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The Potential for Virtual Reality in Education for Students Who Learn Differently

by Zachary Alstad, Ph.D.
Research Associate, Landmark College Institute for Research and Training (LCIRT)

Dr. Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki of LCIRT wears virtual reality headset while computer monitor shows scene that he is viewing

Lately, there has been considerable talk about virtual reality and its pedagogical potential. Of particular interest are systems that bring virtual reality to the masses. The Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, and HTC Vive are a few of the virtual and augmented reality systems hitting the market. While the primary intent of these devices is entertainment, there is also great potential for them as educational tools.

An important distinction should first be made between these two types of technologies. Virtual reality devices (e.g., Oculus rift and HTC Vive) are headsets that occupy the user’s entire visual field, creating a simulated environment. Augmented reality (e.g., Microsoft HoloLens and Google Glass), on the other hand, is an overlay on the “real world”. When you put on an augmented reality device, you see everything you currently are looking at plus additional content. This could be driving directions, nametags of people at a party, or types of plants in a forest. Each of these technologies has unique strengths that can be leveraged for teaching, in and out of the classroom.

This new generation of virtual reality is distinct from past attempts for a number of reasons. Advancements in hardware and computing speed allow for a lower display latency (the lag between the user action and the change in the display) resulting in a more compelling user experience. Furthermore, smaller screens are providing unprecedented display resolution. These technological improvements, coupled with a relatively affordable price point, are creating excitement among early education adopters.


One way that virtual reality has made in-roads into education settings is by creating novel social situations in the classroom. For example, in one study, researchers altered where students were sitting in a virtual classroom to position everyone in the class directly in front of the teacher. This immersive experience yielded better educational outcomes when compared to more traditional classroom configurations (Bailenson et al., 2008). Virtual reality has also served as a novel and effective environment for testing persistence of attention for students with ADHD (Bioulac et al., 2012). However, more research is needed to determine the true educational benefits and learning potential that virtual environments can provide, as suggested in a recent meta-analysis (Mikropoulos & Natsis, 2011).

The real power of virtual reality is the way these tools can engage the unengaged learner. Students who struggle with attention and engagement with the class material are often hooked once they experience the immersiveness of the VR environment.  Game-based learning environments allow a sense of agency and interactivity that is not often found in many popular educational technologies. Virtual reality has the potential to transform a traditional “stand and deliver” session into a personal and experiential endeavor. By working with the material and content in virtual space, students can develop a new passion for the topic area and knowledge beyond what they might have received through traditional media alone (see Figure 1.) When a student is fully immersed with a virtual reality headset, outside distractions are less of a problem, as these distractions are simply not visible. If a student is stressed, he/she may find that it is helpful to take a quick trip to a virtual tropical island to relax and refocus. Recent research attests to the power of being in a natural setting, even virtually, for improving affect and cognition (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Bratman, Daily, Levy, & Gross, 2015).

At the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training, we are exploring some of the innovative new worlds created for virtual reality. Here, students can experience a virtual launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on the Apollo 11 lunar mission. They can explore a Van Gogh painting that is both experiential and interactive. Students travel underwater to see schools of fish and sharks. They build structures, learn geometry, and explore anatomy. The feedback from students, parents, and teachers has been one of uniform enthusiasm for VR and immense curiosity surrounding its potential uses.

There is no doubt that VR technology is exciting and engaging, but questions remain as to if and how these tools can be used to help students who learn differently. Further research is needed to ascertain long-term health or psychological issues that might arise from being in a virtual world for long periods of time. Compelling learning opportunities have to be tempered with the fact that much remains unknown. But the early indication of VR’s power to engage and hold a student’s attention is difficult to ignore.  To what extent these tools will be integrated into our classrooms and into our daily lives remains to be seen. 


Bailenson, J. N., Yee, N., Blascovich, J., Beall, A. C., Lundblad, N., & Jin, M. (2008). The Use of Immersive Virtual Reality in the Learning Sciences: Digital Transformations of Teachers, Students, and Social Context. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(1), 102–141.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207–1212.

Bioulac, S., Lallemand, S., Rizzo, A., Philip, P., Fabrigoule, C., & Bouvard, M. P. (2012). Impact of time on task on ADHD patient’s performances in a virtual classroom. European Journal of Paediatric Neurology: EJPN: Official Journal of the European Paediatric Neurology Society, 16(5), 514–521.

Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41–50.

Mikropoulos, T. A., & Natsis, A. (2011). Educational Virtual Environments: A Ten-year Review of Empirical Research (1999-2009). Comput. Educ., 56(3), 769–780.

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