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Impact of VR as an Educational Tool Explored by a University Study

The initial findings suggested that VR-based, desktop and hands-on learning methods were alike, but there were considerable differences in how the modes are perceived. The emergence of VR as a leading immersive technology form has created many use cases across many domains.

Virtual reality is being seen as a game-changing technology for the fields of training and education by many. To test out the credibility of such assumptions, research was recently conducted by a Cornell University group. The key objective of the research work was to determine the fundamental effectiveness of virtual reality learning methods.

The research-based experiment was conducted using conventional learning tools and virtual reality. Astronomy was chosen as the topic for the experiment, called “Learning Moon Phases in Virtual Reality”. Three student groups took part in the experiment. While one group was subjected to hands-on training, another was made to utilise desktop computers to conduct the same research. Students from the third group were given VR helmets to explore a solar system projection.

Natasha Holmes, Ann S. Bowers Assistant Physics Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University, spoke regarding the experiment. According to her, various technological trends had failed in the past in the domain of education. She believes that though technology can have a positive impact on education, her job involved performing experiments with students to recognise why, when and how the tools can affect students.

The experiment consisted of a range of activities to arrive at conclusions regarding each test group. The group subjected to hands-on training were taught the subject matter with the help of a ball, a stick and a light source interpreted as the sun. The Earth was represented by the students themselves. Moon phase simulations were done by spinning the ball cyclically.

The group learning through the desktop method had to utilise celestial body representations in the solar system. The perspectives of the students can be changed and toggled between planes. Time progressions were modified to observe the different moon phases.

The learning group being taught with the help of virtual reality helmets had to observe a dynamic and interactive solar system model representation. This particular environment also enabled the students to change their perspectives like the desktop and hands-on groups. In addition, these group of students could also move back and forth in time, which enabled modification of the lunar orbit.

Following the conclusion of the learning sessions, the students had to appear for a test to give credibility to the experiment. The test questions were set in ways which would enable researchers to effectively evaluate the three learning modes. Parameters like predictions, mental modelling and memorisation could also be evaluated.

Doctoral candidate Jack Madden

According to Jack Madden, lead author of the experiment, the results were intriguing as even though the students learning via VR had to get in grips with the technology, they learnt equally well. It suggests that virtual reality is a mode with far greater potential to usher in positive changes in the education domain.

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