5 Educational Paths Influenced By Virtual Reality

Closing one’s eyes and seeing something that doesn’t exist in one’s current reality is a skill that many people throughout time have had to develop in their learning paths. Now, virtual reality is taking imagination a step further and allowing people to experience augmented situations in a very practical way.

Virtual reality refers to computerised devices, typically in headset form, that conjure realistic visual and auditory experiences for the user, from jumping out of an airplane to witnessing life in a Syrian refugee camp. It takes the power of television and video and brings it to another level, giving a more comprehensive “feel” to an event, environment, or experience.

Although the technology for virtual reality has been around for decades, it wasn’t until recently that it became more accessible and affordable by consumers. With Google’s Cardboard Headset and the Oculus Rift, the technology has become more mainstream for the average person—at least, in developed nations—for now.

Though you might assume virtual reality’s main practical application would be in the context of video games, there’s actually a lot more to it than you may think. Plenty of different spheres of society are putting this technology to use—from the military to the fashion industry to healthcare.

As we are just scraping the surface with regard to the application of virtual reality, one particularly exciting field to explore its utilisation and impact in education.

The following is a list of five such educational pathways or fields that are using virtual reality technologies to give their students more practical application and a deep, embodied understanding of the material they are studying.

1. Medical Education

It can often be daunting for medical school students to fathom conducting their first surgical procedure on live patient. With the precarious nature of medicine and human life, the more opportunities for practice, the better.

Fortunately, virtual reality is now being used within medical-focused educational programs to provide students with surgery simulations. It also teaches basic anatomy lessons by providing them with three-dimensional models of the human body to explore.

Whether using VR programs such as the HoloLens or the 3D Organon, the newfound opportunity to practise skills with a virtual human body lowers risk and develops increased confidence for students studying to become surgeons.

Essentially, when practising a surgical procedure with a virtual reality headset, the student also wears a data glove that enables them to try out manual skills that would be needed in an actual surgery. The glove adds in a realistic sense of “touch” which builds the student’s haptic response, the sense of touch a user develops in reaction to a specific interface. For example, the glove will enable a user to experience what a real scalpel cutting through skin would feel like. This, in turn, will allow them to develop the correct technique needed when the time comes for them to apply their skill in real life.

Additionally, virtual reality can be used for medical students worldwide to “tune into” surgeries performed by highly-skilled surgeons located halfway across the world. In a 2015 report by the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery, it was found that in order to address current global needs, two million surgeons, anaesthetists, and obstetricians will need to be trained over the next 15 years. Virtual reality promises to give a higher volume of students studying for such professions access to experiencing best-practices, regardless of whether a “teacher” is based locally and accessible in-person or not.

That being said, educators have argued that virtual reality will never entirely replace the use of cadavers for medical education. In addition to providing an up-close experience with real human bodies that can demonstrate how one body differs anatomically from another, “these experiences in cadaver labs help students develop respect for patients. Cadavers are often their first experience with death. Cadavers are, in a way, their first patient.”

2. Astronomy Education

For many of us, the idea of the universe and extra-terrestrial worlds is hard to fathom. When it comes to studying astronomy, it’s easier said than done to simply explore outer space in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of planets, moons, stars, and other astronomical concepts.

Telescopes were one invention that helped give people studying the solar system an up-close understanding of these concepts. Virtual reality has taken astronomy-based education a step further by enabling students to explore the solar system and how it works.

Using virtual reality technologies, they can move planets, see around stars and track the progress of a comet. It also enables them to see how abstract concepts work in a three dimensional environment which makes them easier to understand and retain.

For example, in 2015 astronomers in Edinburgh, Scotland developed a dynamic way to explore the sky by combining an Oculus Rift with Stellarium planetarium software. If students in middle school or high school don’t have the ability to travel to a planetarium, this technology provides them with a similar experience from the comfort of their own homes. In this way, engaging and accurate science education is made accessible for potential future astronomers in schools all over the world.

3. Flight Training

A flight simulator is a type of virtual reality technology specifically designed to help people learn to fly aircraft vehicles. Used within the air force as well as commercial pilot training institutes, it tends to include an exact replica of the aircraft with a cockpit and the associated controls.

In fact, over 50 years ago a man by the name of Tom Furness developed some of the first virtual and augmented reality technologies for the US Air Force, such as helmet-mounted displays and the Super Cockpit. He can now be credited with several other breakthroughs for virtual reality in other fields of society, but his origins were in flight education and training.

The flight simulator develops haptic feedback as the fake aircraft shifts and tilts based on the manual steering movements of the pilot-in-training. Additionally, the simulator provides them with the ability to role play what they would do in case of take-offs, landings, emergencies, and other situations that will or may arise in-flight.

Flight simulators of the past tend to be costly and bulky, and several companies are evolving these technologies to be more portable and affordable. As Reality Technologies reports, a company called Bohemia Interactive Simulations has created the BIS simulator, which uses an Oculus Rift head-mounted displays and “accurately mimics every aspect of flight, from the controls to the vistas, and even the rumble of the engine and shaking turbulence.”

Like virtual reality surgery education for medical students, a flight simulator and other virtual reality devices lower the risk in an educational realm where mistakes can be fatal. One slight or major error while flying a plane can lead to disaster, so the opportunity to give potential future pilots a feel for flying a plane before the real deal is a game-changer.

4. Law Education

Criminal law students at the University of Westminster in the UK have been among some of the first to partake in a virtual reality simulation as part of their law studies.

Markos Mentzelopoulos, a senior lecturer within the university’s computer science department, explains, “Instead of students only learning from books, the idea was to give students the chance to understand criminology by actually interacting with a crime scene environment. It’s a way for them to explore case studies in different ways, taking advantage of VR’s immersive properties.”

In the simulations, students are placed in a crime scene scenario and must apply their learnings to gather evidence in order to deduct information about what happened. This particular case study focused on two brothers who run into financial problems while shooting a film. Students can interact with participants of the story as they might in a real crime scene investigation.

Developed using Unity 3D, this project sounds borderline video-game, but the research paper associated with the project received Best Paper award from the Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN). As law requires a lot of memory ability, the project appears to be a good chance to practise actively retaining and applying knowledge of law and procedure in the legal world.

5. Social and Environmental Studies

Studies on people, society, culture, environment, and world issues are becoming increasingly important in developing empathy and helping students become informed and responsible world citizens.

Virtual reality is becoming highly instrumental in helping people become more aware and conscious of situations such as the Syrian refugee crisis and the degradation of coral reefs around the world.

For example, Google has been a leader in the movement for developing virtual reality and making it more accessible and applicable for the average consumer as well as educational environments. They have developed Google Expeditions, which helps teachers give their students the exciting experience of travelling the world without leaving the walls of their classroom.

This modern day take on field trips can lead students to places like Dubai to learn about the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and onwards to Antarctica to learn about the least-inhabited continent in the world and an important site regarding environmental shifts.

Though there are plenty of educational formats and methods that technology can never entirely replace, the development of virtual reality is very exciting for educators and students of all backgrounds and levels. Experience and simulation is key in giving learners a deeper sense and understanding of the skills and knowledge they hope to strengthen.


Weezie Yancey-Siegel is an experienced producer and writer who is passionate about new forms of learning, global citizenship, and community building. She resides in central Mexico, and when not writing and producing events on a freelance basis, she is a Program Manager for GoodWorld Journeys, a learning retreat organisation.

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