A group of Middle School students enjoyed a VR trip to Greenland more than students in a 2D video lesson. That itself is not too surprising, but it is promising that the student’s immediate and delayed retention were prove-ably better than the students with the 2D video lesson. One of the two co-authors who wrote this study was Educational Psychologist, and EdTech academic Richard E Mayer, who contributed some useful teaching tips to EdSurge in the early pandemic.

The experiment they conducted took 102 8th and 9th graders and gave them two lessons on global warming in Greenland. Then they were shown either a normal video or a 360° video experienced in a Head Mounted Display (HMD). The same video content was present, only the method of delivery was changed. At the end of this excursion, they were tested on the material, and then they went back and took more lessons on global warming and were tested again an average of 20 days later. Both tests showed marked improvement for the students who used the HMDs compared to videos, demonstrating at least an improvement in retention and possibly one in motivation, although the study makes it clear that it can’t make any statements about the relative effort put forward by the students in the two populations.

One limit they do identify is the sample size, since 102 is not very large, but I think there are a few more issues. First, all of the students are from a single European country, which might indicate a lack of cultural diversity. The article makes no mention of the students breakdown by race or socio-economic status, but the pictures included in the article look fairly monochromatic.

Second, it is tough to divorce VR as a teaching tool from its “newness”. I suspect that if you took a bunch of students from 1920 and presented them with the same material in either moving picture or book form, you would find that many more students were excited by the video. It may have lost some of its educational luster in the past 90 years simply because students are used to video, and seeing VR content over and over could have a similar effect on students going forward.

But maybe that means that now is the time to leverage that student excitement over VR before they get numb to it?

Now a paper like this could easily be taken and “overapplied” to bolster the claims of any VR Education initiative, which they do already, and that is why I think it is important to remember that both groups were given traditional teaching guided by an instructor as well. In some ways, this is proving that one expensive educational technology is more effective than a cheaper educational technology at being engaging. I suspect that there would have been a similar differential if some students had been asked to read a book about Greenland as a further control. What I am saying is that it would be a bad idea to conclude that VR is a good candidate to replace teachers. We’re still working on finding how this can be applied in classrooms, and how to make sure schools who can use it have access to it.

But it could make things more fun. And that’s always good.

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