Virtual reality is a relatively novel use of technology that has been in the awareness of the public for about 35 years. According to the dictionary, the phrase refers to “a realistic and immersive computer simulation of a three-dimensional environment, created using interactive software and hardware and experienced or controlled by movement of the body.” Although the term itself has been well-known from popular media, the COVID-19 pandemic helped bring VR to the forefront as a means of delivering learning experiences through simulations.

The development of virtual reality applications for learning involves different skill sets from the ones used in traditional eLearning, and this can make creation seem challenging. The learning curve involved to acquire these skill sets isn’t necessarily difficult, but it requires some dedicated time to master it. The team needed to create VR applications is larger than one person. The right software is helpful and this article contains links to information that will help you choose the applications you need. In addition, at the end of the article, you will find information about virtual reality development at the Learning Guild's DevLearn Conference in October, 2021.

Why use virtual reality for learning?

Virtual reality as a learning experience differs from passive video demonstrations or videos of lectures due to its active, immersive involvement of the user. It is mainly a form of “learning by doing” rather than a route to “knowing by rote.” The fundamental strategy involves enhanced user engagement, improved retention, and experiential learning.

Well-designed virtual reality uses the strength of simulation in a way that supports the intended skill outcome through:

  • The fidelity of the simulation
  • The ability to practice and vary responses to the simulation
  • Feedback to the user

Clark Aldrich, in his 2009 book Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds, suggested three reasons why highly interactive virtual environments are effective for learning:

  • They put people “in the flow”, situating learning in the environment where it will be applied
  • They provide context and emotional involvement
  • They engage people through actual participation

Software for developing virtual reality

Choices depend on the target virtual reality devices you are working with for delivery, or on the web browsers the users have. According to Matt Sparks and Jennifer Gallegos, writing in Learning Solutions magazine, "The major game engines are generally a better choice for developing VR experiences than most proprietary authoring tools. On the plus side, proprietary tools can be easy to learn and use. They often have straightforward user interfaces with only the functionalities you need, and they may not require a powerful gaming computer to run them. They’re also typically designed for a niche group or specific purpose. However, unless you build the tools yourself, they often have limited capabilities and might not address the specific needs of your project or industry. They may be buggier, get updated less frequently, be harder to customize, require additional software (i.e., they’re simply plug-ins), or have unique file formats that may not work elsewhere. Lastly, they’re often made by smaller companies that have a higher chance of going out of business.” (Game Engine Selection Criteria for VR Projects )

At least three types of software support virtual reality development:

  • Major game engines such as Unity, Unreal Engine, CryEngine, and Lumberyard
  • Open Source tools, including WebVR and WebXR Device API applications
  • Proprietary tools (a category that may include major game engines and tools from other categories; see this list from New England Institute of Technology).

Key selection criteria and reviews

Join us at DevLearn!

At DevLearn 2021, the program includes an extensive track on the design and use of immersive technology, both for virtual and for augmented reality, from foundational to advanced:

Virtual Reality in Learning: What You Need to Know to Get Started: Destery Hildenbrand

Being There When You Can’t: VR for New Facility Orientation and Training: Brooks Canavesi, Kevin Ortner, Marty Rosenheck

An Introduction to Usability for Immersive Technology: Jennifer Murphy

How to Deploy Enterprise VR Training at Scale: Tony Bevilacqua

Designing for Augmented Reality: Debbie Richards

Designing and Assessing Learning in VR Using an Evidence-Centered Approach: Kristen Torrence

Using VR to Create a Psychologically Safe Space for Learning: Amy Lou Abernethy

Join your colleagues in Las Vegas, October 20-22, 2021 for these and a total of 150 of the best tutorials in technology for learning! Before the conference starts, attend the two-day VR in Learning Summit for even more (separate registration required for each of the two days). Whether you join us for the full two-day VR for Learning Summit experience or choose just one of the two days, you will also have access to the VR for Learning Showcase on Monday evening and the VR 101 Pre-Show at the beginning of both days.

Register today! Discounts are still available for early registration (until September 10, 2021) and for selected groups and organizations!