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Maria Homann

Word nerd and creative digital octopus. Formally Content Marketing Manager
6 min read

With a total estimated revenue of $700 million in VR for education by 2025, you’d think that the answer to the question above would be unanimous.

Virtual reality is predicted to create a substantial paradigm shift in education, but truth be told, there is currently little evidence of its educational value.

Like with all new technologies, evidence of its value can simply not exist until we take the time to investigate, review and analyse its effects.

We have to start somewhere, and at Labster, we’ve decided to do just that.

Labster VR

We are all on the same road of exploration in this field, and at Labster, we are wholeheartedly committed to putting research at the core of our product development. This has already resulted in many valuable insights.

Some of this research indicates that VR does not enhance learning per se. On the contrary, there is additional research that shows that VR can help increase enjoyment and interest in subjects, which is an important factor in education.

Before we dig a little deeper into this, let’s clarify the core terms to answer the question: What is VR?

The 2 types of VR

When we think of VR, we usually picture a set of goggles that, when worn, create a fully immersive and interactive virtual environment. But this is not the actual definition of VR.

VR is merely the computer generated environment that simulates a realistic experience for the user. This environment can be generated through a desktop computer, which doesn’t create an as equally immersive experience as a head-mounted VR device.

 Low-immersion vs. high-immersion VRLow-immersion vs. high-immersion VR

Most research that has been conducted in this field has involved the desktop version of VR.

There are empirical studies and meta-analyses that have shown that the desktop versions, also called low-immersion simulations, result in better cognitive outcomes and attitudes toward learning than more traditional teaching methods.

The buzz we’re currently hearing about VR refers to the high-immersion kind, with a user wearing a headset (goggles). This is the version of VR that has not been studied as extensively as it is much newer in the field of education.

Now that we’re a bit clearer on this topic, let’s take a look at the research that’s been conducted specifically with Labster VR simulations.

Study 1: VR results in higher presence but less learning

As a company that develops innovative learning technology, it’s only natural that we invest a substantial amount of resources into our research, in order to fully understand our VR simulations and to guide their continuous development.

Labster collaborates with external researchers on this in order to acquire a deeper understanding of our simulations and their effects.

The first study set out to uncover the effects of low-immersion VR versus high-immersion VR. This investigation was conducted by Guido Makransky and Thomas Terkildsen from the Department of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen, with Richard Mayer, who is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Santa Barbara, California. Their paper “Adding immersive virtual reality to a science lab simulation causes more presence but less learning” is published in Learning and Instruction. We at Labster are very happy to have the ability to facilitate a study with such credentials.

In the study, 52 university students learned from a science simulation via either a desktop display (low-immersion) or a head-mounted display (high-immersion).

Students reported increased presence (see “Presence” in the graph below) in the high-immersion VR condition. Presence is an important and positive factor, and a psychological index that in simple terms makes the simulation more believable and real to the user. This may affect how the memory of learning is built and gives the user a more positive feeling about their learning overall.

Presence can be particularly important for distance learners, or when considering how to encourage students to stay in their courses by building positive experiences.

However, this study also found that whilst presence and engagement increased in students, there was no increase in learning outcomes – in fact they learned less (see “Knowledge gain” in the graph below).

Low vs High-Immersion VR Science Simulations. Second intervention, “Adding immersive virtual reality to a science lab simulation causes more presence but less learning”. p > 0.5 for all parameters shown in the graph

Since the purpose of this technology is to increase learning outcomes, this was quite an alarming result. So why were the students not learning?

A possible answer can be found looking at electroencephalogram (EEG) traces of the student participants in this study. The electroencephalogram (EEG) was used in the study to measure  the brain activity of the students. The EEG data showed that the students using the high immersion VR had significantly higher cognitive loads.

And this would seem to make sense: The highly immersive VR is super stimulating for the brain and as a result, the user is more mentally active.

This was great news in many ways, but for the sake of increasing learning outcomes it was a clear warning to be taken into consideration.

When the brain is too busy, we have cognitive overload, and as a consequence, we stop learning as effectively because we are mentally occupied with processing the environment and directing our physical actions and responses.

So what did we do with these findings?

Instead of throwing our hands in the air, we realised that we could use this data to alter our simulations in order to reduce the cognitive load until we could find a sweet-spot for learning.

What we learned from our findings

It became very clear that simply taking existing 3D low-immersion VR simulations, and using them in a VR format, doesn’t increase learning outcomes – this would be similar to putting a lecture monologue on Youtube, which also doesn’t increase learning outcomes in itself.

In other words, we cannot simply take content from one medium and migrate it to a different medium, without taking into account the unique features and characteristics of each.

Instead, we need to capture the full potential of the new technology (high-immersive VR in this case). To do that, we need to ask questions such as “what makes VR unique?” and “How can we leverage those unique features, to improve learning outcomes?”

To find the answers to these questions, over the last two years Labster has worked to understand how we can implement VR specific features, and whether these will in fact cause an increase in learning outcomes.

As a result, another study was conducted to continue the exploration in this field.

Study 2: Our newest research on VR shows great potential

In the most recent study on the effects of Labster’s VR simulations, the differences between low-immersion and high-immersion VR were reevaluated, and special attention was paid to how the level of immersion impacted learning outcomes.

This study was once again undertaken by Guido Makransky at the University of Copenhagen, with Lau Lilleholt from University of South Denmark. “A structural equation modeling investigation of the emotional value of immersive virtual reality in education” is published in Educational Technology Research and Development, and this paper contributed to the existing research in several ways.

First of all, it was found that students prefer using a head-mounted VR version, rather than a desktop VR version, of a virtual learning simulation. As before, the students reported increased levels of presence and motivation.

Increasing students’ motivation to learn science has been highlighted as one of the most important potential benefits of using simulations in education. In fact, previous studies have shown that students who are intrinsically motivated also tend to engage more deeply in learning and have higher academic achievement.

In that way, high-immersion VR seems like a promising tool that through this heightened level of engagement could help increase learning outcomes.

Another important finding in this second study was that when students used the Labster simulations that had been modified to consider cognitive loading, there was a positive impact on perceptions of cognitive learning outcomes.

The best outcome though? Students reported a greater level of enjoyment when using the high-immersion VR.

And that is absolutely critical – from an educational perspective. This is not ‘just’ that students have had a great experience. Their level of enjoyment will have a positive effect on student engagement and satisfaction, and give them a better sense of perceived learning.

Enjoying a learning experience also means that students will look forward to more of the same – something that is desperately needed to solve current and future problems in STEM education.


What next?

In deciding whether or not VR will change education for the better, it’s still early to make any definitive conclusions. However, as we keep testing, learning and developing, there’s no reason to believe it won’t.

The key to making sure VR will have the positive effect it’s promised to have lies in the research.

There is still a long road ahead in investigating the use of VR, and we are thrilled to be on that road. There are still limitations to the studies reported here, but we like to see that as an exciting challenge and an opportunity for discovery and learning.

If you are interested in helping us facilitate this learning, or would like to know more about our simulations and research, please visit our research page to learn more.

Access your very own laboratory now and kickstart your science career!


Or explore our many science simulations here.

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