game aims to repeat
and foster course content by providing collaboration
and communication features as, for example, proposed
in Boticki et al. [
28
] or in George et al. [
29
]. The
“VR-Learning-Game” consists of two phases in order
to play the game: (1) setting up the card topics and (2)
asking for assigned topics.
In the first phase, students should reflect on topics
discussed in the course and should come up with topics
for the cards. Such topics can be any theory, concept,
model, or other important aspects from the related course
content. In the second phase, students play the game in
VR using the topics derived from the first phase. Every
participant gets a virtual avatar and enters a virtual room
where the game will be played. Each player can pick a
card without knowing the topic. After selecting a card,
the topic is shown above the avatars’ head, only visible
for the other players but not for oneself. Each player
needs to find out their topic by asking questions to the
group that may only be answered by yes or no. Figure 2
illustrates the game and the assigned topics to players.
Before executing the game in class, we selected a
course called Management of Information Systems at our
university. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the complete
course was virtualized. Because of the limitation of
having only four VR glasses, not all the students could
participate with VR glasses. Some students were using
their own VR glasses and others were participating
by using their desktop PCs. To facilitate the game
1https://github.com/donmiguel/VR-Learning-Game
installation on the students’ devices, a short quick-start
guide was provided to the participating students in
advance. The four available VR glasses owned by the
university were distributed to the students in advance, so
they could set the glasses up and get familiar with them.
In the selected course, we used one of the last sessions
to play the game as a preparation for the upcoming
exam. The participation was voluntary and in total 19
students took part. We started the class by introducing
the game to the students and asked them to scan the
course manuscripts in order to identify the main concepts,
models, constructs, or other learnings of the course. We
asked each student to hand in one to three topics that are
perceived as important in their opinion. We collected
more than 34 topics which we added to the game.
Next, we met in AltspaceVR and did a short
introduction to the virtual environment. After all the
students got familiar with AltspaceVR, we split up into
two groups and played the game. We played various
rounds. During the hour of playing, students moved
around in the prepared virtual environment and could
switch the group or meet in different virtual rooms.
Entering the virtual room, the students quickly began
to walk around and explore the environment. They
tried to communicate with each other and got familiar
with the system very quickly. Starting the game, the
interaction began, and the students gathered in a circle.
We observed that all students participated and tried
to find out the assigned topic. During the game, we
observed a high engagement of the students and they
used intensively social interaction features like chatting,
personal messages, or expressing emotions using smiles
or thumb-up icons provided by AltspaceVR.
In the discussion afterward, we observed that the
students had fun playing the game and they stated
that VR applications could serve as a good alternative
to web-conferencing systems especially in the current
situation with intense online teaching. However, some
difficulties of integrating VR into the daily teaching
routine were also mentioned. For example, doubts were
raised about the glasses and their comfort, especially
when wearing them longer than just an hour. In addition,
some students experienced technical issues with slow
internet connections and thus gameplay problems.
3.3. Case 3: Cybersecurity on 360° Video
In the third case, we intended to use VR for
exploring its use for enhancing teaching and learning of
cybersecurity in a course titled Security Management of
Information System Development. We used one session
of the course curriculum for this experiment, to let the
students feel and experience how cybersecurity has been
Figure 2. Students playing the VR-Learning-Game
to study course content
presented in a virtual world. The VR experiment thereby
served a twofold purpose as experiment and learning
experience. As a side effect, this provided a realistic
setting for the experiment.
The experiment was proposed as a co-design process
and tailored with an assignment. The assignment was
about providing the design requirements that allow
people to learn cybersecurity via VR. The students were
required to apply their knowledge and tailor it into the
design as one of the course deliverables, working in
groups of four students. 12 students participated in the
experiments, and 19 students engaged in the assignments.
Some students did not participate physically due to health
issues. In line with the curriculum of this course, after the
experiment we challenged the students to suggest three
designs in the form of paper prototypes with adequate
explanations such as target group, learning elements,
usage descriptions, and the design elements.
We used Oculus Quest headsets during the
experiment. As the experiment was conducted in a
COVID-19 situation, we carefully applied all measures
required during the pandemic time. The measure
supports were to use hand sanitizer before touching the
VR headset, to clean the headset with disinfectant after
each use, to wear a disposable mask for VR headsets, and
to use face masks during the experiment. In addition, the
experiment was conducted by only two persons at a time
with adequate distance between them.
Note that by the time of testing, there were only few
apps for learning targeting higher education in the Oculus
Quest VR app market [
10
], and especially for specialized
topics such as cybersecurity. Thus, prior to the testing,
we conducted preparation works and came up with the
idea of watching 360
°
videos related to cybersecurity
on the headset, which were accessible, but did not
go into as much technical depth on the cybersecurity
topic. Nevertheless, this option provided all students an
opportunity to passively immerse into the VR world and
observe, e.g., control room cybersecurity monitoring and
response, or critical infrastructure monitoring in a highly
realistic environment. But such passive observation
posed a risk that the students might underestimate the
Figure 3. Experiment with 360°video where the
student can virtually observe the situation inside the
Security Operation Centre (SOC)
power of VR as a learning tool.
To enhance their VR experience to go beyond passive
observation, we also provided alternative learning apps
such as 1) the Anne Frank House Museum App that
allowed the user to move and walk around from one
to another room, to learn about the history of Anne
Frank and experience where she used to live, and 2) the
Gadgeteer App that is listed as an educative app where
the users can experience to hold different tools available
in the VR environment, touch, grasp, “feel” the weight
of objects, take action, and observe the effects of their
choices. The disadvantage was that these two apps were
not related to cybersecurity. The purpose was rather to
show further what would be possible in the virtual world.
During the experiment in the teaching session we
conducted a short survey to map the previous experience
dealing with VR headsets. Only a few students had prior
experience with HMDs. Some had experience using
Google Cardboard. As we anticipated this situation,
beginner-to-VR students were recommended to use the
YouTube app prepared in the VR headset and find
interesting cybersecurity material using voice search.
We prepared suggested key words. Some students
with more experience preferred to try other apps than
the YouTube app or tried to use all possible apps
available in the VR headsets (see Figure 3 illustrating
the experiment process). In the beginning, the students
got an explanation of the overall context and purposes
of this experiment. Guidance on how to use the devices
(e.g., different buttons on the handhelds) was provided.
The students also got an explanation of the different apps
available in the VR headsets.
Referring to Bloom’s taxonomy on learning
objectives [
24
], the post-experiment assignment was
designed to bring the student from lower thinking skills
such as remembering and understanding into higher
thinking skills such as applying (use information in a new
situation), analysing (take apart the known and identify
relationships), evaluating (examine the information and
make judgments), and creating (use the information
to create something new). Thus, although the VR
experience beyond YouTube 360
°
video was not about
cybersecurity, the students were encouraged to use
and reflect this immersive experience and apply the
information in a new context; in this case, to create
mock-ups of app ideas for learning about cybersecurity.
In total, we received 15 VR mock-ups, including a
detailed explanation, goal, and learning points. Based on
the quality assessment of the mock-up and the depth of
the descriptive explanation and learning goal of the app
mock-up, at this point we considered that the majority of
the students developed a higher level of critical thinking.
Positively, the students considered that VR could be
an alternative to various traditional lecture type courses.
VR could be used for telling a story and feeling included
in what is happening in a specific situation. Moreover, the
app ideas suggested that students considered it positive
to step into roles and situations otherwise inaccessible.
Negatively, the students mentioned that VR was quite
troublesome, which may cause resistance toward the idea
of learning using VR. Some were experiencing nausea
and headaches when using the VR equipment. VR use
in classrooms at the university was considered not ideal
during the COVID-19 pandemic, when students should
normally learn from home to avoid contacts. Only a
few students have access to VR devices; the cost of
VR is still considered too high at this moment. VR
equipment will not be bought like a PC and considered
indispensable for learning. Some students were sceptical
of VR for learning cybersecurity, as they found using a
laptop computer to be a sufficient tool for this.
4. Discussion
In the following, we first give detailed
recommendations for educators. We then sketch
the limitations of our work before leading to an outlook.
4.1. Recommendations
Based on our observations, we have compiled
recommendations for the application of VR in higher
education by educators. They target educators directly,
for example in their role as lecturers, but also generally,
for example as facilitators of curricula. These
recommendations have been derived from the cases as
sketched in Section 3 and the work with students based
on these cases. For each recommendation (save for one,
which has not been discussed in any form before), we
link to results from the literature.
Teaching Concept
: Adapt the teaching concept and
learning materials to maximize the learning outcome of
VR usage. Although using VR will likely be perceived
as motivating by students in any case, merely presenting
slides in VR provides little didactic value. VR ought to
enable collaborative and experiential learning concepts
that amend concepts already in place.
In a recent study, researchers proposed design
principles for VR-based experiential learning
applications [
4
]. One design principle also emphasized
to utilize the strengths of VR (such as immersion and 3D
visualizations) yet to understand what other media can
do better (as a simple example: PowerPoint is arguably
better to present slides than a VR application).
Testing
: Evaluate different VR apps before using
them with students. For now, evaluation will need to
be carried out with colleagues; with increasing use of
VR in teaching, best practices could be compiled and
experience with educational apps exchanged.
Yoshimura and Borst [
21
] identified some missing
features of social VR apps that could support teachers
(e.g., a missing clock). We can confirm this observation
from own experience; some apps lack a clock or an
easy-to-use whiteboard where you would have expected
one. Such shortcomings cannot be easily noticed (or
even mitigated) prior to using an app but will rather
reveal themselves when testing it. In alignment with
the literature on software testing (cf., e.g. [
30
]), testing
can be seen as an activity that creates value.
Accessibility
: Provide standalone VR headsets (such
as the Oculus Quest) for home usage and include
measures for hygienic usage. This allows students to
become familiar with the technology in a private, safe
environment. Hygienic use can be supported with covers
for parts of the devices that touch skin. If possible,
provide VR apps that can also be used without headsets
if medical conditions (e.g. epilepsy and wearing a
pacemaker) prevent students from using these.
Several authors [
7
,
8
,
9
] have suggested that teachers
perceive financial barriers to VR adoption. Scrivner et
al. [
31
] proposed the use of low-cost Google Cardboard,
however, they also found that the low resolution can
lead to feelings of dizziness. Standalone headsets can be
expected to be more accessible in terms of finances (i.e.,
investment to be made) because they do not require an
additional high-quality computer to function. In another
perspective on accessibility, Xie et al. [
19
] reported
that some students suffered from physical dizziness and
recommended to provide students with an alternative
access to the learning content (e.g., use apps that cannot
only be viewed with VR headsets but also via desktop
computers or mobile phones).
Preparation
: Prepare the VR environment carefully.
Students should not have to waste time on administrative
tasks or struggle with technological difficulties. Besides
rigorous testing, providing examples such as whiteboard
templates can aid this task.
Previous research [
20
,
31
] reported logistical issues
with installing the VR setup in the given rooms at
the university (e.g., missing adapters). Hagge [
20
]
recommended a permanent setup, so that lecturers do not
need to spend much time on preparation. However, the
preparing inside the VR environment (e.g., whiteboard
templates) is equally important, which has rarely been
considered in previous studies. This aspect is in line
with a prior study with teachers [
9
], who stated that the
increased effort required to prepare VR courses hinders
the adoption. Our own observations confirm that this fear
is justified! Preparation takes a lot of time and the help
of a student assistant was necessary – this extra mile is,
however, also worth it due to an increased value of the
VR experience. In this sense, testing and preparation go
hand in hand.
Tutorial
: Provide students with a quick-start guide.
While the VR app and its usage on the headset should be
as intuitive as possible, setting up the equipment should
be accompanied with a short guide. The educator should
make sure that the selected app(s) are properly installed
before the first lecture. Since VR is not yet routinely
used at most universities, students cannot be expected to
successfully set up the equipment on their own (as would
be naturally expected for their computers). Nevertheless,
it should be mentioned that in our case, students were
eager to experiment and supported each other in using
the technology. Prepare a short introduction area for
students to familiarize with VR, the app(s) in use, and the
specific functionality (such as navigating in VR) before
starting the actual lecture. This prevents frustration and
may especially aid students who would find a virtual
encounter with other students intimidating.
Prior works [
7
,
8
,
9
] found that teachers perceive
the initial learning curve for teachers and students as
an adoption barrier. In alignment with this, Hagge [
20
]
recommends explaining the VR hardware to the students
in order to reduce anxiety related to the new technology.
Short Experiences
: Keep VR units short. Despite
progress, VR glasses are not very comfortable to wear for
an extended time. Moreover, motion sickness problems
need to be prevented (cf. with [32, 33]).
Several studies [
19
,
20
,
21
] confirmed that some
students feel physical dizziness, particularly after
prolonged use of VR equipment.
Small Groups
: Limit the size of groups. It currently
is feasible to use VR in seminar-like settings with groups
of up to ten students. This avoids distractions and allows
solving technical problems. With more routine, scaling
up should be possible; for the next few years, scaling to
courses where more than a few tens of students use VR
at the same time seems unrealistic for economic reasons.
Fransson et al. [
8
] highlighted various challenges
related to the practical enactment of VR teaching relating
to the group size. They name, for example, class size,
the available number of HMD devices, teachers and
support staff, the availability of group rooms, and the
opportunities to be flexible with locations, group size,
schedules, staff and in-house teaching.
Physical Space
: Provide ample space. Applying
VR in classrooms, we consider
2
by
1.5
meters to be the
minimum space needed for students to try out VR without
risking collisions and injury. This space should be free of
obstacles, including such that without a VR glass would
not pose much of a problem (like a floor cable conduit).
More space might be needed depending on the app in use.
It should also be considered that students may have less
space when using VR at home; seated VR applications
may then offer more value than room-scale VR.
Our considerations regarding physical space are
closely related to those regarding group size; therefore,
they align again with the work of Fransson et al. [8].
Space for Fun
: Give students space for activities they
enjoy to increase motivation and to encourage regular
attendance. For example, the VR environment could
provide opportunities to socialise, to engage in seasonal
activities (such as jointly decorating a virtual Christmas
tree), mini-games, and “easter eggs” to discover.
This aspect does not closely link to the literature. In
other words: it has not been discussed in related works.
However, with a broader view, one might relate this idea
to the concept of gamification [
34
] – or even in general
to psychological works that discuss fun and motivation.
Follow-Up
: Take screenshots and videos and share
them with the students. Thereby, the activities in VR can
be documented. This can also help students to preserve
the experience and help them with learning for an exam.
Yoshimura and Borst [
21
] identified some missing
features of social VR apps that could support teachers
(e.g., missing virtual notepad). The authors also pointed
out the problem but did not propose a solution such
as taking screenshots as an easy workaround. We also
made the experience that at the beginning students were
afraid that they would be unprepared for the exam if
they could not take notes themselves. This possibly
is related to experience from classical exams, where
a lot of knowledge needs to be acquired in order to
pass instead of the acquired skills being assessed. In
our case, over time students trusted the lecturer to take
screenshots for them after the lecture and upload them to
the learning management platform. Thereby, important
state changes in the virtual world were preserved. Of
course students could also take screenshots themselves,
but it is better when the lecturer has the opportunity
to edit the screenshots (to e.g. correct mistakes) and
upload a unified screenshot for the whole class. This way,
everybody has equal learning conditions for the exam.
We can summarize our recommendations as
arduously preparing VR usage in education, guiding
students, considering pedagogic and didactic approaches
taken, and making VR a fun and engaging experience.
4.2. Limitations
Many papers appeared that report on VR in higher
education. So far, few support educators. We attempt to
provide such supports, but some limitations remain.
First, our work is based on three research cases and
a surrounding project. We acquired deep insights and
gained profound experiences. However, it is unrealistic
to assume that we can give definite answers to all current
challenges of VR in higher education.
Second, our recommendations have not been
quantitatively studied. Admittedly, this is a point for
future work; it should be mentioned nonetheless that
the effectiveness of our recommendations needs to be
evaluated in future studies.
Third, our observations are somewhat subjective, as
we did not mention validated measurement instruments
to assess student and teacher perceptions. We have taken
initial steps into this direction, though. For example,
in case 3 we asked the students to express the negative
and positive aspects they perceived when using VR, their
difficulties, and so on. What is yet missing is a uniform,
systematic measurements scheme for VR experiments in
higher education courses.
Fourthly, the limitations of the state-of-the-art limit
also what we can achieve. For example, the current state
of the app market for VR in higher education is not very
mature [10]. This again calls for additional work.
These limitations do not impair the value of our work,
though. In fact, they call for extended future work.
4.3. An Outlook
The proposed recommendations and the limitations
make clear two outlooks: First, VR in higher education
can be beneficial and educators can find support in
implementing virtual environments that provide value
to students. Second, many unresolved questions remain.
We expect a rapid evolvement in three fields. First,
there is no reason to believe that the development of
VR hardware has already reached a plateau. It seems
more likely that there will be further advancements
with dropping prices due to a widerspread adoption.
Second, we expect software environments to soon
follow the hardware development. Regarding the use
in higher education, easy-to-use frameworks that require
neither programming nor 3D modeling proficiency would
enable quicker developed and more sophisticated VR
environments used in teaching and learning. Moreover, if
VR is adopted widely in higher education, even low level
development tools would be valuable since we expect that
universities could support the creation of VR teaching
and learning environments through staff, much like some
universities offer units that support video production and
the creation of multimedia content. Third, in the spirit of
this work we expect progress in the very considerations
of why and how VR can be used in higher education.
The latter question will be targeted from a multitude
of perspectives, including didactics, pedagogics, and
psychology. We eventually expect that learning theory
can be extended. Practically, all the technological
work as well as the theory-driven work will need to
be joined by more experiments that increasingly aim at
reproducibility. In addition to the observations we carried
out, long-term VR experiments will be needed, which
include a quantitative evaluation of learning outcomes.
VR in higher education is yet in its infancy but it is
not a bold assumption to see it mature fast. We do not
dare to estimate when it will be used routinely, but we are
confident that the benefits it can offer will be leveraged
much more often than today within the next five years.
5. Conclusion
In this paper, we have presented three cases of using
VR in higher education. Based on these three cases, we
proposed recommendations for educators who want to
use VR in their teaching. These recommendations are
Teaching Concept, Testing, Accessibility, Preparation,
Tutorial, Short Experiences, Small Groups, Physical
Space, Space for Fun, and Follow-Up. We have linked
each of these recommendations to the literature.
Revisiting the title of our work, our vision is the
routine use of VR in higher education by educators.
Undoubtedly, many technological, organizational, and
educational steps need to be taken until this will become
reality. However, we believe that it is equally realistic
for VR to become a tool in education as projectors,
presentation software slides, and tablet computers have
become. Supporting educators with a set of producible
recommendations and, thus, giving them a little less to
worry about and a little more to embrace, should prove a
first leap into this direction.
Acknowledgments
This project has been funded with support from
the European Commission [Erasmus+ grant number
2018-1-LI01-KA203-000107]. This publication 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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