Virtual reality environments offer a way to ingrain knowledge more deeply and more quickly than conventional academic or industrial training methods, because — since we weren't always at the top of the food chain — we prioritize spatial information in order to map our escape from potential predators. Though it's less essential to our survival than it once was, this 'fight or flight' acuity of perception can be leveraged to create high-performing VR education frameworks through eLearning software development.
In this article, we'll take a look at the effectiveness of VR applications in education, and check out some examples of how new innovations in this sector are affecting conventional educational and training practices and also inspiring digital-first approaches in this growing sector.
The old-time virtual reality
Virtual reality is nothing new — we just do it better these days. In classical times, the method of loci, or the 'memory palace' method, found luminaries of that era creating imaginary buildings in which they would distribute pieces of information that they wanted to learn and retain.
In their mind's eye, scholars such as the Roman educator Quintilian and the legendary statesman Cicero would walk the halls of these 'castles in the air' and refamiliarize themselves with the facts that they had associated with a column, a room, a wall, or some other architectural feature of their fantastical environment.
This method was a development upon mnemonics, invented centuries earlier by the Greek poet Simonides, where one associates hard-to-learn information with vibrant or bizarre imagery in order to recall it better. But there was some strange and inextricable connection between an imagined physical environment and memory retention which the classical scholars found more fruitful.
Improved memory retention in VR education
Fast-forward a couple of thousand years, and the findings of the ancients are increasingly being validated: in 2016, the University of Maryland published the study Virtual memory palaces: immersion aids recall which found that by using memory palaces created in VR environments, participants achieved 90.48% recall of facts learned versus 78.57% for a desktop display. In the context of a standard grade scale, that's the difference between an A and a C grade on a test.
In 2018, another study by Yeonhee Cho of the Syracuse University revealed that VR has a highly positive effect on spatial presence for learners. Spatial presence has been found for a long time to boost a student's ability to retain information and integrate it with other learned material.
Spatial immersion keys into our survival instincts, since, in terms of evolution, unfamiliar environments can potentially represent unknown dangers. Therefore, the VR experience 'wakes up' the student in a way that's difficult to replicate in a traditional classroom or multimedia context.
Importantly (since the student understands rationally that they are in no actual danger), the 2018 report cited above found that VR-based education increased the participants' sense of enjoyment and active participation in full-immersion virtual worlds. This sense of 'secure curiosity' stimulates interest and promotes retention in the student, because the educational material is associated with excitement, visual variety, and adrenaline — all primary keys to experience retention.
The growing VR education market
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a promotional effect on the future of online learning frameworks and technologies, not least on VR development. In May of 2021, Fortune Business Insights estimated that the VR education market will grow at a CAGR of 42.9% to a value of over $13 billion by 2026, with higher education driving demand for an increased number of VR applications.
A Holon IQ report from early 2021 forecasts that global spending on VR education will soar from $1.8 billion to $12.6 billion by 2025, along with a tandem growth of investment in AI and ML in education— a closely correlated sector where new technologies such as Neural Radiance Fields (NeRF) could eventually revolutionize the VR synthesis pipeline.
Transformation vs. foundation in VR education
Several studies have noted that one of the obstacles VR education techniques face for K-12 uptake and beyond is the learning curve for teachers and many other grades of docent roles. Therefore, the market may play out in a couple of ways over the next 5-6 years, neither of which are mutually exclusive:
Traditional learning environments will continue to experiment with VR and human-machine interfaces, probably with highly affordable methods based around mobile technologies such as smartphone applications, to 'test the water' and gauge the benefits of virtual reality in the education process before committing either to bespoke development or to the more expensive third-party platforms that are set to target this lucrative 'legacy' market.
Currently aimed more at self-starter, older students and corporate and professional training scenarios, innovative startups will continue to create VR-centric education pipelines from scratch, to be accessed either as time-committed educational courses, as 'modular' offerings that can be accommodated into a number of existing and novel educational approaches, or as full-fledged, multi-modal educational offerings where VR is a first-class player rather than an 'unknown quantity' to be appraised.
Besides K-12 and other phases of early education, there are a number of key educational contexts in industry and the private sector where VR education is set to experience increased demand, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Military, aviation and space
- Tourism, real estate, hospitality and other 'showcasable' industries
Let’s take a look at current use cases that cover some variation of these scenarios.
VR in education: case studies
Stanford's Virtual People
Stanford University has long taken an interest in VR education, and even operates a dedicated lab to promote its use and develop new techniques. One course, titled Virtual People, has incorporated VR since 2003, but technological developments spurred on by recurring social restrictions related to COVID-19 have only recently enabled the module to be taught entirely in virtual reality.
Instructors and students on the course shared 1,000 hours entirely in a virtual reality environment in the summer of 2021, with an additional 2,300 hours planned for the fall.
The course, effectively a 'feeder' showcase for wider dissemination of VR in education environments, is cross-discipline, taking in fields of study as diverse as computer science, biology, sociology, psychology, literature and art.
Its development and augmentation has been accelerated by the isolation of students under the pandemic; the students were sent VR headsets through the mail, and thereafter convened in virtual environments for the course.
Walmart's VR training curricula
US-based global retailer Walmart operates around 10,500 stores under 48 brands across 24 countries. Since the retail industry has very high rates of staff turnover, it's essential that the onboarding process facilitates rapid acquisition of the necessary skills and knowledge to hit the ground running or to augment existing skill-sets.
Therefore Walmart has invested heavily in VR education technologies for its human resources workflows, including interactive VR environments where trainees learn to identify various operational sectors and processes in a store, and receive multiple-choice questionnaires directly in the VR environment to test their understanding of corporate policies.
Additionally, Walmart operates event-specific VR-based training modules for staff, including a simulation of a store under the pressure of Black Friday crowds.
The VR courses, which use the Oculus Rift headset, run at a growing number of the company's Walmart academies, with induction taking 2-6 weeks on a full-time basis. Courses are tailored to positions, with dedicated modules for customer service representatives, sales personnel, store managers and sub-managers.
On a graver note, it transpires that virtual reality can save lives even in non-EMS sectors: a 'shooter in store' VR application developed for Walmart's staff training program turned out to be critical when just such a real-life scenario broke out at a Walmart outlet in El Paso, Texas. With the store staff having already prepared for the situation in a simulated environment, Walmart's CEO Doug McMillon later stated that their VR training helped save lives when the real situation came round.
VR for sports training
Virtual Reality has a lot to offer the sports training sector. VR can facilitate individualized training, reducing the need for constant coaching supervision by setting videogame-style scores to beat. Additionally, players can compete in a virtual world against authentic simulations of other major players that they are likely to compete against in their sport.
Further, a VR environment can allow a player to hone their skills for a particular maneuver in absolutely perfect replays of the situational environment — an impossible scenario in real-world training.
The diffusion of virtual reality sports training systems has increased greatly over the last five years. For instance, the Canadian/US National Hockey League (NHL) has begun to use virtual reality training technologies to improve the performance of its players.
Likewise, the NFL has embraced VR training with real-life captured game data being used in simulations, while major League Baseball (MLB) is using VR to accelerate player development.
Finally, golf — for which the first artificial simulator emerged in the early 1970s — has similarly taken up the opportunities afforded by VR technologies, with a thriving trade for remote coaching in simulated environments.
VR in medical training
Where outcomes are life-critical, practice has always been paramount. The earliest simulation scenarios for medical practitioners date back at least to the 1700s, while the use of virtual reality in healthcare is now a rapidly-growing sector.
Surgeons at the Colorado startup Surgical Theater are taking advantage of 3D recreations of VR models drawn directly from real-world data from prospective patients, such as CT scans, MRI scans and angiograms, in order to thoroughly experience the most authentic scenario possible that they will actually have to face in surgery.
Besides the availability of VR capabilities among learning management system features for trainee surgeons and general application of medicine, the technology is being deployed in a wide variety of other healthcare sectors, including EMS training, nursing, and phobia treatment.
These are only a handful of samples representing the extent to which virtual reality is permeating a broad range of academic, state and private sectors: Boeing is deploying a photorealistic VR training scenario to coach potential astronauts; the US Air Force has adopted VR in its induction and training processes; and the US Department of Defense is testing a suicide prevention VR training scenario at Travis Air Force Base in California.
In a culture where the visual monotony of the daily commute has ceded ground to the even greater homogeneity of working at home, and where holidays and excursions have become even less frequent, the sheer educative power of the relationship between novel environments and the learning of facts and processes has never been clearer.
Smartphone apps have long since overtaken desktop applications in terms of usage, and VR is being increasingly enabled in even the most cash-starved educational and training environments. Against this backdrop, AR in education is also gaining traction, proving to be a less expensive but an almost equally effective eLearning tool.
Therefore, virtual reality is no longer an elitist educational technology reserved for feeder schools and privileged academies, but rather is a democratizing force that's set to create a level playing field and educate us with a level of ingenuity and stimulation that would have amazed the classical scholars who first envisioned these techniques.