Virtual reality in education

Photos from the session (taken by Dr Ana-Despina Tudor)

Blog authors

Professor Shailey Minocha and Dr Ana-Despina Tudor


We (Dr Ana-Despina Tudor and Professor Shailey Minocha) presented at an event organised by the Learning Design and Technology Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group of the Learning and Teaching Innovation unit of The Open University (OU) on 20 September 2017.

These are some key points of our talk in conjunction with our presentation (pdf file)

Virtual Reality Technologies

In our overview of virtual reality technologies, we highlighted four technologies on which we have conducted research over the last decade:

  • 3D multi-user avatar-based virtual worlds, e.g. Second Life;
  • 3D virtual environments developed in gaming environments such as in Unity 3D;
  • 360-degree videos that run in Chrome browser; and
  • Smartphone-driven virtual reality (VR) or mobile VR through VR viewers such as Google Cardboard.

In the last couple of years, there has been a move towards mobile VR – where VR applications run on smartphones and the VR immersive environment is recreated through the VR viewers.

We now describe each of the technologies and refer to the slide numbers of the presentation for easy reference.

Second Life

Second Life (slides 3-4) is a 3D virtual world where users interact via avatars and through voice, text and gestures. At the OU, we have used Second Life spaces to run tutorials with our distance-education students, for one-to-one meetings with PhD or MSc students, and for running conferences. We have used Second Life in our research projects – both as a research environment (for example, on the design of learning spaces in Second Life – realism and non-realism of spaces and how they influence student experience; link to one of our papers in OU's research repository), or as a venue to recruit participants, or to use Second Life spaces to interact with our research participants (e.g. workshops, interviews, seminars).

3D virtual environments in Unity 3D

In 2013, we developed a virtual geology field trip in a gaming environment of Unity 3D. Our aim was to have a private space for our students to interact in. OU has been developing virtual fieldwork components for its distance students for decades (interactive activities and videos on DVDs, Web-based interactive activities aided by videos, sample data, etc.). For example, an activity as a part of a virtual environmental field trip is available in OU’s Open Science Lab With so few opportunities to gain fieldwork experience, distance-learning students would be disadvantaged without an alternative, hence the impetus for our innovation – developing virtual geology field trip – Virtual Skiddaw - a virtual field trip (VFT) in a 3D gaming engine (slides 6-11)

Virtual Skiddaw presents geological fieldwork in a 3D immersive digital landscape created using real world data from part of the northern Lake District in the UK.The 3D virtual geology field trip - Virtual Skiddaw has several realistic features to create an ‘authentic learning space’: the landscape has been developed from data acquired directly from the area; an authentic soundtrack has been weaved into the experience to increase immersion and the feeling of actually being there in the Skiddaw mountains; and the audio guidance from the ‘virtual tutor’ audio mimics a typical field trip.

Further, the emphasis throughout the VFT is on the user - observing recording and assembling data and questioning it, navigating from site to site and ultimately piecing together the clues to the geological story. The ‘authentic’ learning experience is certainly richer and more interactive than reading a textbook or clicking through a static (2D) website, and hence more effective for learning.

There is a video of a short demo of Virtual Skiddaw at this link: 

Please refer to this paper for more details about Virtual Skiddaw.

360-degree videos in the Chrome browser

In the Chrome browser, you can run 360-degree videos and navigate around the 3D space using the controller (up and down and sideways and all around) provided in YouTube in the Chrome browser (see slide 13). Such videos are becoming increasingly common in raising people’s interest in VR and in campaigns where developing other kinds of 3D environments would be expensive. For example, Economist’s Oceans VR app (to be run in Chrome browser) has 360-degree video which makes the case for limiting fishing on the high seas. It gives a perspective on the issue by allowing the user to navigate the ocean as fish, fisherman, consumer and policy maker. These 360-degree videos can also run via an app on a smartphone and by viewing them via the VR viewer such as the Google Cardboard.

This article on the role of 360-degree videos in education might be of interest: The Benefits of 360-degree videos and Virtual Reality in Education.

Smartphone-driven virtual reality

The field of education can be a key beneficiary of the smartphone-based VR application (app) trend as it can build on the previous adoption of apps in schools. Smartphone-based VR apps allow users to access and navigate 360-degree photospheres, or 360-degree videos of real or simulated places for educational purposes. VR can also provide experiences of unrealistic events, such as bringing dinosaurs to life in 360-degree videos, a collaboration between Google Arts and Culture and UK’s Natural History Museum. The Google Expeditions app with 360-degree photospheres has been the focus of our Google-funded research over the last year and a half.

Google Expeditions (GEs)  are guided field trips to places that students experience on a smartphone through a VR viewer called Google Cardboard. The GEs app (available for Android and iOS platforms) has currently over 700 expeditions. An expedition comprises of 360-degree photospheres of locations such as Grand Canyon, Antarctica and Iceland. Further, GEs have 360-degree simulations to envision concepts and systems such as the human heart, the respiratory system, or the process of pollination.

At this event (see slides 15-20), we described the technological affordances of GEs. Based on a large exploratory study, we discussed how these empirically-derived affordances support pedagogical approaches of experiential learning, bridging virtual fieldwork with physical field trips, and inquiry-based learning. Please see this paper on affordances of GEs.

Virtual Reality and Employability

We highlighted three areas of VR that students should be aware of for employability (see slides 21-23):

  • having a general awareness of VR and the technologies;
  • role of VR in learning, training and skills development; and
  • being aware of the use of VR in the workplace in a wide variety of domains and applications.

The slide 23 in our presentation describes the three bullet-points related to VR and employability. We have elaborated on virtual reality and employability skills in another blog-post

The future

We discussed that VR has now become accessible due to the mobility element as there are VR apps now that run on smartphones and there is a facility to watch 360-degree videos within the Web browser. As a result, the uptake of VR is becoming easy and we will see more of VR applications being integrated in education, in training and development in workplaces, and in the industry.

However, as with any other technology-enabled learning initiative, the role of educator is paramount - how the educator embeds the technology (VR in the context of this article) within the curriculum and designs activities around it, and, most importantly, how the educator is able to justify/explain to the student, peers and managers about the role that VR will play in student learning, engagement and attainment.


Please have a look at our list of publications in OU's Research repository for papers and reports related to the role of virtual reality and 3D virtual worlds in education. 

Also, as you scroll down our web-page of the Google Expeditions project, you will find links to a number of blog-posts from our experiences of investigating the role of mobile VR as in Google Expeditions in inquiry-based learning, in fieldwork education, and in experiential learning.