Learning is better with VR – or is it not?


Learning with VR – why it’s getting exciting now

Take it easy: As early as 1990, William Bricken claimed that virtual reality (VR) would bring a major paradigm shift in learning. We have been waiting for this paradigm shift for 30 years now. In the meantime, we have seen phenomenal failures, such as the smart glasses “Google Glasses.” So why should the topic of learning with VR become exciting now, of all times?

By Philip Arau

“The next platform and medium will be even more immersive. An embodied internet where you are in the experience and not just looking at it” (Mark Zuckerberg in his Metaverse keynote).

Facebook Inc. has been committed to one major goal since its rebranding as Meta: creating a virtual metaverse, a fictional virtual universe, through the use of VR and augmented reality (AR). In the process, $150 million alone will be invested in the development and promotion of immersive, or effective virtual or fictional, learning content. Other large companies such as Google, Nestlé and PwC are also using VR for learning. Not only in the market, but also in research, VR is rapidly on the rise (Vergara et al., 2017). Especially in the area of learning via VR, an exponential growth in publications is evident. (Liu et al., 2017). But even if we can assume that learning via VR is a widespread subject of the (very) near future, a central question arises: Do we learn better with VR?

Real, but safe

Virtual reality has a massive advantage, which is already hidden in the second part of its name: It is close to reality. This statement sounds a bit flat at first, but studies show that people in a VR environment show the same physiological and psychological reactions as in reality (Martens et al., 2019) for example, dilated pupils when confronted with a tiger (Chen et al., 2017).

It is no wonder that VR has been quickly applied to hard skill learning in domains where in reality every move must be spot on. Promising hard skill VR training can be found in surgery (Wijewickrema et al., 2017) or mining (Tichon & Burgess-Limerick, 2011). Training for less risky engineers or craftsmen also came to promising results (Vergara et al., 2017). However, the study by Tichon and Burgess-Limerick (2011) also illustrates that such evaluations should be treated with caution due to their high methodological demands.

Supporting this seemingly positive effect of VR on hard skill learning are results showing that VR training enhances learning and especially long-term internalization of descriptive knowledge (Webster, 2016).

Learning to interact with people in virtual reality

Does VR learning work for less haptic skills? The effectiveness of soft skill VR training depends entirely on the study under consideration. One study by PwC (2020) found fabulous results: Four times faster learning compared to face-to-face training and 275% more confidence to apply what was learned. Other studies, on the other hand, show no significant added value from VR. (Kampmann et al., 2016; Klaassen et al., 2018). In initial meta-analyses (Howard & Gutworth, 2020) and further individual studies (Coffey et al., 2017) the effects of VR are positive, but not to the extent suggested by the PwC study (2020). Where do these differences come from and what influences whether VR training is successful?

What influences our learning experience in VR

A closer inspection of the previously mentioned studies reveals a major difference with regard to the samples. PwC’s study was conducted in their own company, among employees who are described as “digital natives”, while Klaassen and colleagues (2018), for example, used a sample of less digitally savvy subjects. The digital maturity level of the users thus appears to have an important influence on whether the opportunities offered by VR training can be exploited (Howard & Gutworth, 2020).

Another important influencing factor is the design of the VR learning environment and, inevitably, its development (Vergara et al., 2020). VR applications have improved immensely in recent years with more experience and growing progress in hardware and software. An example of such a modern and highly detailed application, is the program used by PwC from the company Talespin.

Do we learn better in VR or not?

To summarize: VR already offers many advantages, both for the development of hard skills and soft skills. However, in order to derive maximum benefit from the technology, it requires sufficient digital maturity on the part of the users and the successful implementation of learning content in VR.

With Meta’s investment and the increasing attention in the market, the number of high-quality VR learning applications will undoubtedly increase. However, the digital maturity of the user is in the hands of the individual or more likely: the responsibility of the organization.

So the question is not so much if we will learn about VR, but rather when.