Virtual Reality (VR), a simulated environment in which a person can immerse themselves and interact with their surroundings, may sound a bit like stepping into The Matrix, but it’s actually far less futuristic. The first head-mounted display system was developed in the late 1960s and since then VR devices have become essential for military combat training, flight simulation and medical education purposes.
Nowadays, thanks to ever-improving technology that’s increasingly more affordable (largely due to popular demand in gaming), you can go for a VR joyride around the world from inside a shopping mall kiosk. You might even try it as a therapeutic intervention for anxiety. If you own a smartphone (which, according to the latest Pew Research stats, 81% of Americans do), you can pick up a Google Cardboard head-mounted viewer for $10 and explore a seemingly endless supply of free and low-cost VR applications. It’s easier, quicker and more effective to use for training purposes than it was even just five years ago, and now the use of VR for education is becoming a reality.
At Thomas Jefferson University (TJU), the home of Sidney Kimmel Medical College, VR is proving to be a benefit in medical training. Studies on the efficacy and validity of extended reality (XR) as a teaching method are underway. The Digital Innovation and Consumer Experience (DICE) Group, a department at TJU and Jefferson Health, built a team dedicated solely to the study, design and promotion of XR, known as the XR Lab. Members of it and DICE’s training team are currently developing a VR training for the Nursing department, as well. That project highlights how convenient VR can be.
Here’s some background: patient falls in the hospital are harmful, costly and all too common, so preventing falls is chiefly important. This includes reducing the risk of falling by removing risk factors, such as clearing clutter from a patient’s room and ensuring the call bell is always within the patient’s reach. An annual eLearning on the subject is required for all Jefferson nurses, and new-to-practice nurses (those who are just starting their first nursing jobs) go one step extra: they need hands-on practice. We can’t ask patients to fall repeatedly so we can train our new nurses, but we can use VR to recreate that experience.
The vision of this project is to present each learner with 360 degrees of distractions – machines beeping, alarms going off, another nurse bursting in asking for help – and then the patient drops his call bell. With that cognitive overload, a rookie nurse might forget to pick it up. This VR training simulation will test just that and help the learner gain understanding through experience — no staged scenario or actors necessary.
This on-demand aspect of VR is a huge benefit. Employers and other educators can serve up rare, stressful situations like natural disasters and manmade emergencies over and over again, usually for a one-time cost. Teaching via VR technology conceivably can become far more affordable for institutions and learners alike: there’s no classroom space to build, rent, maintain or travel to. Learners don’t even need their own equipment if they can “rent” it temporarily like checking out a library book. And when hands-on training is needed, VR simulations are safer than real life. In the case of surgical training, VR isn’t low risk, it’s no risk.
But VR as a teaching tool doesn’t come without challenges — the biggest being understanding its effectiveness and efficacy. The DICE Group has started to look into this. We conducted a literature review of current studies that examined if learning medical concepts in a VR environment truly improves the retention, comprehension and motivation of medical school students. 
Our findings? Though more studies need to be conducted, retention is on-par with traditional teaching methods. “Comprehension” is a fluid concept in terms of definition between studies and a variable that’s difficult to measure objectively. However, learner’s motivation – which is key to effective learning – may increase simply because the VR experience is enjoyable.
Virtual reality is meant to enhance the learning experience, not replace traditional teaching methods altogether – but imagine if it did. The time, effort and cost of traveling to a classroom would be removed from the educational path. This could allow more working parents, caregivers and people with disabilities to join the journey. Rather than sharing strings of text in a group chat, collaborating with classmates could feel like you’re in the same room. The possibilities in education are fascinating and the outcomes could be far-reaching. It’s time to explore.