While virtual reality has certainly received a lot of hype over the last decade, and has been around longer than you probably realize, it’s hard to know if it truly is a life-changing technological innovation or simply a trend doomed to remain in the hands of the rich and restless. Skepticism runs particularly high in formal education, where VR seems like a luxury that might not even lead to real learning, as its educational value is still heavily debated.

To better understand if integrating VR into classrooms can have a positive impact on student learning, a group of researchers conducted an experiment at a university in Denmark. Fifty-two students participated in a simulation of a science lab, either through an immersive VR simulation or on a desktop computer. The simulation was designed to teach students about biology by giving them the opportunity to learn specific course content, to interact virtually with lab equipment, and to work through procedures in the lab. While participants were engaging in these activities, an electroencephalogram (EEG) was used to obtain a direct measure of their brain activity.

After engaging in the experiment, the researchers gave the participants multiple-choice tests on the material presented to evaluate the conceptual and procedural knowledge they gained. They also surveyed participants to better understand their level of presence, learning beliefs, and satisfaction during each experience.

Findings revealed that while participants in the VR group reported being more present, they also reportedly learned less and had lower test scores than the non-VR group. Additionally, VR participants had higher cognitive load based on EEG measurements when engaged in the VR simulation. This, researchers argue, means that VR itself may be overloading or distracting the learners, keeping them from obtaining the learning objectives set out by the experience.

This study highlights the fact that while VR may be engaging, that isn’t always enough to make for an effective learning experience. Until more proof exists that educational VR experiences can indeed provide substantial opportunities for learning, perhaps we should be more cautious in praising them.

Makransky, G., Terkildsen, T. S., & Mayer, R. E. (2019). Adding immersive virtual reality to a science lab simulation causes more presence but less learning. Learning and Instruction, 60, 225-236.

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