/ 4 July 2024

Virtual reality opens exciting new pathways of learning

Students Experience Vr Technology In Chuxiong
Research shows VR has significant benefits for students in higher education - with better engagement and a decrease in dropout rates - improving academic outcomes and pass rates substantially. (Photo by Li Jiaxian/China News Service via Getty Images)

Innovative technologies making use of virtual reality (VR) offer exciting opportunities to educators in higher education. In South Africa, in particular, students are struggling, as evidenced by high dropout and poor pass rates. 

Up to 60% of first-year students quit during their first year of study, according to some researchers. While there are many reasons students are battling, virtual reality can make a difference in the way they are interacting with their course material, improving their engagement and commitment to their field of study, as well as their speed of learning and the quality of their knowledge retention. 

Over the past decade, VR has been introduced to learning institutions around the world and initial reports are positive.

“I really felt like I was in a hospital emergency department,” said nursing student Emma Brown, after participating in a VR lecture at the University of North Carolina in the US. “The headset blocks out all the outside sounds and that helps. It’s a low-pressure environment to learn.”  

There is now evidence emerging that VR enables academics to create immersive experiences themselves where students are able to learn more — and enjoy their experience while they are learning. As a lecturer in human resource management at Milpark Education, I have seen this myself. 

I recently conducted a study into the effects of virtual reality on students on an academic training module and the results exceeded expectations. It also provided a unique insight into how VR can be used in academic settings, not only in South Africa  but in emerging education spaces without an abundance of resources.  

Our study followed 20 human resources students, 15 academics and three VR specialists who took part in an experiment in which a simulated environment was used to demonstrate and teach key principles and theories on a given module. Their responses indicated the majority rated the experience highly, echoing the words of the nursing student Emma Brown — saying that they were able to really engage with the subject matter and focus on the topic at hand.  

One student said, “It was quite amazing, and I think it’s the first time that I’ve experienced learning like this. I prefer to learn this way. You are in the  moment. It makes a lot more sense than reading a book.” 

An explanation of why students welcome this way of learning is that they learn at their own pace. They are also learning by doing, becoming active learners — compared  to passive learners watching a lecturer in a traditional setting. This means students obtain

75% to 90% knowledge retention, compared to the 5% to 10% in traditional settings. In some VR programmes, students can create avatars, which research shows means an individual is five times more engaged.   

The results of our study confirmed that learning in VR is 1.6 times faster (or 40%) compared to studying through distance learning online. The control group’s pass percentage average was 57% and the experimental group’s pass percentage was 80% — a 23% higher pass mark for the group who received VR learning.  

Students also feel safe and are able to fail at tasks without experiencing any risk or damage. Educational VR is linked to physical reality and because their emotional  reactions are stimulated, memories are created, leading to greater retention of material and knowledge-building. Another advantage of VR is that dangerous and educational content can be replaced in the VR platform, for instance, a medical operating room or learning to fly an aeroplane. Field visits can also be simulated, saving on cost and planning, bringing the Colosseum to classical cultures students, for instance.  

But there were other, perhaps more important findings: VR led to improved pass rates for students taking the module. It highlights a substantial increase of 180% in the engagement levels of students who learn through VR. As a result, a 23% higher pass rate was noted for students studying through VR. Additionally, teaching in VR was found to be 40% faster than distance learning online and positive engagement was 180% higher for the students who learned through VR.   

All of the lecturers involved in the study said that in their opinion, the learner-centred approach worked better provided the lecturers were proactive and responsive, able to guide the students in their experience. Students were receptive to the VR component, possibly because they increasingly become tech-savvy and accustomed to using digital tools and platforms in their daily lives. They may therefore be more likely to embrace new technologies such as VR as part of their learning experience. 

There are some drawbacks, though. A few disadvantages associated with VR is the cost of headsets and software. For lecturers, there is also the need to be trained in understanding how the VR technology works in a classroom and how to use it as a teaching tool. Another factor to consider is bandwidth, because internet availability and data costs also come into play, especially in a developing nation such as South Africa.   

Fortunately, there are various kinds of VR available. The first is the immersive experience in which users see themselves in the virtual world, and usually requires headsets. A semi-immersive experience is a partial virtual environment with a virtual 3D environment and high-level graphics, which can be highly stimulating and engaging as well. 

Non-immersive VR is commonly used in video games and when used on a desktop, is the simplest way to engage with VR. Students can use their own devices, such as tablets, smartphones or computers to walk through a VR environment and it is still an effective teaching tool. 

It is important that higher education institutions formulate a VR-learning framework, which is embedded into teaching, learning and assessment for enhanced student and learner engagement. This is the way to ensure students are brought into the future — while maximising their potential and increasing our number of graduates for a high-tech future. It also brings us in line with the vision of well-known futurist, Ray Kurzwell, who predicted that by 2030 “VR will be totally realistic and compelling, we will spend most of our time in virtual environments”.

While this is certainly no educator’s vision for the perfect student learning experience, it is hard to argue with the evidence of how even a little exposure to VR can increase the student’s learning journey. Ultimately, this is what we want for South African higher education — more students who are engaged and excited about learning and motivated to finish their studies. 

Dr Maritsa Grewe is acting head of the School of Commerce at Milpark Education. She has a history in human resource management and recently concluded her doctoral studies, specialising in virtual reality and its potential to revolutionise higher education.