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Going beyond aviation: Virtual reality in education and assessment

Steven Spence Lead for Teaching, Learning and Innovation at The Sheffield College

The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) has become more prevalent in educational institutions in recent years, even though their use and implementation are still very much in their infancy. However, as it’s still early days, there’s a real need for further thought and research into how both VR and AR can be used effectively to support students to learn.  

There are some early examples of VR being used really well across the further education (FE) sector, and at The Sheffield College we have used it to great effect in the teaching of anatomy and supporting our inclusion students. However, there is certainly scope for greater research into how it can be used and for the development of networks to share and collaborate across the sector.  

A brief history of VR in education 

The history of VR can be traced back to the 1800s, with Sir Charles Wheatsone’s research and subsequent production of the stereoscope. Fast forward a hundred years to the 1930s, and VR was the basis of Stanley Weinbaum’s short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles. Although many key events have occurred in the development of VR, the term ‘virtual reality’ was only developed in the 1980s.  

It was also in the 80s that VR simulations were developed to support the training of pilots, something that has now become synonymous with VR. And, although popular games devices like SEGA and Nintendo launched VR related content in the mid-1990s, the explosion of VR in everyday society has been accelerated following Facebook investing heavily in VR, after buying Oculus in 2014. 

From an educational standpoint, most would associate VR with supporting the training of pilots. However, research indicates that VR can have positive benefits in education beyond the aviation industry. For example, Zhao et al, (2020) conducted a meta-analysis of VR in anatomy education and concluded that it is efficient in improving anatomy knowledge. Furthermore, Coban, Bolat and Goksu (2022) indicated in their meta-analysis that educational level (e.g. school/college/university) made a difference to the effectiveness of using VR in education.  

Because of these exciting findings, we at The Sheffield college feel there is an urgent need for further research to understand more about applying VR to interventions in an institution like ours. There is no doubt about the great potential for the use of VR in mainstream educational settings – and that’s where our VR pilot project comes in.  

Piloting VR in assessment at The Sheffield College 

At The Sheffield College, we were delighted to be successful in our application for  NCFE’s Assessment Innovation Fund. This funding is allowing us to further investigate the use of VR in formative and summative assessments.  

Although there is a lot of research and evidence released daily on what makes effective instruction, an important part of our project is to ensure that VR is used with a clear purpose, corresponding with key learning theory, and supporting the needs of our staff and students. For example, practice is vital in the learning process (Anderson, 1993; Rosenshine, 2012) in developing fluency in a given domain.  

However, in the real world, this can sometimes be difficult to facilitate for many reasons, including access to learning spaces and staff time. Much of this thinking supported what we want to achieve through the use of VR in assessment, using it to give students more time to practice in real-world settings and situations.  

We are building a range of VR resources in our own catering kitchens, designing tasks for students to support what they have learnt whilst physically in the kitchens. The accessible nature of VR means they can choose to repeat and practice the virtual tasks as many times as they need to – something that’s not possible in the physical spaces. We’re also running similar projects with VR for carpentry and joinery and animal care teams, and we’re investigating the impact it has on formative and summative assessments. The results from our investigations will help determine how we move forward with our innovative ideas.  

Our research is already opening our eyes to many possibilities. We truly believe that VR will be vital for us in the coming years at The Sheffield College, and we have a vision for how our work can go on to support the wider sector.   

Advice for considering VR in your education setting 

There are so many technical considerations when using VR. In recent years, the cost of headsets has reduced – however, the price can vary depending on the specifications required. So, it’s important to consider the type of device that will fit and work well with the operating systems at your institution.  

In addition, it’s important to consider how you envisage VR being used at your institution. For example, do you want a designated space? Does your chosen VR require tethering to a device that will then mean greater investment to ensure the computer specifications match the needs of the software? Or is your primary focus to enable the VR headsets to be used untethered?  

These questions are a good starting point in your initial consideration of using VR from a technical perspective. Research is key to determining the best VR option for your needs, and we’re happy to share our experience with others in the sector. 

Read more about our pilot project with NCFE or get in touch with me via Twitter or LinkedIn for an informal chat about VR. 

Steven Spence is the lead for Teaching, Learning and Innovation at The Sheffield College. Having completed an M Ed in 2013 he is now in the final stages of his doctoral study. 

We were delighted to be successful in our application for NCFE's Assessment Innovation Fund. This funding is allowing us to further investigate the use of VR in formative and summative assessments.  

Steven Spence, Lead for Teaching, Learning and Innovation at The Sheffield College