What Are Virtual Reality Classrooms?

Virtual reality classrooms are becoming more popular as a result of COVID. Here, we discuss disciplines using VR technology, and pros and cons of the learning method.

October 14, 2021

What Are Virtual Reality Classrooms?

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What Exactly is Virtual Reality?

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many colleges closed campuses and switched to online learning. But disciplines that require hands-on experience faced a challenge.

Nursing was one such example. Professors can teach much of the curriculum through online lectures. But clinical experiences, which allow students to put theory into practice, proved more difficult to replicate. As a result, many nursing students did not graduate on time.

But some universities, like CSU San Marcos in San Diego, found a way to give its nursing students a similar experience using virtual reality (VR) classrooms.

With the use of VR glasses or goggles, students interact in a virtual clinical setting. They can consult with patients, take vital signs, prepare drugs, and calculate dosages.

Simulations have been used for educational purposes for over half a century. The military has long used flight simulators to train pilots. But it has been slower to spread to other areas of academia for a couple of reasons.

Implementing VR into existing lesson plans has its challenges. Institutions must research what type of software best fits their needs. Then, schools must have the budget to purchase the software and hardware itself.

Schools may also hesitate to switch to virtual reality classrooms because of the perceived limitations of the technology. In some professions, students must meet government-imposed benchmarks to become certified.

But over time, VR technology has become less expensive and more realistic. Universities worldwide, including Harvard and MIT, now incorporate immersive learning in various areas of study. And as a side effect of the pandemic, hesitancy toward alternative learning models is beginning to ease.

"We entered into this virtual arena more quickly than we would have," Sheri Biro, a nursing instructor at CSU, told a local news station. "So I think if there's any good that has come out of this, is that it kind of forced our hand a little bit, and it's here to stay."

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Disciplines Using VR or Virtual Classrooms

Sarah Boulton, global curriculum lead at Labster, explained the strengths and weaknesses of extended reality technologies like VR.

Advantages of Virtual Reality in Classrooms



  • It improves educational outcomes

    Traditional learning methods focus on the memorization of facts, with less focus on practice or application. Taking in too much information over a short time overwhelms students. As a result, a student's ability to absorb and retain information can max out.

    A recent study showed that virtual reality classrooms are more effective than traditional training, on average, because they engage students throughout the learning process.

    "You can forget a little bit when you're in VR, even if it's super cartoony, you can totally suspend your disbelief for a little while when you're in the headset and really commit to the [feeling of],'I've got to get this right,'" Boulton said.

    The participants exposed to VR training in the study scored higher than those exposed to the same material delivered through traditional teaching methods.

  • It could save money and increase access

    Universities regularly invest in new equipment to keep up technological innovation. But with tight budgets, they sometimes purchase a limited number of units or delay purchasing new equipment altogether. This leaves students at an educational disadvantage.

    Some believe immersive technology could solve this problem. With the use of VR, students could potentially learn more with a smaller investment on the institution's end.

    However, VR equipment poses a major expense, too. While a basic headset for gaming generally costs under $100, more advanced versions range from $300-600 or more. And there is some debate over whether students should be expected to purchase their own equipment, like they do their textbooks, or if the schools should cover the expense.

    "There is a cost element there, and unfortunately that cost impacts the students that are in the greatest need. So there's a double-edged sword there," Boulton said. "However, if a university can afford to subsidize or provide headsets, then VR is a great opportunity."

  • Students can make mistakes without consequences

    In fields like aviation and surgery, students need room to make errors before entering the real world. Death by medical error is the nation's leading cause of accidental death. And about 88% of plane crashes are due to pilot error. In virtual classrooms, students can make mistakes without fatal consequences.

    "For example, if you were a biomedical scientist training in how to handle HIV blood … and you accidentally forget to change your gloves, you can have that impact and you can have that sinking feeling of 'oh my God, I've done something really bad,' in a virtual experience on your own," Boulton explained.

    Evidence shows that use of simulation improves performance dramatically. For example, training on the Osso VR platform improved surgical students' performance by 230% compared with traditional methods. Studies also show that simulation significantly improves pilots' abilities to react to unexpected events during a flight.

Disadvantages of Virtual Reality in Classrooms



  • It does not perfectly simulate the real world

    The quality of simulations continues to improve, but of course, does not perfectly mimic real life. In some disciplines, this discrepancy is inconsequential. But when a job requires a specific physical skill set, VR training can fall short. Boulton gave the example of welding.

    In virtual welding, students can practice different techniques using a VR headset and faux welding gun. But accomplished welders say the technology does not emulate the real experience of welding well enough.

    "When I talk to the people that use VR [welding] tools, they're like, 'It's rubbish because there was no tactile feedback… I know how to weld, I've been certified multiple times, but I can't weld with this VR machine,'" Boulton said.

    Companies developed VR welding, in part, to address the shortage of welders. The high cost associated with screening and training welders contributes to the problem. VR could theoretically help address the issue.

    "We have to be careful with the technologies that we choose to use to address bottlenecks and ensure that the experiences that we use as benchmarks are actually representative of the skills that we need in our labor force," Boulton said. "The manual dexterity piece is always going to be the difficult one."

  • It can decrease human interaction

    Extended reality can certainly complement in-person learning. But many tech companies design extended reality-based software explicitly for independent online use. By incorporating immersive learning into online classrooms, universities can address a common complaint: Zoom fatigue.

    However, extended reality does not solve another major limitation of online learning, which is decreased interaction with peers. Critics of extended reality worry that dependence on these technologies will create a disconnected world.

    And their concerns are not unfounded. Research shows that social isolation can affect student satisfaction and learning outcomes. Worse, it can negatively impact mental health.

    Some extended reality applications allow users to interact with one another. But it's difficult to argue that a simulation can ever replace authentic human interaction, no matter how realistic it becomes.

Just as traditional teaching methods have strengths and weaknesses, so does extended reality. Schools can maximize students' learning outcomes by taking the best from both worlds. The future of education will likely include both in-person and virtual aspects.

"Hybrid environments, to my mind, are one of the best things to come out of corona[virus]," Boulton said. "Not many things have been positive over that period, but the adoption of it is really a huge boon for so many students and educators across the entire world."

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