Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) involves the use of technology to enter an alternate, three-dimensional view of the real world, a fantasy world, or a combination of both using a desktop computer or a dedicated VR headset (possibly with additional equipment like haptic gloves to enhance interactivity). Besides the visual component, a VR experience may include movement, text or speech communication, and sensory components. Virtual reality applications can be represented as a continuum that includes augmented reality, mixed reality, and true virtual reality.


The Virtual Reality (VR) Continuum (Ludlow, 2015, p. 3).

VR Continuum  

The level of user interactivity can also vary along this continuum and may involve an experience that allows a single user to interact with the simulated world, multiple users to simultaneously interact with the simulated world while unaware of each other, or multiple users to simultaneously interact with both the simulated world and with each other (Ludlow, 2015).  Creating a virtual world where multiple learners can work together to solve problems, in a way that emulates the real world experience, can result in VR being a powerful tool for learning.


Evidence of Efficacy - Benefits

Although adoption has been slower than anticipated, VR applications are growing rapidly and are being used to achieve learning outcomes across learning domains and academic disciplines (Pomerantz, 2019). Research has demonstrated that VR can be especially effective when used to:

Use Examples

Facilitate the acquisition and practice of skills 

coffee makingconstruction safetysurgical skills,  aircraft fire drillsoccupational safety
Provide opportunities to explore distant, dangerous, or inaccessible locations the Galapagos Islands, the Great Wall of China, the 2015 earthquakes in Nepalvisit satellite learning locations,  16th century Spainreal estate open houses
Bring together distant people for educational purposes distance learningsatellite siteslanguage learning
Enable learners to take on the perspective of others homelessnesspain management

Pedagogical Considerations

Learning in Three Dimensions (Educause, 2018) concludes that VR enables both active and experiential learningXR for Teaching and Learning (Educause, 2019) describes how VR can be used to achieve learning goals, develop skills, facilitate experimentation, and provide opportunities for authentic problem solving.  

In order to ensure an effective VR learning experience, careful consideration must be given to the its design.  A VR learning experience should:

  • aim to achieve preset learning outcomes,
  • be supported by a strong pedagogical design,
  • be used to enhance, not replace, other modes of learning, and
  • be regularly evaluated for effectiveness and revised, as needed.

Cybersickness and cognitive overload are two barriers that have previously slowed VR’s adoption as a learning technology.  Both are the focus of ongoing research and technological initiatives.  The following strategies can be useful in minimizing these barriers to learning:

  • Preparation:  Allow time for students to become familiar with the technology to prevent distraction and frustration
  • Pretraining: Familiarize students with key concepts beforehand to facilitate deeper learning during the VR experience
  • Segmentation: Less immersive experiences may be segmented and interspersed with generative activities or formative assessments that encourage repetition, if needed
  • Self-direction:  When segmentation is not possible, a learner-directed experience can decrease cognitive load
  • Simplify the experience: Avoid extraneous use of text and audio to minimize cognitive load 
  • Signaling: Utilize signaling principles to highlight key concepts  
  • Repetition: Provide the opportunity for students to repeat the experience to maximize learning

The Spongy Bog 360 VR Field Trip Project is an example of a VR experience at Waterloo that incorporates many of the foregoing strategies.


It is important to consider accessibility when considering any learning technology. Accessibility limitations and Universal Design principles suggest that VR should be offered as one of multiple options in a learning program in order to minimize potential barriers related to auditory or visual limitations, cybersickness, or learning preferences. 


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


CTE Teaching Tip Sheets

Other Resources


  • Bailenson, J. N., & Yee, N. (2006). A Longitudinal Study of Task Performance, Head Movements, Subjective Report, Simulator Sickness, and Transformed Social Interaction in Collaborative Virtual Environments. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 15(6), 699-716. doi:10.1162/pres.15.6.699
  • Bates, T. (2005). Technology, e-learning and distance education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Burdea, G., & Coiffet, P. (2003). Virtual reality technology. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley-Interscience.Chittaro, L., & Ranon, R. (2007). Web3D technologies in learning, education and training: Motivations, issues, opportunities. Computers & Education49(1), 3–18. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2005.06.002
  • Fassbender, Eric & Richards, Deborah & Bilgin, Ayse & Thompson, William & Heiden, Wolfgang. (2012). VirSchool: The effect of background music and immersive display systems on memory for facts learned in an educational virtual environment. Computers & Education. 58. 490-500. 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.09.002.
  • Johnston, E. A., Olivas, G. W., Steele, P., Smith, C., & Bailey, L. W. (2019). Virtual Reality Pedagogical Considerations in Learning Environments. In M. Boboc, & S. Koç (Eds.), Student-Centered Virtual Learning Environments in Higher Education (pp. 21-39). Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-5769-2.ch002
  • Khot, Z., Quinlan, K., Norman, G. R., & Wainman, B. (2013). The relative effectiveness of computer-based and traditional resources for education in anatomy. Anatomical Sciences Education, 6(4), 211-215. doi:10.1002/ase.1355
  • Ludlow, B. L. (2015, Fall). Virtual Reality: Emerging applications and future directions. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 34(3), 3–10. doi:10.1177/875687051503400302
  • Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning. New York (United States): Cambridge University Press.
  • Mayer, R. E., Makransky, G., & Terkildsen, T. S. (2019). Adding immersive virtual reality to a science lab simulation causes more presence but less learning. Learning and Instruction, 60, 225-236. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2017.12.007
  • Mayer, R. E. & Parong, J. (2018, January 25). Learning Science in Immersive Virtual Reality. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.
  • Meyer, O. A., Omdahl, M. K., & Makransky, G. (2019). Investigating the effect of pre-training when learning through immersive virtual reality and video: A media and methods experiment. Computers & Education, 140, 103603. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103603
  • Parong, J., & Mayer, R. E. (2018). Learning science in immersive virtual reality. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(6), 785-797. doi:10.1037/edu0000241
  • Pomerantz, J. (2019, October 10). XR for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from
  • Resnick, M., & Morgan, G., (August 2017). Best Practices for Virtual Reality in Higher Education. Gartner
  • Richards, D., & Taylor, M. (2015). A Comparison of learning gains when using a 2D simulation tool versus a 3D virtual world: An experiment to find the right representation involving the Marginal Value Theorem. Computers & Education, 86, 157-171. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2015.03.009
  • Weech, S., Kenny, S., & Barnett-Cowan, M. (2019). Presence and Cybersickness in Virtual Reality Are Negatively Related: A Review. Frontiers in Psychology10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00158
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