Using 360 Virtual Reality to Make Experiential Learning Accessible to All

min read

Virtual and augmented reality field trips can help to optimize learning for students who are unable to attend in the real world.

A couple wearing VR headsets within a cylinder
Credit: Kachka / © 2020

In March 2019, it became apparent that there was growing interest among faculty and staff on our campus in using virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) to enhance teaching and learning. Consequently, last May, the VR/AR Community of Practice was born. One of the first potential projects the group discussed was in response to an accessibility concern. Typically, students who are enrolled in ENVS200, a second-year field ecology course, are required to attend a field trip that involves a 1.5 km hike over uneven terrain. We needed to provide alternatives for those who could not perform this physical activity. Could 360 Virtual Reality (VR) provide an effective and accessible learning alternative?

In response, the Spongy Bog 360 VR Field Trip project was launched. This project was a collaborative effort between the Faculty of the Environment, the Centre for Teaching Excellence, and the Centre for Extended Learning at the University of Waterloo. The primary aim of the project was to provide an accessible learning alternative, but additional goals included providing students who were absent with an opportunity to review key concepts, providing those who visited campus during the winter term with a way to see a springtime view of the bog, and providing students in the course with an opportunity to review key concepts after attending the field trip. Careful consideration was given to the design of the project in order to ensure effective learning. Specific attention was given to the following three factors:

Learning outcomes. When designing any technology-based learning experience, it is important to ensure that the learning outcomes are clearly defined beforehand and that the technology selected is the best option for fulfilling those outcomes. The University of Waterloo selected 360 VR to provide an authentic and true-to-life learning experience. The virtual tour was designed to meet the same learning outcomes as the real-life trip.

Alignment. To ensure an effective learning experience, it is important to align learning activities and assessments with the learning outcomes.1 In the Spongy Bog project, 360-degree photospheres, "hotspots" highlighting key components of the photospheres, and assessment questions were selected to align with learning outcomes. Ongoing learner feedback was used to ascertain whether learning outcomes were being met, and the learning experience was revised accordingly.

Pedagogical design. Adult learning principles and instructional design principles were both taken into consideration. By enabling authentic, experiential learning where it may not have previously been possible and facilitating self-paced and self-directed learning, 360 VR lends itself well to adult education.2

Generally speaking, cybersickness and cognitive overload are two barriers that have previously slowed the adoption of VR as a learning technology.3 We applied a number of strategies to minimize these barriers and optimize learning.

  • Preparation and repetition. Allowing students to become familiar with the technology prior to immersing themselves in the learning activity can help minimize cognitive overload, as can allowing students to repeat the experience.4 In this case, students have the option of viewing and orienting themselves to the tour on a desktop or mobile device prior to experiencing it through the VR headset, thus minimizing cognitive load during the immersive experience. In addition, the tour is available as an open educational resource (OER) and can be viewed multiple times.
  • Pretraining. Introducing students to key concepts prior to VR immersion has a positive impact on knowledge building and allows students to focus on understanding and making connections.5 ENVS200 Field Ecology students are introduced to the succession of wetland systems prior to participating in the real-life or virtual field trips. For example, the students learn in advance how to differentiate the various wetland classifications. The "stops" along the tour provide a visual of these unique systems and emphasize the successional concept of wetlands. Students are guided on what to look for and focus their attention on during the tour. In addition, regionally significant features, such as biodiversity, geology, and hydrology, are studied. The impact of our changing climate is discussed in terms of vegetation adaptations, carbon fluctuations, and hydrology changes.
  • Segmentation and self-direction. Breaking content into shorter, user-controlled chunks allows students time to process the information, which decreases cognitive load. It also allows students to step away if they are experiencing cybersickness. Less immersive VR, such as a 360 virtual tour, is more easily segmented than more immersive experiences. Self-direction can also provide some relief to learners who are experiencing cognitive overload and/or cybersickness.6 In our case, the Spongy Bog virtual tour comprised six 360-degree photospheres, which were divided into segments of two photospheres interspersed with generative activities. Learners are able to progress through the learning experience in a self-paced and self-directed manner.
  • Signaling. If a large amount of information is being conveyed, as it is in an immersive learning experience, learners benefit from the judicious use of signals. Signals are auditory or visual cues that help learners select and organize key concepts (e.g., headings, outlines, vocal emphasis, arrows, colors, pointing gestures, and graying out).7 In the Spongy Bog project, key concepts were highlighted using hotspots, audio clips, and a supplemental library of close-up photos. Guided questions were incorporated to focus students' attention.
  • Controlled modality. Although multimedia learners can benefit from receiving information through both audio and visual channels, this can lead to cognitive overload in an immersive learning experience. For this reason, although audio narration is provided to contextualize the visual component, students have the option of viewing the tour with or without the audio narration. They can also access a transcript of the audio and can view the tour multiple times in multiple ways.8

Student Response

Preliminary feedback from 102 students indicated that although a majority of students said the 360 VR experience was not a substitute for the real-life field trip (85 percent indicated a real-life trip was superior), students found it to be informative (99 percent) and a useful alternative for those who were unable to attend (71 percent). Almost all students (97 percent) also indicated that the 360 VR experience would be a valuable tool for reviewing concepts prior to the final exam. Students also suggested that the 360 VR experience be expanded to include photospheres from all four seasons, and that having physical specimens of the peat mat available in the lab would enhance the experience.

Future Directions

The Spongy Bog 360 VR Field Trip project has raised awareness on our campus of the potential for using VR in teaching and learning, especially in classes where field trips and fieldwork are important. Discussions of future applications are ongoing among faculty and staff at the University of Waterloo. One project that is currently under way investigates the use of VR to enhance learning throughout a multiyear program (first to fourth year), bridging the gap between the classroom and field experience with students viewing and creating VR tours. The Spongy Bog project has provided a framework for the development of future 360 VR projects, as well as the use of VR as a medium for teaching and learning in general.

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  1. Shailey Minocha, Ana-Despina Tudor, and Steve Tilling, "Affordances of Mobile Virtual Reality and Their Role in Learning and Teaching," In HCI 17: Proceedings of the 31st British Human Computer Interaction Conference (Swindon: University of Sunderland, July 2017), 1–10.
  2. Brian Alexander, et al., EDUCAUSE Horizon Report 2019 Higher Education Edition, research report, (Louisville, CO: ECAR, April 2019); Malcolm S. Knowles, Andragogy in Action (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1984).
  3. Eric Fassbender, Deborah Richards, Ayse Bilgin, William Thompson, and Wolfgang Heiden, "VirSchool: The Effect of Background Music and Immersive Display Systems on Memory for Facts Learned in an Educational Virtual Environment," Computers & Education 58, no. 1 (January 2012): 490–500; Guido Makransky, Thomas S. Terkildsen, and Richard E. Mayer, "Adding Immersive Virtual Reality to a Science Lab Simulation Causes More Presence But Less Learning," Learning and Instruction 60, (April 2019): 225–236; Séamus Weech, Sophie Kenny, and Michael Barnett-Cowan, "Presence and Cybersickness in Virtual Reality Are Negatively Related: A Review," Frontiers in Psychology 10 (February 4, 2019).
  4. Fassbender et al., "VirSchool," 2012; Nick Yee and Jeremy N. Bailenson, "Walk a Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective-Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments," In Proceedings of the 9th Annual International Workshop on Presence (Cleveland: Cleveland State University, August 2006).
  5. Oliver A. Meyer, Magnus K. Omdahl, and Guido Makransky, "Investigating the Effect of Pre-Training When Learning Through Immersive Virtual Reality and Video: A Media and Methods Experiment," Computers & Education 140 (October 2019); Richard E. Mayer, Multimedia Learning, Cambridge University Press (2009).
  6. Mayer, Multimedia Learning, 2009; Weech, Kenny, and Barnett-Cowan, "Presence and Cybersickness in Virtual Reality Are Negatively Related: A Review," Frontiers in Psychology 10 (February 4, 2019); Jocelyn Parong and Richard E. Mayer, "Learning Science in Immersive Virtual Reality," Journal of Educational Psychology 110, no. 6 (2018): 785–797.
  7. Mayer, Multimedia Learning, 2009; Awaatif Ahmad and Wan Yahaya, "Multimedia Design Principles in Developing Virtual Reality Learning Application to Increase Students' Knowledge in Islamic Funeral Rites," In Proceedings of INTCESS15 - 2nd International Conference on Education and Social Sciences (Istanbul: February 2015); "How Do We Create USEFUL Online Learning Experiences?" Centre for Extended Learning, University of Waterloo, n.d.
  8. Mayer, Multimedia Learning, 2009; Makransky et al., "Adding Immersive Virtual Reality to a Science Lab," 2019; Fassbender et al., "VirSchool," 2012.

Lynn Long is Senior Educational Developer, Inquiry and Communications, at the University of Waterloo.

Gillian Dabrowski is an Online Learning Consultant at the University of Waterloo.

Anne Grant is Manager of the Ecology Lab at the University of Waterloo.

© 2020 Lynn Long, Gillian Dabrowski, and Anne Grant. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 International License.