Better Than Reality? Advantages and disadvantages of virtual learning worlds

Just let your imagination go wild… Virtual Reality (VR) allows a fascinating view into what will be possible in the future. Like in Star Trek we might be able to relax in ‘Holosuites’, meet imaginary people from the past and decide what we want to do where and when. The imagination has no limits – the implementation, however, still has.

Nevertheless, the importance of VR is growing constantly. It’s no longer just gamers who dream of virtual worlds. Companies are pondering how to facilitate potential savings in employee training. The required hardware and software components are being developed continuously, acquisition costs have therefore fallen and Virtual Reality is becoming more interesting and attractive by the day.

What is Virtual Reality?

These are the three terms/abbreviations that you should know when dealing with Virtual Reality:

  • VR = Virtual Reality: Techniques that enable real-time, realistic perception of computer-aided simulations. This definition also includes human interactions with the individual elements of the simulation.
  • AR = Augmented Reality: The perception of reality is augmented by virtual elements. Think of the game Pokémon Go, or the new app of a Swedish furniture store, with which can show virtual furniture in your home.
  • MR = Mixed Reality: This is where the real and the virtual world meet. This interaction of real and virtual objects is already used in medicine. Certain virtual elements are displayed during operations so that surgeons can see exactly where to place the scalpel.

Virtual Reality as a Learning Environment

The main question for VR in education is: Do students benefit from a virtual learning experience? The answer is a definite ‘yes’. Many studies have been able to prove this. One positive effect for example is spatial awareness. The student believes to be in an artificial environment, enhancing his feeling of being present in a situation. We’ve known for a long time that this kind of real life experience is a crucial factor for successful learning. It makes a difference whether you study alone at a desk or with a teacher / group in a suitable learning environment. Another advantage are the many different sensory channels that are addressed during learning. Researchers in the field of education know that the more sensory channels are involved, the better the brain can actually create networks and later recall content. A virtual reality is therefore also an effective means to support learning. It is also an attractive alternative if the learning process is very costly or dangerous under real world conditions. And: the virtual learning world can also be adapted to the individual abilities of the student.

Disadvantages of VR

With so many advantages, there come some disadvantages as well. All this choice can have a counterproductive effect on the student who might get lost in all the variety on offer. Science calls this cognitive overload. If the didactic concept is not well thought through, this might make it difficult for the user to navigate the virtual environment as there might be no capacity left for the actual topic. This could result in frustration, demotivation and, above all, a learning impulse that leads into nothing. In the worst-case scenario, this means that VR is useless.

But the reverse case is possible as well. A very sophisticated and demanding virtual environment can trigger great fascination. The student might be so excited about VR that he does not perceive the learning incentives as such and has to repeat the same lesson several times.

And finally, so called simulator sickness might cause problems as well: this term summarizes a variety of symptoms such as nausea, disorientation and dizziness. Simulator sickness is probably triggered by the fact that the senses, which process the information about position and movement of the body, report different “data” to the brain. The symptoms can be so severe that studying might need to be halted.

The Content Suppliers’ Job

VR supports the important process from theoretical knowledge to its actual application. For content suppliers, this causes some challenges. As I explained earlier, the sheer enthusiasm for virtual content and the wealth of possibilities can overwhelm users. The content must therefore be developed with great care so that it is perfectly adaptable to the technology as well as its user. The important didactic concept of reducing complexity is even more difficult to implement in the virtual learning world. But in the end, it’s the only way to avoid overloading the user.


Virtual reality is truly inspiring! From the content suppliers’ perspective, however, there are always some questions remaining: are there any easier ways to present the learning content? And: do I really utilize the great advantages of a virtual learning environment with the kind of content that I want to convey? Or in other words, do I really increase the user experience by pretending to be on location and do I speak to enough sensory channels? A VR project should only be considered, when these questions have been clarified, as effort and costs for a virtual learning environment are still relatively high.

VR, AR and MR will be THE future trend – also in the education of employees. The possibilities are already fascinating. The development and use of VR is sustainable and learning with the help of Virtual Reality becomes efficient when content suppliers achieve to convey content in a way that users can both understand as well as retain. This is true in the virtual as well as in the real world of course

External further reading and watching:
The Cologne Cathedral: http://dom360.wdr.de, Function of an engine: www.mozaweb.com/de