Virtual Reality & Accessibility

As technological development accelerates across educational cyberspace, experiential learning such as virtual reality is becoming increasingly popular. Virtual reality in particular is providing students with previously unthought of experiences while enhancing the lives of special needs learners (Ho et al., 2019).

Affordable learning

Virtual reality (VR) has made learning more accessible through simulating costly, dangerous or geographically distant exercises. For example Leiden University is utilising VR technology for emergency care students in order to increase their confidence in real life situations (EDUCAUSE, 2020). Similarly, St. Edwards’s University’s Crime Scene Investigation Virtual Reality Project trains students by immersing them in crime scenes they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access (EDUCAUSE, 2020).

The McWhorter School of Building Science at Auburn University is also using capture technology and VR viewing platforms to create 360-degree construction sites that enable students to experience tech widely used in the construction industry (EDUCAUSE, 2020).

Furthermore, in a program entitled Online Environments for Teaching and Learning, graduate teachers located in Israel, Calgary and Texas learnt together in the Second Life virtual reality environment (Lee et al., 2016). One participant noted that he learnt a lot through knowledge contributed from different cultures. Additionally, the team was able to work asynchronously on occasions of time difference, although limited bandwidth proved to hinder the virtual reality experience with certain team members on occasion (Lee et al., 2016).

Feel like going to a food festival? Experience this one in Dubrovnik, Croatia – a virtual reality immersion I’ve used with English language learners on several occasions. Click, drag and/or enter VR if you dare.

Virtual reality & learners with special needs

Experiments such as the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE), which is an immersive reality room-sized cube, could prove useful for instructional designers to design experiences with Kolb’s experiential learning model. Here learner’s can experiment and test hypothesis based on previous experiences, which results in entirely new experiences for learning (Ho et al., 2019).

CAVE could also provide a sound learning environment for learners with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as children with ASD developed more flexible thinking and reported high task satisfaction in the environment. However, some ASD learners also reported feelings of dizziness, insecurity and fright, so studies remain inconclusive (Ho et al., 2019).

Paraplegic Jake Sully walks again with the help of virtual reality and his avatar in the movie Avatar

Visually impaired learners have also reported positive experiences with VR, as sound and visual clues aids their immersive experience, while continuous audio feedback adds authenticity to the environment (Bhimani & Spoletini, 2017). This is because such learners are able to use haptic feedback along with sound to experience immersion (Bhimani & Spoletini, 2017).

In other examples, The University of Waterloo created a 360-degree field trip for students unable to take part in a 1.5 km hike over undulating terrain. Additionally, Gallaudet University, which is a school for deaf and hard of hearing students has been utilising VR tech to calibrate hearing aids (EDUCAUSE, 2020).

At its present state, however, VR is far from perfect. As the visual, audio and handheld requirements of some VR experiences exclude disabled learners, more work needs to be done on VR accessibility (Smith & Abrams, 2019). Additionally, VR is often not feasible within the constraints that typically accompany businesses (Rooney, 2012). However, as technology is rapidly developing, accessibility to this visually immersive technology is continually progressing.

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