Virtual Reality Learning Environments

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Virtual Reality Learning Environments:

Potentials and Challenges

Computer graphics technology enables us to create a remarkable variety of digital images and displays that, given the right conditions, effectively enrich education [Clark 1983]. Real-time computer graphics are an essential component of the multi-sensory environment of Virtual Reality (VR). This article addresses the unique characteristics of emerging VR technology and the potential of virtual worlds as learning environments. I will describe several key attributes of VR environments and discuss them in relationship to educational theory and pedagogical practice. I will then identify three challenges that must be met before VR can be integrated into educational settings: cost, usability, and fear of the technology.

The practical potential of VR is still being explored. Of the number of application areas that suggest themselves, education is clearly worth immediate investigation. VR was devised to enable people to deal with information more easily, and it has been successfully developed to facilitate learning and task performance for over 20 years in the U.S. Air Force [Furness 1978]. Public education and training applications are a natural extension of this work.

The national mandate for educational improvement is based on increasingly grim statistics. Between 25%-30% of our children donít graduate from high school, and of those who do, at least 700,000 are functionally illiterate. Our students rank at the bottom of 19 industrial nations in reading, writing, and arithmetic. ìOne thing is for certain: the information revolution is changing our lives, and we need to prepare ourselves to cope with its promise and potential.î [Gore 1991] How might VR help?

Virtual Reality as a Learning Environment

Using a head-mounted audio-visual display, 6-D position sensors, and tactile interface devices, we can inhabit computer-generated environments. We can see, hear and touch virtual objects. We can create, modify and manipulate them in much the same way we do physical objects, but without those pesky real-world limitations. VR is not only virtual: we can meet real people in virtual worlds, we can tele-exist in real places all over the world and beyond, and we can superimpose virtual displays onto the physical world.

VR offers teachers and students unique experiences that are consistent with successful instructional strategies: hands-on learning, group projects and discussions, field trips, simulations, and concept visualization. Within the limits of system functionality, we can create anything imaginable and then become part of it. The VR learning environment is experiential and intuitive; it is a shared information context that offers unique interactivity and can be configured for individual learning and performance styles.

"If there are limits on the human ability to respond to learning environments, we are so far away from the limits as to make them presently inconsequential. Throughout human history to date, it has been the environments, not the human beings, that have run up against limitations." [Leonard 1968]

1. VR is experiential. We actively inhabit a spatial multi-sensory environment. We are both physically and perceptually involved in the experience, and we feel a sense of presence within a virtual world. ìWe are immersed in a very high bandwidth stream of sensory input, organized by our perceiving systems, and out of this ëbathí of sensation emerges our sense of being in and of the world.î [Zeltzer 1990] We experience the environment as if it were real, while still fully aware that it is computer-generated.

Educational theorists have agreed on the fundamental importance of experiential learning for over a hundred years: "Learning is the development of experience into experience." [James 1892] "Knowledge begins with enaction." [Bruner 1962] "To learn is to make sense out of experience." [Silberman 1970]

"If you can be a...
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