In this section, we report what is known and speculate about what might be the case when VR is used to help students learn. From the previous sections on learning and on the attributes of VR, we may derive a general principle that VR improves learning, when it does, by providing learners with new, direct experiences of phenomena they could not have experienced before either in direct interaction with the real world or using other technologies. It is when these affordances of VR are most likely to help students that we expect VR to provide the greatest “added value” over traditional learning systems.
Beyond this general principle, we propose the following additional principles which are either axiomatic or for which their is either reasonable theoretical or empirical reasons for believing:
Learners can easily and without effort visit places and view objects from different points of view.
This is pretty much the same idea that has persisted ever since media have been used by educators. Film, audio and pictures can provide students with vicarious experiences of places they would not other wise be able to visit. Granted, these experiences are constrained by the technology used to provide them. Yet VR, it is believed, will allow a greater variety and eventually more realistic experiences of this kind. Also, given the attributes of VR that concern its great flexibility to vary scale, interaction, points of view, movement through virtual space and so on, VR can promote learning by letting students examine properties and behaviors of VEs in many different ways, from outside or within, at large or small scales, from an egocentric or exocentric point of view and under varying degrees of student control. This power and flexibility is something new for learning that VR brings.
VR is ideal for letting students explore things, and therefore potentially very effective for student-directed knowledge construction.
The most effective way to use VEs for learning is to let students explore them rather than telling them exactly what to do. Students should be given goals to attain, such as, “Find out what happens over the next two centuries if automobile emissions are cut one percent annually for the next twenty years.” However, for the unique attributes of VEs, described earlier, to be used to their best advantage, how students actually do this should not be specified beyond telling them what tools they have at their disposal. In this way, VEs can support all of the well-documented advantages of constructivist approaches to learning.
Any data, however abstract their referents, can serve to create surrogate objects and places with which learners may interact directly in authentic and quasi-authentic ways.
Since VEs are created entirely from data, anything that can be described as data and placed in a database in a computer can be used to create a VE. It is difficult to imagine any object or phenomenon that cannot be described in this way. This means that a VE can contain objects that represent anything in the known universe and can exhibit any imaginable behavior. These objects can be manipulated and observed in exactly the same ways as objects that represent concrete and more familiar things from the real world. The trick, of course, is to represent abstract concepts and principles using metaphors that afford natural properties and means of action.
In time, it is likely that some of these affordances will become conventional. But for now they are not. We need to study and develop a repertoire of metaphors for building VEs that represent the hitherto unrepresented. The same is true of the ways in which students are to interact with VEs. Just how does one “pick up” a neutron and place it in an atom? How does one directly manipulate the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere? While our goal is to enable students to understand and experience what environmental scientists do, the new powers that VR provides to learners requires that new modes of interaction be developed that nonetheless conform to what it is reasonable to assume scientists would do if they had the tools that VEs provide.
Exposure to VEs will enable the development of mental skills needed to learn from them. There is evidence, particularly from research on the impact of television, that exposure to a medium develops within the student the mental skills needed to understand and act on the messages the medium communicates. The symbol systems of the technology become internalized and can then serve as cognitive and perceptual tools for thinking about the information the medium brings. It is reasonable to expect that experience in VEs will likewise enable students to develop the perceptual and cognitive skills required for learning within them. Because VEs are multimodal, skills required for learning in any modality supported by the VE can develop. These will certainly include visual and auditory spatial skills. But they will also doubtless include particular skills for working in VEs which have not yet been identified. Navigation skills and particularly situation awareness are likely to be inmportant. Other entirely new abilities may develop in users of VEs.
Interfaces are becoming increasingly intuitive.
There are two sides to this issue. One is a matter of design and has nothing directly to do with learning. As our knowledge of VR improves and our technologies get better, we become capable of building better interfaces to VEs that allow input using natural behaviors. Pressing buttons on wands and making arcane hand gestures when wearing gloves can be replaced by spoken commands and more natural gestures. On the learning side, we are seeing a complementary development. With some practice users can learn how to use awkward interfaces. For example children who have used our VE interfaces find using wands and glove gestures to be intuitive.
The learner can experiment by manipulating variables that cannot be manipulated in the real world, like gravity, and observe the results as if they were the consequences of that manipulation in the real world.
The general principle stated at the beginning of this section is especially important for learning complex concepts and principles of science. In a well-designed VE, students may directly manipulate objects and, through appropriate metaphors, processes in the natural world. Their observation of the results which may lead to the construction and testing of hypotheses and let students conduct significant experiments that they could not conduct in the real world. In this way, they are also learning to think inductively and to act like scientists.
VEs can teach complex topics with less need to simplify them.
One clear advantage of VEs is that the simulations that lie behind them can be as complex as possible. But, because the student never sees into the simulation itself but only works with a virtual interface to it, that complexity need never confuse students. There is a tendency among teachers and instructional designers to simplify content in order to make it easier to teach. This leads to the development of a number of the misconceptions about the environment mentioned in the previous section. The key to understanding global change is that it is indeed complex and somewhat unpredictable. To simplify it is therefore to seriously misrepresent its basic assumptions and principles. In a VE, students can interact with and observe the causes and effects of global change in all their complexity.
VR is engaging and seductive.
As we saw in a previous section, one attribute of VEs is that they gain and hold students’ attention. This assists their learning in two ways. First, it motivates them to learn. Students enjoy working in VEs and will continue to do so if they are given the opportunity. Second, the nature of VEs is to keep attention focused on the matter at hand. You cannot look away. Therefore students’ attention cannot wander to other distractions at times when they are engaged in learning.
VR will succeed only as far as the feedback (reaction to learner actions) it provides succeeds in guiding students’ knowledge construction.
This principle is a direct consequence of the requirement that VEs react logically to user input. The consequences of a student action must make sense within the conceptual model that drives the simulation and within the mental model that the student in constructing. When students make mistakes as the result of misconceptions in a faulty mental model, the feedback from the VE may vary just as it does in any other learning situation. The VE may in fact ignore errors, in which case a “bug” now exists in the student’s mental model that will be revealed later. The student then has to backtrack to find and correct the earlier mistake. The VE may say the student has committed an error without saying what the error was. Or the VE may correct the error for the student. In each case, the feedback from the VE provides an opportunity for the student to learn.
VEs will succeed only as far as representations and interactions are effectively designed and fit together.
Nice-looking worlds or highly interactive ones will not work on their own. An effective VE therefore must have high levels of both presence and interaction (and autonomy when simulations are time-critical).