by Micah Shippee, PhD @micahshippee


The success of virtual reality (VR) is evident by its ubiquitous uses in a wide range of markets. The gaming and entertainment sector has seen a boom in virtual reality headsets and devices all aimed at creating an immersive experience for users. As higher quality virtual reality experiences become more attainable, a desire for more practical applications is on the rise. A review of online news highlights great enthusiasm over the potential virtual reality has to positively impact learning and training in K-12 Education, Higher Education, Medicine, and the Corporate sector. The research to support virtual reality as a positive catalyst for learning and training is also growing. The purpose of this special report is to recognize societal expectations around virtual reality by reviewing online news and to uncover whether these expectations are related to the current research being conducted. 

Keywords: Virtual Reality (VR), K-12, Higher Education, Medicine, Corporate


This special report aims to address the societal expectations around virtual reality within the realm of learning and training and to bring to light current, relevant research connected to these expectations.Reports indicate that there has been a rebound in the education technology startup funding (1) which has the potential to follow current corporate enthusiasm to explore VR’s relevance outside of gaming (2). Katie Stern, general manager of the Game Developers Conference stated “What we’re seeing in VR … is other applications… So we’re seeing it get more traction in things like training, or education-based things, healthcare has taken to it pretty well. So I think in [those spaces] we’ll see more growth in that area than we will in the entertainment and games spaces.”(3) Her comments are echoed in the areas of learning and training where we are seeing a focus on leveraging digital depth for responsive learning environments with a future in Wearables, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Reality.(4) VR is an opportunity to finally connect both learners and teachers in a novel and meaningful way. Imagine medical students performing an operation or geography students really seeing where and what Kathmandu is (5). Winter Olympic athletes were trained with a VR product that allowed those who could not physically get on the mountain to mentally practice racing any of the dozens of courses the U.S. ski team has recorded (6). The potential for VR appears to be limitless.

In order to recognize the relationship between expectations and research, this report is organized first by market: K-12, Higher Education, Medicine, and Corporate and then by type: Online News and Research. The Online News sources for this report was gathered through multiple platforms including internet databases and social media sites. The academic research reviewed for this report also leveraged internet databases but also includes academic databases with limited availability to the public. A review of past and present research on the design and development of VR with a comparison of different VR applications (7) is also presented. Further, this report will also provide commentary on the type of research being presented as a means to support further understanding of what robust research looks like (8). A tenet of good research is the strength of the researchers’ methodology. Qualitative research provides a strategy to identify themes within a given setting which is helpful with emergent technologies and strategies that have not been thoroughly investigated. These themes can be used with analytics in Quantitative research to look at emergent technologies in multiple settings. When reviewing a study one question a researcher can ask is: If I replicate the methodologies in this study, will I be able to report similarly? Meaning, is there enough information given that demonstrates sound data and effective research methodology. Finally, while some research may provide tantalizing findings we should be critical of the source: Was funding for the research provided for by a company looking for a certain result?


Online News

VR teaching has the potential to provide access to some of the best teaching in the world to some of the 263 million children who are currently not in education (9, 10). New Horizon Report identifies Virtual Reality as a “vehicle” rather than “trend” for stimulating immersive opportunities for students. The report also suggests increased VR adoption in K-12 over the next 2 – 3 years (11). 

Technology companies are making a fresh push, and some market dynamics could provide them a tailwind. But there’s plenty of reason to remain skeptical. Researchers know very little about how moving back and forth between reality and immersive virtual environments affects the brains of children, especially those who may have difficulty distinguishing between the two. Foundry10 found both students and teachers surprisingly willing to trust the accuracy and truthfulness of VR content, raising questions about what happens when the medium is eventually used for advertising or to spread misinformation and propaganda. And VR has the potential, at least, to capture information on everything from users’ physiological reactions to their emotional states, raising questions about data-privacy protections. Some manufacturers of consumer VR technology have quietly begun acknowledging such fears. Samsung, for example, recently recommended that its GearVR viewer not be used by children younger than 13. Companies such as zSpace are also trying to market VR technology that doesn’t involve headsets and is specifically designed for the K-12 market. The focus is on student collaboration and high-quality educational content that teachers introduce and explain, a spokesman said. Given the combination of hype and uncertainty in the field, Castaneda said, it’s important that educators be careful and thoughtful when it comes to VR. “There’s definitely something there,” she said. “But it’s rolling out faster than we understand it, for sure.”(12)

A shift for the future of education is now possible through the convergence of VR and AI (13,14). VR is disrupting the education sector by providing an educational environment in which students can explore directly the concepts which they have studied in class. It includes an in-depth training for the students assisting them in subjects, and develops a knowledge base concerning the application of VR methods to educational applications (15).

Educators are already highlighting the benefits of using both augmented and virtual reality technologies In online learning stating that they make the eLearning process engaging and exciting; create scenarios that otherwise are impossible to create; focus on a practical approach rather than just theory; encourage online learners to learn from their mistakes; and allow for self-guided exploration (16).

VR experiences in schools are becoming more widespread making virtual reality a reality in today’s classrooms (17). One school has students, wearing the Oculus Rift headset, to explore the Amazon, taking photos of animals while learning about them and their habitat (18). A 15 year old North Philadelphia school student, using its new VR lab, reported on the immersive experience by stating “I felt like I could touch everything.”(19) In one high-poverty district teachers see VR as a tool to increase the learning gains of their students through engagement (20).

Developers, programmers, and academic institutions continue to create for VR. Harvard Graduate School of Education has developed EcoMUVE, a curriculum that uses immersive virtual environments to teach middle school students about ecosystems and causal patterns. EcoMUVE was developed with funding from the Institute of Educational Science (IES), associated with U.S. Department of Education (21). While Harmony Labs has developed a VR anti-bullying curriculum that strives to help stop bullying through increasing awareness, through promoting empathetic understanding of target, perpetrator, ally and bystander (22). MondlyAR has created a Language Learning application that demonstrates how a virtual teacher can support language acquisition (23). Some pose that the future of physical education can be a gamified-VR gym, that teaches the direct impact of physical activity and calories burned (24). There are even VR Chemistry Lessons that teach the elements in a bold new way (25). Other VR examples include the VR lectures, field trips, and 3D anatomy (26).

As cost of VR equipment comes down, hurdles still exist before we will see VR become more widespread in education. Among them, more research is needed to understand how moving back and forth between reality and immersive virtual environments affects childrens’ brains, especially those who may have difficulty distinguishing between the two (27). Leveraging VR in the classroom can be two-fold: Learning through a virtual experience and letting students become creators of VR worlds (28).


Research in K-12 Education around VR ranges from empathy to application to the changes coming in the future of education (29). Some research provides a review of examples of VR and AR in the future of education and training (30). One optimistic study illustrates student interest in consuming and creating in VR and finds non-tech savvy teachers are willing to work with VR (due to the benefits) (31). Other studies provide a collection of studies that explore the potential for VR to be applied in educational settings through a better understanding of user requirements, new technologies, and practical issues in collaborative VR applications for learning (32).

Virtual Reality has gained popularity in China and with this growth comes organizations seeking validation to continue their implementation efforts in education. One study boasts that in practical skills training, VR helps sharpen students’ operational skills, provides an immersive learning experience, and enhances students’ sense of involvement in class, making learning more fun, more secure, and more active. The study reported that the average score of students who took a test immediately after using VR-based teaching (of astrophysics) registered a 27.4% growth in terms of score, indicating the great advantage of VR in the teaching of astrophysics (33). The findings of this study are exciting, but all aspects of the research data and methodology are unclear.

A research study was done by Children and Virtual Reality found VR tools could have significant health impacts on children. Among the findings were results which suggest that for the majority of children, one 20 minute VR game play will have little impact on their stereoacuity in the short-term. But a very small population of children may find disruption in normal binocular coordination (34).

Research on immersive virtual reality (IVR) explores how VR relates to cognitive development, particularly during early childhood in the areas of technological (i.e., tracking, rendering, embodiment of senses) and psychological (i.e., immersion vs. presence). IVR attributes include the type of environments and the digital representation users can experience. The research develops the unique attributes of IVR related to topics of cognitive development such as executive functioning, concluding with a discussion of the trends in empirical research on children and IVR (i.e., areas of research, ages studied, sample sizes) and provide future research directions (35).

Barriers to technology use exist in K-12 education resulting in limited adoption of augmented and virtual reality technologies, and, more directly, necessary training of teachers in using such technologies within meaningful educational contexts. One study proposes a six-step methodology to aid adoption of these technologies as basic elements within the regular education: training teachers; developing conceptual prototypes; teamwork involving the teacher, a technical programmer, and an educational architect; and producing the experience, which then provides results in the subsequent two phases wherein teachers are trained to apply augmented- and virtual-reality solutions within their teaching methodology using an available subject-specific experience and then finally implementing the use of the experience in a regular subject with students. The study concludes with a discussion of the business opportunities facing virtual reality in face-to-face education as well as augmented and virtual reality in online education. The benefits of virtual reality are still under investigation. They should undoubtedly focus on improving students’ learning outcomes. Not many years have passed since the first experiments, introducing the first virtual experiences in regular teaching. There are important contributions in the understanding of abstract concepts, as well as in training in real environments and situations (36).

The National Research Council (2012) of the United States recommended the use of “deeper learning” classroom strategies, which include case-based learning, multiple representations of knowledge, collaborative learning, apprenticeships, life-wide learning, learning for transfer, interdisciplinary studies, personalized learning, connected learning, and diagnostic assessments. Immersive media (virtual reality, multi-user virtual environments, mixed and augmented realities) have affordances that enhance deeper learning. Research on EcoXPT, an inquiry-based middle school curriculum on ecosystem science that invites students into immersive experimentation with scaffolding tools, employs a case-based approach situated in an unfolding eutrophication scenario in which students learn new information from their observations over space and time, speaking with virtual characters in the world, and gathering information in the field guide and other sources. Diagnostic assessments of students’ progress are based on multiple sources, including process data from various types of log files. Multiple varied forms of representation convey perceptual, graphical, and experimental data, enabling students to investigate relationships between variables. Students are apprenticed in the ways of knowing of ecosystems scientists, which involves interdisciplinary knowledge. Students collaborate in teams of two, subdividing the tasks of gathering evidence. In 2016, a pilot study of EcoXPT was conducted with four teachers who taught a total of 14 classes of 7th grade students (N = 280) using an early version of the 2.5 week curriculum. Data collected included a pre-post content survey measuring content knowledge in ecosystems science, consistent with the US Next Generation Science Standards for this grade level, as well as the students’ final presentations, which included concept maps hypothesizing causal relationships. This pre-post content survey found statistically significant gains in ecosystem science content knowledge. This provides evidence that the deeper learning processes used (described in the section above) were successful in enhancing students’ knowledge of ecosystems science concepts, as well as their understanding of complex causality (37,38).

Future research in K-12 education to seek to explore the effectiveness of virtual reality-based instruction on students’ learning outcomes in K-12 and higher education.

Higher Education

Online News

Expectations are high for VR, Dr. Joshua Sherman, CHLA’s Associate Director of Quality Improvement stated “As much as we try to recreate a scenario, people know it’s a mannequin; they know they’re in a classroom staring at a computer screen. They’re missing that psychological fidelity that makes it feel like the real thing. That’s where we thought VR could help.” (39) Colleges are leveraging VR in several ways including: visual and immersive learning opportunities, training future instructors to take advantage of VR teaching tools, preparing students for new VR careers, and recruiting new students (40, 41). VR is also serving as an infrastructure-catalyst as colleges redesign learning spaces and blended learning expectations (42).

Higher education institutions are increasing their partnerships with VR industries. The University of Washington opened the UW Reality Lab through a partnership with Facebook, Google, and Huawei. The lab hopes to be at the forefront of the next great wave of AR and VR innovation pursuing breakthrough research and educating the next generation of innovators in this exciting and rapidly expanding field (43). 

Instructional shifts in Higher Education can be found across the content areas. Virtual classroom simulations are being used to prepare future teachers (44). VR is being used in theoretical physics and astrophysics, combined with composite photographs and software savvy, for viewers to see what it looks like when stars collide, what the view from Mars is like and what it feels like to be down at the atomic level (45). Stanford’s Virtual Human Interactions Lab is investigating the interactions between class subject, learning environment, and classroom makeup on participants’ interest and learning in a virtual class (46).

University of Illinois College of Engineering and health care providers at OSF HealthCare and University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria have collaborated to develop a VR training tool called Enduvo. Enduvo allows for powerful learning experiences where students can explore a variety of informational media hanging in the air around them, and even enlarge a medium, like a three-dimensional beating heart, to the point where they can walk inside it (47).

Law schools are providing more experiential learning opportunities through VR experiences that will allow both students and practicing attorneys to practice their lawyering skills. “As attorneys, we all know courtrooms and boardrooms can be scary places … so that’s why my goal is to create a virtual courtroom for our students,” Jennifer Wondracek, Director of Legal Educational Technology at the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law (48).


Interviewed researchers and practitioners in the VR education space highlight the possible impact VR could have on empathy and in-depth learning (49). Virtual Reality can be used to enhance human connection by expanding our access to diverse literature, allowing us to more deeply understand each other and create opportunities for meaningful collaboration across racial, cultural, geographic and class backgrounds (50). Research on the impact of the immersive nature of VR points to users remembering content they interact with in virtual scenarios much more vividly than with any other medium (51, 52).

One study observed observed that VR based learning implementations reached a high level of liking. Similarly, it was determined that participants considered use of this technology in course activities as useful. Especially, the reality feelings and the feeling of being present in the related environment caused by virtual reality implementations were considered the factors that influenced participants and increased their motivations toward the course. Additionally, virtual reality implementations were considered as they had a big potential in creation an environment that individuals with disabilities or had some kinds of inadequacies (i.e. financial and time etc.) could use in learning processes (53).

In examining the experiences of 176 pre-service teachers, a research study summed up, reflections with several main themes:  Learning processes became more entertaining. Better understanding and use of technology and VR in teaching. Better development of creative learning and creativity in teaching.  More interest in technology. Increased problem solving skills. Increased stamina and endurance in learning. Increased ability to associate what was learned with real life. The researchers recommended seeing VR environments as a wider educational concept and not just another educational technological tool. It could be added as a new teaching module, included as an innovation unit within an existing course of training the teachers of tomorrow. In addition to developing or increasing their self-efficacy, students were able to carry over its effect to rationalize difficulties on their way to becoming future teachers. This is one of the objectives of education: the move from concrete mission to a wider educational thought (54).

A mixed reality study found that the use of mixed reality for skills development can have a positive impact for students in paramedic science. In unpacking the question, however, it can be seen that the way that this was achieved was by executing a process that involved understanding the problem related to skills development, constructing a solution to address that problem, and the use of appropriate technology to scaffold that solution Specifically, the data collected from students and staff about the problem being faced was invaluable in making sure that pedagogy was put first, in line with the ‘pedagogy before technology’ model, identifying the major pedagogical problem students faced (55).

VR research on perceived learning outcomes, researchers discovered an effective path in which immersion predicted presence and positive emotions, and a cognitive path in which immersion fostered a positive cognitive value of the task in line with the control value theory of achievement emotions (56).

Further studies centered around VR perceptions included experiments using experimental and control groups were designed and implemented. Activities and exercises related to classical mechanics concepts were applied in virtual scenarios through carefully designed VR haptic scenarios that implemented the process to foster greater student engagement. The quality of the visualization and friendlier interaction with bodies in the simulation were found to be essential factors. The haptic intervention was evaluated through a perception questionnaire about the use of the visuo-haptic simulators (57).

A study, designed to show the experiences of pre-service student teachers in a teaching unit in VR within a special course framework was intended to enhance student-teacher’s 21st century skills and growth processes learning environments, found using VR helped them increase their self-efficacy and allowed them to be more innovative and creative. The use of VR challenged learners with active teaching and learning, making student teachers active participants who create and innovate. The study brought to light a number of key insights. Student reflections showed a wide range of negative emotions and thoughts: fears, misunderstanding, and confusion. As the students progressed in their work on the VR platform, those feelings became more positive and empowering. Students gained a sense of self-efficacy and satisfaction with their acquisition of different and challenging tools and skills for teaching in the modern age (58).

One research report found results showing perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use are positively related to the behavioural intention to use VR tool. Moreover, the findings revealed that chemistry teacher candidates showed positive beliefs about the features of VR technology in terms of facilitating understanding, allowing to learn fast, enhancing motivation, and easing thinking schematically (59).

Researchers found that the use of virtual memory palaces in Head-Mounted-Displays (HMD) (VR) improves recall accuracy when compared to using a traditional desktop condition. The study had 40 participants memorize and recall faces on two display–interaction modalities for two virtual memory palaces, with two different sets of faces. The HMD condition was found to have 8.8% improvement in recall accuracy compared to the desktop condition, and this was found to be statistically significant. This suggests an exciting opportunity for the role of immersive virtual environments in assisting in recall. Given the results of the user study, the researchers believe that virtual memory palaces offer a fascinating insight into how we may be able to organize and structure large information spaces and navigate them in ways that assist in superior recall (60).


Online News

VR is having an impact in a wide variety of medical fields, including training, Neurosurgery, Spine Surgery, Sensory modulation, Burn rehab, Stroke and traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, PT and pain relief (61) One L.A. hospital is even using VR to prep staff for high-stress scenarios with cutting edge VR simulation training (62).

Osso VR has designed VR simulations to drastically improve the quality of surgeon training (63). Further training examples include, using Pearson and Microsoft’s holograms to train nurses in a mixed-reality curriculum (64). Also, midwifery students are using VR to learn the stages of pregnancy with 3D female figure via VR technology that has been developed to give students a visual insight into the internal stages of childbearing, and its effect on the human body (65). One study reports on the potential for 360-degree video in VR to benefit medical training and practice (66).

VR based treatments report success, in particular, when compared with other interventions, VR seems to be an effective intervention for improving motor function in children with Cerebral Palsy (67). Further treatments find VR being used to help those suffering with severe mental health issues: “The beauty of VR is that even when you have a severe fear of a situation, you tend to be much happier going into a VR simulation, because you know it’s not real, you can try things you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable with. You get the experience, and build up your confidence, for when you’re confronted with that situation in real life.” (68) A narrative on the user experience of VR as it is related to Neuroscience (69). Scientists use virtual reality to treat episodic-memory problems (70). Virtual Therapist-coaches are being used to help guide patients with mental health problems through the simulations and practise techniques to overcome their difficulties (71) A physician hypothesizes that, for stroke patients who can’t move their arm, simply watching a virtual avatar that moves in response to their brain commands will activate the human putative mirror neuron system and retrain damaged or neighboring motor regions of the brain to take over the role of motor performance (72).


Medical research in the applications of VR center around treatment, collaboration between practitioners, and training.

A recent report reviewed 285 studies centered on VR in the assessment, understanding, and treatment of mental health disorders. Most of the reviewed studies focused on using VR to treat anxiety disorders, particularly phobias, social anxiety, and PTSD. The findings show VR is a proven means of delivering rapid, lasting improvements (73). A review of VR in the assessment and treatment of psychosis highlighted a study with results that showed that participants who received the 10-sessions VR intervention had a better improvement in overall cognitive function than controls, who received the usual programme in the clinic. Smith and colleagues also investigated the use of VR to improve job-interview skills and self-confidence. Their finding suggests VR can improve the specific cognitions and behaviours needed for job interviews and employment, with positive results maintained at 6-month follow-up (74).

Researchers have found that VR cataloging of cancerous tissues supports the development of new tools in order to make surgery easier. VR also allows collaboration between practitioners or new ways to treat or rehabilitate patients (75).

A quasi-experimental study compared differences in phlebotomy performance on a live client, between a control group taught through the traditional method and an experimental group using virtual reality simulation. The study showed both groups had performed successfully, using the following metrics: number of reinsertions, pain factor, hematoma status, duration of tourniquet application, time to complete the procedure, and successful completion of procedure. Both methods for phlebotomy training were found to be equally effective (76).

Studies seeking to relate VR immersion to job performance used virtual reality simulation (VRS) in nursing education to explore two different levels of immersive VRS capability. Study participants included baccalaureate nursing students from three universities across four campuses. Students were trained in the skill of decontamination using traditional methods or with VRS options of mouse and keyboard or head-mounted display technology. Results of focus group interviews reflect the student experience and satisfaction with two different immersive levels of VRS. Initial studies of varying levels of VRS demonstrate equal or improved learning outcomes with higher levels of immersion. The experiences reported in this study support these findings with participants in both the moderate and highly immersive VRS identifying positive learning experiences, although a more immersive experience was reported when using the Oculus (77). These studies are finding VR positively received in other parts of medical training (78, 79). In terms of perceived effectiveness of VR in comparison to other educational strategies, participants reported VR as more effective than reading, online learning and didactic presentations ( P < 0.001). Residents reported that VR was equally effective to standardized patient encounters and less effective than bedside teaching ( P < 0.001) (80).


Online News

“Virtual reality will continue to drive greater levels of spending in the next 12-18 months, as both consumer and commercial use cases gain traction. There is currently a huge appetite from companies that see tremendous potential in the technology, from product design to retail sales to employee training,” said Tom Mainelli, program vice president for devices and AR/VR at the International Data Corp (81). The future of workforce collaboration is being changed through VR (82). VR is being seen as a way to learn new skills. Simulators used in training and screening processes are helping to fill the shortage of skilled craft professionals facing the workforce (83). VR is being used as a new training tool for hazardous work but we have more work to do in order to make it more effective (84). Dr. Lynn List, 82nd Training Wing Training Operations Manager, said, conducting portions of military training with virtual reality is going to be status quo in the next few years (85). A former Indy 500 driver developed a VR experience to train truck drivers (86). The UPS has developed an intensive five-day VR course designed to equip new drivers with every skill set needed to perform their tasks safely and competently (87). UPS also says the VR headsets will replace touchscreen devices that are currently being used. The training program will also launch for preparing employees who will drive package-delivery trucks (88). Volkswagen, Lowe’s, and Walmart, use VR to better train employees, while Hershey’s uses VR to better understand the customer experience (89, 90). VR is also being explored as a more effective sexual harassment awareness training tool (91). 

VR is being used by companies to train employees to survive workplace shootings through a tool developed from the advice of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The first choice is to run; the second, hide; and the third is to fight back with whatever you have. The developers plan to create a VR version of the training with Google Cardboard to depict offices realistically (92). Police are using VR to train for high-pressure encounters including use of force, de-escalation, firearms trainings and school shootings (93). “Virtual reality provides the ability of a safe learning environment, which promotes open conversations about opportunities for options for action, investigation and safeguarding.” Superintendent Vicki Townsend (Welsh Police) (94).

The Director of Career and Technical Education (CTE) views AR and VR as necessary tools for preparing students for jobs of the future (and Save Districts Money) (95). Steps toward improving VR, to meet these new demands in training, include a design challenge sponsored by the US Government Department of Education. The top 5 finalists successfully leveraged VR to transfer academic, technical, and employability skills (96).


While the continuing education of working engineers is important, relatively few recommendations are given in the literature for how to design effective instructional materials for those engineers. One study reported on this gap by investigating working engineers’ multimedia type preferences. Four media types in four different categories (in parentheses) were compared: text (verbal), drawing (static graphic), animation (dynamic noninteractive graphic) and simulated virtual reality (dynamic interactive graphic). The results showed working engineers strongly preferred graphics (drawing, animation and simulated virtual reality) over verbal (text) multimedia. There was relatively little difference in preferences among the graphic types. These results suggest a variety of graphic multimedia types should be used in the instructional design of continuing engineering education content and text should not be solely relied on to carry information content. Failure to give participants, in this study, the control that should be present in interactive dynamic media such as VR was considered a confounding variable that may have biased the findings. Giving learners more control can enhance learning. Non-interactive dynamic graphics can be divided into shorter segments to give learners time to absorb information before revealing succeeding segments (97).


This special report is not all inclusive of all VR in learning and training. Online News and Research in these markets are deeper and wider than the scope of this study. At the time of the writing of this special report, a simple internet search on the topics “VR Research” yields 69,000 results, leaving the researcher to navigate these results by employing criteria and filtering to uncover the most meaningful sources. Additionally, the markets reported on could be divided up further by content and context. VR has great potential to positively impact society, stories beyond the scope of these markets illustrated other powerful, and sometimes unexpected, applications of VR (like in prisons, where inmates are using VR to prepare for life on the outside) (98). The future is bright for VR the need for further academic research remains. 


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