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Story | Education
30 December 2020

The power of virtual reality in learning


A Virtual Reality device being used at a university in Osaka, Japan.

Image: Reuters/Yomiuri Shimbun

Mariam Rafehi from QF partner university Northwestern University in Qatar speaks about the immersive experience virtual reality offers

Virtual Reality holds out a lot of promises. Imagine learning how to perform surgery without ever going to a hospital operating room? Virtual reality has almost a limitless potential to provide off-site education that is much more effective than textbook based teaching.

You can allow someone to experience things that they would usually not be able to experience

Mariam Rafehi

“You can allow someone to experience things that they would usually not be able to experience,” says Mariam Rafehi, a Professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, one of Qatar Foundation’s partner universities.

Virtual Reality has the potential to provide education in a way that is more effective than learning from textbooks.

“That makes topics much more accessible in Virtual Reality. When you are doing something with your hands, you are seeing, feeling, and experiencing on a much deeper level, and that is how it enters your memory.

When you leave Virtual Reality, you have that emotional engagement, and it is actually that which then allows you to reflect on it and to arrive to your own conclusions

Mariam Rafehi

“When you leave Virtual Reality, you have that emotional engagement, and it is actually that which then allows you to reflect on it and to arrive to your own conclusions. That’s how you achieve a much deeper level of learning.”

In Taiwan, Tapei University built a Virtual Reality (VR) enabled classroom which allowed students to visualize the human body’s functions in ways that were previously unobservable. VR has been used to stimulate surgeries, helping students gain a degree of medical competency in the classroom that rivalled that of one-year medical interns.

What is most exciting about VR is that it pushes the world to more equitable learning opportunities around the globe, as a new video co-produced by WIRED Brand Lab and Qatar Foundation explores. In his book Experience on Demand, Jeremy Bailenson wrote that VR allows students to access spaces they wouldn’t have available to them. One VR headset costs less than taking a classroom to another country.

Through Virtual Reality, students can have experiences that would otherwise not be available to them. Image: Reuters/Stringer

Bailenson draws on two decades spent researching the psychological effects of VR and other mass media to help readers understand this powerful new tool. He offers expert guidelines for interacting with VR and describes the profound ways this technology can be put to use – not to distance ourselves from reality, but to enrich our lives and influence us to treat others, the environment, and even ourselves better.

VR is also a valuable tool for teaching students with disabilities and is particularly effective for those on the autistic spectrum. It helps them build social skills in a low-pressure environment without outside stimulus.
Edgar Dale introduced the Cone of Experience as an educational tool in the 1960s, which was the real start of VR. The Cone of Experience is a model that incorporates several theories related to instructional design and learning processes. Dale theorized that learners retain more information by what they “do” as opposed to what is “heard”, “read” or “observed”. Today, this “learning by doing” has become known as “experiential learning” or “action learning”.

Dale’s cone illustrated that, in textbook learning, students only retained 10 percent of what they read, whilst those students who a ‘direct purposeful experience’ while learning retained much more knowledge. The next best thing to direct experience is something called modulating or stimulating an experience.

Studies have shown that students who use VR in learning outperform those that used traditional methods in tests by a ratio of 90 percent to 68 percent. In the future, VR will be a greater part of a student’s curriculum around the world, with the potential to create transformative educational experiences and make them accessible to more people than ever before.

Watch the full video on how VR can deliver real results in the classroom, co-produced by WIRED Brand Lab with Qatar Foundation, here.

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