Virtual reality (VR) involves the use of technology to enter an alternate, three-dimensional (3D) view of the real world, a fantasy world, or a combination of both using a desktop computer or a mobile phone with or without a headset and possibly with additional equipment like 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).  By creating a virtual world where potentially diverse and distant learners can work together to solve problems, VR becomes a powerful tool for adult learning.

Evidence of Efficacy - Benefits

Early excitement over VR led enthusiasts to predict that by now we would all be carrying a VR viewer around like a cell phone and attending class regularly as avatars 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 making, construction safety, surgical skillsaircraft fire drillsoccupational safety
Provide opportunities to explore distant, dangerous, or inaccessible locations the Galapagos Islands, the Great Wall of China, the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, visit satellite learning locations 16th century Spainreal estate open houses
Bring together distant people for educational purposes distance learning, satellite sites, language learning
Enable learners to take on the perspective of others homelessness, pain management

Pedagogical Considerations

Learning in Three Dimensions (Educause, 2018) concludes that VR enables both active and experiential learning. XR 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
  • Minimize distractions:  Distractions and interruptions from outside sources can interfere with learning 
  • 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
  • Research: Research and development is ongoing and instructors would benefit from staying up-to-date on the most recent insights

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


It is important to consider accessibility when determining whether a technology fits the needs of your class. 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. 

Related Teaching Tip Sheets

Other Resources

Learning in Three Dimensions

XR for Teaching and Learning

10 Ways Virtual Reality Is Already Being Used in Education 

About Universal Design for Learning

Cognitive Theory for Multimedia Learning

Centre for Extended Learning UDXL Honeycomb: How do we create USEFUL online learning experiences?


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teaching tips This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Virtual Reality. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.