Virtual reality (VR) is a computer application which allows users to experience immersive, three dimensional visual and audio simulations. According to Pinho (2004), virtual reality is characterized by immersion in the 3D world, interaction with virtual objects, and involvement in exploring the virtual environment. These facets of virtual reality have many applications within the primary education (K-8th grade) sphere in enhancing student learning, increasing engagement, and creating new opportunities for addressing learning preferences.
Virtual reality (VR) can be used in numerous ways in an educational setting.
Providing children with a way to immerse themselves into a context or situation can increase their understanding and provide a new perspective. In one study, Antonietti et al. (2000) found that giving children an in-depth virtual tour of a painting and letting them examine all aspects of the painting helped with their description and interpretation of the painting, when compared to a control group that studied the painting without the usage of VR.
Augmented reality books have been developed in order to provide a 3D rendition of the book, providing students with a different more synergetic way of learning. The Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology has launched a geology textbook which allows students to learn traditional information while virtually interacting with the different layers of the earth's core.
In virtual field trips, students visit real-world places or educational simulations to experience different lessons. Google Expeditions allows students to take a shared field trip using smartphone headset technology under the control of a teacher’s app. Nearpod's VR provides lesson plans in all core subjects for primary grades, and has been shown to increase student engagement in lessons.
Although VR can be used cooperatively, learning has been shown to be especially effective when VR is utilized for independent learning. Merchant et al. (2014) found that “students performed [significantly] better when they worked individually rather than collaboratively when learning through [VR based collaborative learning environments]”. Some VR applications provide independent learning opportunities when combined with individual lesson plans. For example, students might fill out a worksheet in correspondence with a specific virtual reality simulation.
VR also has uses within primary education for social-emotional development.
VR has applications for development of social skills and multi-user cooperation. It can provide opportunities for students to collaborate through cooperative simulations, and has been shown to support introverted students in their group interactions. One study found VR-based collaboration to create "superior collaboration and interaction in the development of outcomes, as compared with other situations where group structures were used."
VR simulations have been shown to help children with autism by providing a virtual world in which they can learn to handle real-life scenarios within safe and controlled virtual environments. A study by Strickland et al. (2007) found that children with autism could successfully use virtual worlds to learn skills in fire and street safety, and could apply those skills to real-life situations.
The use of virtual reality in primary education has been supported by grants from foundations and venture capital firms. The IEEE held workshops on "K-12 Embodied Learning through Virtual & Augmented Reality (KELVAR)" in 2016 and 2017.
Despite the interest in virtual reality for K-12 education within business and academia, skepticism of its usefulness for K-12 learners has also been expressed. A 2009 review of the literature concluded that only the most independent, intrinsically motivated, and highly skilled K-12 students succeeded with VR. This review traced the problem to a lack of experience with gearing virtual reality to K-12 specifically; most of the experience had been with VR software designed for adults.
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