After completing research on virtual reality and simulation use in education, I stop to ponder the question “Do virtual worlds offer more advantages over more traditional learning environments?” The answer is, sort of.
In many classroom situations, the use of virtual reality and simulations can easily be the best way to help your students to grasp the difficult concepts that they will encounter. For example, many science experiments are either too costly or impossible to perform at a high school. Instead of being forced to learn the same way previous generations have about, let’s say, the atom, the student of today can be immersed into a 3D world to see all the related components.
Cost can be a major factor that can keep students from being able to experience and learn in the real world. To have to purchase needed equipment and such would cost more money than most student have and hence, block many students from learning. Using a simulation can help to overcome all of these barriers. When I teach my stage craft students how to use a lighting board, I would need weeks if I had to rely on the single unit we have in our auditorium. By using lighting virtual simulators, students can experience things that previously students would only have read about (and maybe looked at a picture, too).
Safety is also a big concern, so using virtual reality tools and simulations is a natural direction to go when developing many trainings where safety is an issue. The Air Force is not going to train pilots to fly using multi-million dollar planes, not to mention putting the pilot and others at risk. Teaching pilots how to fly a plane using a simulator is the best option available for a situation like this.
Additionally, while virtual worlds and simulations can give a learner a tremendous opportunity to train/learn in a way that is very close to the real thing, there is still no substitute for being able to perform the same way under real world circumstances.
Overkill can also be a concern. Real problems can exist from excessive use of virtual reality worlds and simulations. There are legitimate concerns as to problems that can be caused with students with social issues. Individual desensitization can also become an issue in extreme cases.
So what is the answer? Use virtual reality and simulation tools to augment learning and let your students benefit from the advantages that these tools offer. But don’t get caught up thinking that these tools are the ultimate answer for education. A balanced approach to learning is still the prudent choice.