Engineer and researcher at the University of Wollongong, Dr Shiva Pedram, discusses the findings of a recent experiment that allowed students to experience the Antarctic by entering into its world using virtual reality.
Virtual reality (VR) as a teaching and learning tool has gained significantly renewed popular interest in the last few years. A range of new technologies have emerged in the market making VR more accessible to the average person and potentially to more schools.
The perceived benefits of VR are the learning possibilities afforded by an immersive environment. This has given rise to the question of how to best use these new immersive and rich environments to support learning.
In a recent study, we aimed to investigate students’ learning experiences in a headset VR-based learning environment by measuring the various dimensions of technology by using a mediated approach.
The research was conducted at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility. To achieve our objective, we partnered with emerging Australian technology start-up business Devika to conduct our research. Data was collected from 130 students in Years 5 to 11, from schools across the coastal region of Illawarra in New South Wales.
Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) defines learning as: “The process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (D. Kolb, ‘Experiential learning as the science of learning and development’, 1984). ELT emphasises on the principle that learning is a process and not only an outcome. Therefore, to enhance learning, students must be engaged in the process. This includes receiving feedback, and learning processes that stimulate students’ thinking process and facilitate learning by drawing out students’ beliefs and ideas about the topic and integrating these with new or more refined ideas.
The greatest capability of VR is in creating ‘experiences’ close to real life events. VR technology brings immersive and interactive features that allow users to ‘feel’ the experiment. Tassos A. Mikropoulos defined a VR learning environment as “a virtual environment that has one or more educational objectives, pedagogical metaphors, provides users with experiences they would otherwise not be able to experience in the physical world and leads to the attainment of specific learning outcomes” (‘Educational virtual environments: A ten-year review of empirical research’, 2001).
There are many factors impacting learning experiences and outcomes in VR environments. The objective characteristics of VR is immersion, which makes it possible to experience and be present within the environment. This sense of presence enhances the student experience and gives them the chance to interact with the virtual or real world. This sense of presence encourages students to engage and become active participants of the virtual world.
Based on the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) and Task-Technology Fit (TTF), technology must be easy to use, useful and fit the task in order for users to enjoy their interaction and experience, so they can ultimately engage with the task to achieve the expected outcome. Contrary, if students feel excessively distressed and worried due to difficulties in using the technology or if they find the learning material difficult based on flow theory, that would adversely affect their learning process. In our research, we used questionnaires before and after exposure to VR to capture student experiences.
For the purpose of this study, students experienced the Antarctic and learnt how to interact with penguins and collect data like a scientist. This was done through Devika’s learning program Kolb which uses VR headsets to transport students to the sights and sounds of the landscape and ecosystem of the world’s harshest environment. Students were able to navigate different scenarios of the inhospitable continent, in line with the Australian Curriculum. A total of six New South Wales schools took part in the experiment.
Students began their VR journey with an introduction by a scientist, who spoke about the topic, explained the reason for their presence, discussed their significance with the ecology and revealed some of the activities that were about to take place.
The scenario aimed to teach students about Antarctica by placing them in a VR experience that requires them to first listen to a scientist in Antarctica, before taking on a similar role themselves. This is achieved by having students complete a series of tasks, such as photographing penguins with the aid of a narrator.
Findings of this research suggest that game play provides learners the opportunity to learn by doing and through roleplay, enhancing students’ learning outcomes. In this study, students played the role of a scientist in a VR world. As our subjective (perceived learning) and objective (results of content-related questions) analysis revealed, students’ knowledge level enhanced by 37 per cent. Moreover, the result of correlation indicated that there is a relationship between students’ knowledge gain in VR and students’ learning experience through a perceived sense of presence, immersion, realism, interaction and affective factors including perceived sense of enjoyment, engagement, usefulness and attitudes towards using technology.
Based on these findings, the trends observed in students’ performance after the VR session and their positive perception of their VR learning experience, there is certainly room for schools to further investigate the possibilities of VR integration for their classrooms.