The Case for VR and Education

Welcome back! Recently, we talked about some general reasons why virtual reality is an optimal medium for building productivity tools. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll be making the case for using virtual reality in an educational setting. Specifically, I’m going to focus on ways that learning can be optimized using presentations in virtual reality. We at Altar believe that presentations in virtual reality– and eventually, augmented reality– will prove to be the superior medium for giving conveying information. Let me elaborate on why.

Learning and Presentations
One of the common ways of educating people, or in other words, facilitating their learning, is through the presentation of information in some format. Presentations are particularly useful in their ability to not only convey tons of information but also preserve said information in a persistent fashion; this means that they can be reused infinitely, and don’t require the same presenter…or even a presenter at all. In all, they aid both in-person communication and provide a standalone source of information and thus, learning. In this post, we will focus more on the latter case: presentations as a standalone learning tool.

There are various ways in which presentations aim to facilitate learning and memory, which I’ll elaborate on in the next section, and address the important question: How can presentations (which, if you’ve ever been to a slide-assisted lecture or training session, you’ll probably be willing to agree aren’t the best thing ever) be better optimized to facilitate this learning? To start, let’s talk about presentations as a medium for learning.

Presentations as a medium for learning
Most presentations are supposed to be designed with the audience in mind: the goal is for the presenter to convey information in such a way that the audience will remember it. In other words, the presenter wants the audience to learn something. From fables and myths discussed around a campfire to lecture slides, there are various ways in which presenters have manipulated both the format of the presentation and the audience to make their content impactful. To dive into a bit of the science: creating emotion/feeling in an audience largely relies on the relationship between arousal, attention, and subsequent learning and recall. Arousal has been correlated with significant brain activation in regions that facilitate image recognition and long-term storage (Marchewka et al., 2016). For example, high-arousal, negative emotions—such as fear (e.g., ghost story at the campfire)—are correlated with greater amygdala activation. The amygdala, a region deep in the brain which is implicated in emotional processing, in turn helps the fear-eliciting stimuli (the ghost) be more memorable than something mundane (like, the marshmallows) (Voogd et al., 2016). Unfortunately, using fear in educational presentation experiences isn’t quite best practice, so presenters have looked for other, less threatening(!) ways of making information memorable. This typically results in modifying the presentation itself.

With good reason, there has been a lot of research dedicated to what makes a good presentation, specifically in the context of education. Naturally—given PowerPoint’s ubiquity—this research often references effective uses of PowerPoint as an adjunct to presentations. A review by Collins (2004) discusses what makes a good [oral] presentation in an education setting: “focus on objectives…rehearse…[overcome] stage fright…[present] visual aids…[incorporate] interaction [from the audience/students]…” and be entertaining, while maintaining confident body language and tone (Collins, 2004; see also Gelula, 1997). Specifically to PowerPoint, another review suggests multimedia visual aids, such as clip art and videos, and warns against text- heavy slides; not only do visual aids help in describing the information, but too much text may stifle discussion, attention to the presenter, and interest (Stein, 2006). Indeed, a study comparing text-only PowerPoint presentations to visually-aided PowerPoint presentations found, as expected, that “participants were more interested in the image-rich slides than bullet points” (Tangen, 2011). Ultimately, PowerPoints allow for effective organization and emphasis of information, as well as the use of multimedia to hold the interest of the audience, facilitate various learning styles (visual or verbal or a combination of the two), and represent abstract information, which may otherwise be difficult to understand (Hashemi et al., 2012). How do these benefits facilitate memory and learning?

According to multimedia learning theory[1], the (effective) combination of verbal and visual modalities (“visual modality” = the visual representation of some thing/idea) facilitate learning and memory through various principles:

“The multiple representation principle states that it is better to present an explanation in words and pictures than solely in words. The contiguity principle is that it is better to present corresponding words and pictures simultaneously rather than separately when giving a multimedia explanation. The coherence principle is that multimedia explanations are better understood when they include few rather than many extraneous words and sounds. The modality principle is that it is better to present words as auditory narration than as visual on-screen text. The redundancy principle is that it is better to present animation and narration than to present animation, narration, and on-screen text[2]” (Mayer & Moreno, 2002).

These principles were shown to promote problem-solving, specifically for STEM material—material that is often found difficult to learn through purely verbal means (Mayer, 1999). While PowerPoint has been the leader in multimedia presentations for quite some time, it is important to note that these findings hold true regardless of the presentation medium; that is, it is the combination of words and imagery that facilitates deeper learning, not anything special about PowerPoint itself. Accordingly, we should expect the same results in virtual reality.

Virtual reality and Presentations
So, here we go: what about virtual reality and presentations? How can virtual reality presentations be used to facilitate more effective learning than a PowerPoint? Certainly they can, in principle, do everything a PowerPoint does. Here’s the exciting part, though: multimedia learning does not stop at combinations of the verbal and the visual: virtual reality allows multisensory integration of almost every sense (e.g., touch, sight, and auditory perception) in an interactive, 3D environment. Accordingly, virtual reality takes advantage of visuospatial stimuli—that is, visual information in space—to deliver a learning experience that may outperform traditional multimedia learning. Much of this hypothesis goes beyond multimedia learning and relies on a constructivist theory of learning; this theory, which relies on active, experiential learning, is “student-centric and focuses on meeting the learners’ needs and helping them to construct and build on their own knowledge based on their prior experiences and knowledge” (Lee et al., 2010). Virtual reality appears to be naturally made to fit this theory, although the exact ways in which virtual reality translates to better learning and memory are still up for debate. Importantly, when considering the relationship between learning and virtual reality, one can begin to see how a virtual world that is created to suit the needs of the user—i.e. incorporating a constructivist theory of learning by presenting information in a naturalistic, visuospatial setting best suited for the individual—will optimize learning (for example, by having the individual choose their respective learning environment and/or tailor the environment to match the content, e.g., learning about Rome’s history in [a virtual] Rome). Not only has it been shown that visuospatial, multisensory information helps encoding by creating more robust representations of abstract ideas and concepts, but the [often physical and literal] interaction with stimuli that is essentially material-to-be-learned facilitates a deeper level of processing for various reasons that, for the sake of time, I can’t go into here (Huang et al., 2010; Lindgren et al., 2016; Salzman et al., 1999; Spence, 2013). A concrete example of this would be the following: suppose you wanted your student to learn about the transfer of an electrical signal in a neuron. This is a fairly abstract idea that can be made very concrete with a 3D model and animations in a virtual reality environment. The student can pick up the model and play/pause/rewind/fast-forward the animation. The student’s physical interaction with something that they’re trying to learn facilitates a deeper level of cognitive processing than abstract thinking alone.

In short, the advantage of using virtual reality as a platform for learning is in its ability to engage multisensory spatial cognition that humans are already accustomed for (Regian & Shebilske, 1992). For example, when compared to a passive, 2D desktop simulation, students who participated in a virtual reality simulation (which was immersive, interactive, and in 3D) not only outperformed the desktop group in learning retention, but also reported greater levels of enjoyment and satisfaction from learning in the 3D setting (Lindgren et al., 2016). Similar findings, with similar designs comparing 2D presentations to 3D virtual presentations, have been replicated in other experiments (see: Hsiao & Chen, 2016; Huang et al., 2016; Huang et al., 2013; Merchant et al., 2012; Santos et al., 2014; Sommerauer & Müller, 2014; Yilmaz, 2016; for a review, see: Merchant et al., 2014; Mikropoulos & Natsis, 2011). In another example, one of our very own researchers, Nicco Reggente, compellingly demonstrated that when explicitly binding to-be-remembered information to a spatial environment, participants in his study were able to recall 50% more material. Strikingly, the control group was also in VR and exposed to the material for the same amount of time. The only difference was that the materials were not explicitly “placed” in a location– highlighting the utmost importance of spatial scaffolding for the robust encoding of information (Reggente, 2017). Studies such as these seem to support the claim that interactive, multisensory, and visuospatial presentation in 3D facilitates learning and recall. As stated by Merchant et al., “….one of the critical features of 3D virtual reality environments is the ability to visually depict and interact with spatial representations of abstract concepts. Therefore, this feature of 3D virtual environments can be useful in providing instruction for developing spatial ability[3]” (Merchant et al., 2012). What is of most relevance here is simply that virtual reality within the framework of constructivist learning theory predicts better learning and recall than PowerPoints and simple multimedia learning.
— Josh Ortiz

[1] Multimedia learning is simply when one is able to build coherent mental representations from a combination of verbal-visual stimuli (Mayer, 2003).
[2] Emphasis (italics) added.
[3] The aspect of spatial ability measured here was the ability to convert 2D representations into something 3D and interactive (Harle & Towns, 2010; also see Clements, 1981).

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