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Virtual Reality in STEM Education

At one point, virtual reality (VR) appeared to be the future of popular technology, offering a revolutionary new device and system that could be used in a variety of ways. This massive shift towards VR was seemingly never fully realized, and in 2022, VR is most visibly used in gaming. However, it is gaining a lot of traction in other fields, including healthcare, design, and importantly, higher education.

VR Research

VR in education is a trending topic in the academic literature, with many researchers focusing on how the process of immersion impacts learning. A group of researchers from Queen’s University outlined the theory behind using VR. This theory fundamentally revolves around an understanding of what VR can offer by “reshaping the taught process into an interactive experience embodied in the objects of the virtual environment.” More specifically, the virtual environment created allows for the experiential, real-time interaction with virtual representations, and the ability to “visualize abstract concepts and the dynamic relationships between several variables.” These virtual environments allow for exploration in settings normally inaccessible to traditional teaching methods (for economic, geographic, and safety reasons), which is what gives VR significant potential for students in STEM.

Tiffany Leung, Farhana Zulkernine, and Haruna Isah from Queen’s also situate VR within several pedagogical theories. VR fits strongly with constructivist learning theory, as this position suggests that learning is best achieved through environmental interaction and learning-by-doing. Beyond constructivism, situated learning theory–with its contention that learning should be contextualized within its own occurring situation–benefits from VR’s capacity to facilitate more interactive classrooms. VR also aids the teaching methods of traditional learning theories, such as supplanting teacher demonstration or replacing media-induced skill building practices.

STEM and VR

In line with findings from the literature, the nature of VR’s environment-developing functionality lends itself well to STEM education. With this in mind, it is useful to consider some case studies and pedagogical models from the area that have proven the effectiveness of VR as a form of technology enhanced teaching and learning.

  • Stefan Marks, David White, and Manpreet Singh investigated the use of VR in anatomical education, finding significant advantages of the technology in their two case studies on the human nasal cavity.
  • Jack Pottle overviews two case studies on the integration of VR in medical training. The University of Northampton study uses VR to train nurses—supporting the creation of clinical skills and soft skills. The University of Oxford, which features peer-learning benefits, uses VR simulations for medical teaching.
  • Polina Häfner, Victor Häfner,and Jivika Ovtcharova developed a methodology for VR in education, emphasizing the importance of exposing students to VR given its significance in the engineering industry. They also suggest that course design, task specification, and work groups are the key touchstones to a successful integration.
  • Akhan Akbulut, Cagatay Catal and Burak Yildiz conducted a study on the use of VR for computer engineering students. They found that students who were taught using VR systems scored 12% higher on the final assessment than the students in the control group.
  • Sean Maw at the University of Saskatchewan led a team that developed TrussVR, an immersive virtual reality software that assists engineering students in their understanding of truss design.

VR in Online Learning

As discussed, the key educational benefit of VR technology is its ability to create experiential—or practical—learning scenarios. Thus, the power to visualize any situation from any place raises the question: Can VR be used in online learning? The answer is likely yes, but applications are still in the early stages.

Enrico Gandolfi writes that VR fits with online learning models because they both share the basic premise of creating a virtual world. VR seems like a possible solution for the lack of practical, applied learning methods in remote environments. However, accessibility concerns still hinder the adoption of VR in online learning. Regardless, there are continued software developments—such as LectureVR and AltSpaceVR—that could be of use when VR becomes more affordable for institutions.

The Future of VR-based Education

While video games can be a valuable component in education, there are a myriad of other ways in which VR can be a means of integrating educational technology into learning.

With the creation of a virtual learning environment, VR fits with many theoretical models of education. Moreover, in application, it has proven to be a valuable addition to most classrooms. On top of all of this, a study showed that many students reported positive experiences with virtual learning spaces. However, this study did show that there were an assortment of technical difficulties as well, which showcases the accessibility issues of VR.

While cost remains a significant problem, systems are becoming more affordable which makes the future for VR in education bright.

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