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Virtual Reality Learning Environments

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Virtual Reality Learning Environments:

Potentials and Challenges

Computer graphics technology enables us to create a remarkable variety of digital images and displays that, given the right conditions, effectively enrich education [Clark 1983]. Real-time computer graphics are an essential component of the multi-sensory environment of Virtual Reality (VR). This article addresses the unique characteristics of emerging VR technology and the potential of virtual worlds as learning environments. I will describe several key attributes of VR environments and discuss them in relationship to educational theory and pedagogical practice. I will then identify three challenges that must be met before VR can be integrated into educational settings: cost, usability, and fear of the technology.

The practical potential of VR is still being explored. Of the number of application areas that suggest themselves, education is clearly worth immediate investigation. VR was devised to enable people to deal with information more easily, and it has been successfully developed to facilitate learning and task performance for over 20 years in the U.S. Air Force [Furness 1978]. Public education and training applications are a natural extension of this work.

The national mandate for educational improvement is based on increasingly grim statistics. Between 25%-30% of our children donнt graduate from high school, and of those who do, at least 700,000 are functionally illiterate. Our students rank at the bottom of 19 industrial nations in reading, writing, and arithmetic. мOne thing is for certain: the information revolution is changing our lives, and we need to prepare ourselves to cope with its promise and potential.о [Gore 1991] How might VR help?

Virtual Reality as a Learning Environment

Using a head-mounted audio-visual display, 6-D position sensors, and tactile interface devices, we can inhabit computer-generated environments. We can see, hear and touch virtual objects. We can create, modify and manipulate them in much the same way we do physical objects, but without those pesky real-world limitations. VR is not only virtual: we can meet real people in virtual worlds, we can tele-exist in real places all over the world and beyond, and we can superimpose virtual displays onto the physical world.

VR offers teachers and students unique experiences that are consistent with successful instructional strategies: hands-on learning, group projects and discussions, field trips, simulations, and concept visualization. Within the limits of system functionality, we can create anything imaginable and then become part of it. The VR learning environment is experiential and intuitive; it is a shared information context that offers unique interactivity and can be configured for individual learning and performance styles.

\"If there are limits on the human ability to respond to learning environments, we are so far away from the limits as to make them presently inconsequential. Throughout human history to date, it has been the environments, not the human beings, that have run up against limitations.\" [Leonard 1968]

1. VR is experiential. We actively inhabit a spatial multi-sensory environment. We are both physically and perceptually involved in the experience, and we feel a sense of presence within a virtual world. мWe are immersed in a very high bandwidth stream of sensory input, organized by our perceiving systems, and out of this лbathн of sensation emerges our sense of being in and of the world.о [Zeltzer 1990] We experience the environment as if it were real, while still fully aware that it is computer-generated.

Educational theorists have agreed on the fundamental importance of experiential learning for over a hundred years: \"Learning is the development of experience into experience.\" [James 1892] \"Knowledge begins with enaction.\" [Bruner 1962] \"To learn is to make sense out of experience.\" [Silberman 1970]

\"If you can be a gear, you can understand how it turns by projecting yourself into its place and turning with it...As well as connecting with the formal knowledge of mathematics, it also connects with the мbody knowledgeо , the sensory-motor schemata of a child. It is this double relationship--both abstract and sensory--that gives a transitional object the power to carry mathematics into the mind.\" [Papert 1980]

Text, oral, and screen-based presentations address subsets of human capacity. In contrast, the VR learning environment provides a context that includes the multiple nature of human intelligence: verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, auditory, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.

The importance of affective learning has been carefully explored [Kohlberg 1968, Rogers 1969]. It is apparent that we must consider the whole learner in his or her effort to attain educational goals [Belkin 1977]. VRнs experiential computing environment allows the мpurposeful movement that coordinates the cognitive, the psychomotor, and the affective domainsо [Harrow 1972]. VR provides a context for both cognitive and affective learning by engaging us in a process that is rational and emotional, practical and whimsical, organized and spontaneous.

2. The VR learning environment allows intuitive human-computer interaction. The technology is designed to fit human architecture. A virtual world empowers us to move, talk, gesture, and manipulate objects and systems in a natural way: to move an object, you reach out your hand and pick it up; to see what you hear going on behind you, you turn around and look. The skills needed to function within a virtual world are the same skills weнve been practicing in the physical world since birth. This method of representing and interacting with information is fundamentally different from the way we are now using computers. Novices require minimum accommodation time [M. Bricken 1990]. Skilled users can represent and manipulate increasingly complex information in forms that are easy to remember and interpret [Furness 1988].

The motivation to learn hinges on interest, and most people find VR a very interesting experience. It has a magical quality, which fascinates children of all ages. You can fly, you can make objects appear, disappear, and transform. You can have these experiences without learning an operating system or programming language, without any reading or calculation at all. But the magic trick of

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