Typically, discussion about the effectiveness of VR as an educational tool revolves around the high level of control and customization it permits. However, research is increasingly showing that its uniqueness lies in how the brain responds to a virtual learning environment (VLE).
The use of virtual reality (VR) technologies as a teaching and learning tool has become ubiquitous in industries where “learn-as-you-do” is a guiding principle. From healthcare to engineering, VR has transformed training by enabling users to interact with, experience, and manipulate environments through full immersion in what would otherwise be abstract concepts and hypothetical scenarios.
Typically, discussion about the effectiveness of VR as an educational tool revolves around the high level of control and customization that it permits, its capacity to accommodate mistakes, and allowances for repeated practice. However, research is increasingly showing that its uniqueness lies in how the brain responds to a virtual learning environment (VLE).
Virtual reality experiences generate mental maps and carve neural networks
The brain creates an internal model of the body and its surrounding space through the information it receives from the five senses. This model is continually updated by our experiences, which is then used to make predictive responses. For example, while almost automatic now, slowing down and taking smaller steps to walk on icy surfaces is a skill refined through years of error reduction and re-calibrations of the internal model. When one feels cold or sees snow the brain automatically switches to a “winter walking” pattern.
For such accurate predictive coding to occur the brain creates a mental map - recording how the experience feels (emotional and sensory), smells, sounds, and how you responded. If the action (changes in walking patterns) resulted in a positive feedback (i.e. you did not slip) then the neural networks that formed the response are strengthened, if the feedback was negative (you slipped) the internal model is adjusted.
Similar processes occur in virtual learning environments. The experience in the synthetic environment triggers the creation of a mental map in the form of an “embodied simulation” i.e. a representation of the experience from the view of the self. The map is embedded in the brain along with the sensory, motor, and emotional memories making it superior to the experience provided by mental imagery, and also making it easier to recall the information when encountered in real life. Therefore, the closer the VR environment is in likeness to the real world, the greater is the learning.
The superiority of the VR technology also emerges in its capacity to create an environment which can be controlled and designed to suit the learner. Gains can be modified in the virtual world so small actions can have large consequences, challenge levels can be modified as per behaviour, and feedback (knowledge of performance/result) can be incorporated to actively guide the learning.
Embodied simulations reactivate multimodal neural networks when the experienced situation re-emerges, preparing the user to respond appropriately. This is one of the reasons VR technology is promising to revolutionize the field of mental and psychiatric health where individuals can “learn to unlearn” associations and triggers.
Multiple frames of references in VLEs enhance reflexivity
In a VLE, the user can experience the information in first-person i.e. be the interacting agent, or view the effects of their own actions from a third person perspective. The ability to obtain complementary insights from the different frames of references allows for greater reflexivity about actions and their consequences. Reflexivity allows for recognition of knowledge gaps and is known to greatly enhance learning. This feature of VR makes it an ideal setting to study and learn empathy and other interpersonal skills.
Emotional connection to the knowledge improves retention and recall
Learning how to do a life-saving procedure on a mannequin is different from doing it in a high-stress environment of an emergency room. Studies have shown that there is a greater retention and recall of information to which authentic emotional associations are made. The realistic nature of a VLEs can evoke real emotional responses which accentuates the embodiment of the experience.
In the brain, the hippocampus and the amygdala are responsible for memory formation, consolidation and long-term recall. Incidentally the amygdala also processes emotions while the hippocampus encodes the emotional context into the episodic memory. Thus, by associating the emotional experience to the information VLEs further bolster the learning and recall.
Pedagogy supports the use of VLEs for learning
VLEs are well suited to promote knowledge building via interaction with the environment which is a central tenet of the “Constructivist learning” philosophy, the belief that new information obtained from active, reflective and repetitive interaction with the environment (central to the rationale of VLEs) leads to a re-shaping of the existing knowledge i.e. learning. Similarly, the Theory of Experiential Learning proposes that creativity and transferability is enhanced when students learn through lived experiences, in-depth reflection, and exposure to a wide variety of lived experiences. VLEs present themselves as powerful tools to achieve these enhanced learning outcomes.
- Gayatri Aravind - Learning Scientific Advisor and Dark Slope Science Director