The 360 VR Learning Experience

In education, offline or online, there often exists a large gap between theory and practice, and between rational knowledge and affective experiences. Students can learn from books, lectures and online content, but how do they best translate their knowledge to a practical situation? How does the medicine student learn how to operate, the chemistry student to perform experiments safely, and the archaeology student to treat an excavation with caution and care?


At the Centre for Innovation, part of Leiden University, we’re constantly striving to find ways to close this gap. We believe that virtual reality (VR) can play a particularly important role in tackling this challenge. In the last 2 years, we’ve been exploring the possibilities of VR for academic education. This has resulted in twelve VR learning experiences so far. Six of these are part of our university-wide pilot programme, which have been co-developed with several faculties. In a separate programme, three VR learning experiences have been developed for the Leiden University Medical Center, to prepare students for their internal medicine internship. In the academic year 2018-2019, these VR learning experiences will serve a combined total of 1,500-2,000 students as part of their core curriculum.


During the past years we have learned a lot about both the techniques and the didactics of VR. Coming from an online learning, MOOC- and SPOC-based background, we’ve had to re-think our learning experience design practices. We’ve developed novel approaches for the design, pedagogy and technology of our VR learning experiences. Next to that, we’ve had to tackle all sorts of practical issues. Here are some of the key questions we ran into:

  • Pedagogical: How do you design a learning experience that caters to every learner’s level of knowledge? How do you make sure that you adhere to sound pedagogical concepts and academic standards?
  • Design: How do you make sure everyone in the team is on board and on the same page? What roles are needed in the team? Who’s responsible for what part of the design process?
  • Technological: What’s feasible? What’s already out there? How much time do we have to invest to build the capabilities into our team?
  • Practical: How do you introduce VR to students who have limited or no experience with it? How do you serve a VR experience to hundreds of students simultaneously? And how do you convince teachers of the tremendous possibilities that VR offers for their education?
  • Evaluation: Do the experiences work? How can you measure the outcomes?

We’ve tackled the first three items on this list by creating a diverse, multidisciplinary team. In this team, all the relevant expertise is present: media design and filmmaking, interaction and app design, learning experience design, and research, as well as the most important one, tying it all together: content expertise (see figure). During our learning experience design sessions, which typically last two days, we gather the whole team in one room, and lay the groundwork for the VR learning experience. This ensures that everyone is involved from the start, that informed decisions can be made because all the expertise is in one room, and that everyone knows which way the project is heading.


The answers to the practical questions were found partly based on our experiences, and partly on trial-and-error. The technology is still so new that there are no guidelines yet. We’ve had to figure it out as we went along.


Finally, we made analytics and evaluation a large part of our apps. We know our target group. They’re scientists, and they want to see the data. Never mind that we have a gut feeling that the technology can improve learning outcomes: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. To generate reliable research results, we went for a combined quantitative/qualitative approach. It’s virtually impossible to measure whether watching a 360 video of a kidney transplantation will lead to better surgeons, or if a VR learning experience about lab safety leads to less accidents. But we can measure some interesting data points:

  • Gaze, click and time tracking: most of our apps employ these types of tracking so we can measure how much the students interact with the app. Gaze tracking produces heatmaps, which tells us how much a student looks around in the app. Click tracking helps us understand how they navigate through an experience, as well as how engaged they are (where more clicking generally means more engagement). Finally, we track how much time they spend in each scene of the app. Combining these data, we can get a measure of a) how interactive our learning experiences are, b) how quickly the students go through and app, and c) which scenes within the experience are most interesting to them.
  • Anonymous surveys: together with our in-house researchers and data analysts, we’ve compiled a list of questions that are geared towards understanding how students experience the app. This can be technological (e.g. if the experience makes them nauseous), pedagogical (e.g. if they feel the VR experience contributes to their understanding of the subject), or affective (e.g. how the experience made them feel). The students were also given ample opportunity to express their opinion beyond multiple choice questions.
  • Post-experience discussions and/or tests: all of our VR learning experiences are embedded in a classroom situation. In small groups, students first receive an introduction to VR, as well as an explanation of the purpose of the experience. They then enter VR, which typically lasts ten to fifteen minutes. After that, they engage in a group discussion, overseen by the teacher. A test can be taken at that point as well.

Though our pilot groups so far have been small, both teacher and student feedback has been very favourable. They were almost unanimously enthusiastic, reporting back that they felt like ‘they were really there’, and that it was a ‘very lifelike experience’. Furthermore, students felt they were more confident about going ‘into the field’ after going through an experience, because now they had a much clearer understanding of what was in store for them. Most students saw a clear educational potential, and reported that they would like to see more VR learning experiences used during their study. Some even gave us suggestions about which experience we should develop next!


Similarly, teachers reported back that their students were highly engaged with the subject matter, and that post-experience discussions were lively and interesting. On top of that, there were several students who came back in the weeks after the test to go through the VR experience again, confirming our suspicions that repeatability is an important element of educational VR.


Our preliminary observations suggest that VR for education is a very fruitful avenue to explore and develop. On a broader scale, we’re happy to see that VR is gaining ground in education. More and more educational institutions are starting to realise that VR holds great potential for education. Though uncharted and unfamiliar, VR is a powerful new tool in our creative, didactic arsenal. We owe it to our learners to explore it.


Written by Monique Snijder and Thomas Felix Ginn


Monique Snijder and Thomas Felix Ginn will facilitate a Pre-Conference Workshop entitled Playful Design: the 360 VR Learning Experience on Wednesday, December 5, 2018.

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