Adaptable Immersive Environments for Learning

There is a convergence of factors that have the potential to create individualized learning environments that can adapt to a wide range of knowledge domains, and service the full spectrum of learning abilities. Virtual reality, learning analytics, content repositories, and intelligent tutoring systems can change the way people learn.

First, virtual reality technology has advanced to the point that, from Google cardboard to Oculus, to HTC Vive, there are consumer-level products that allow users to enter and manipulate fully-immersive environments. Haptic feedback devices are becoming more accessible, adding touch to the senses of sight and sound. The relatively new field of learning analytics, combined with existing cognitive theory, allows for the development of detailed learning profiles for individual users. These profiles can be used to make decisions about the ideal format and complexity of educational content would be best for a particular student in a specific learning scenario.  

At the same time, repositories of learning objects are growing, along with standardized metadata that allow content to be accessed used, and reused on an as needed basis, depending on the particular needs of the student and the learning objectives. Finally, intelligent tutoring systems, which have existed in various forms for many years, are becoming more sophisticated, and have the power to apply student profiles and customize the learning experience.

The potential of immersive virtual environments in education lies in its ability to give students access to places and experiences that might otherwise be unsafe, impractical, or impossible. An English lesson could involve a field trip to a fictional world. Students could travel through time to historical events and experience them as if they were there. Science labs could include any equipment or substance imaginable. Beyond merely creating worlds to explore, virtual reality has the added benefit of being fully customizable. Differentiated instruction can now not only refer to the method and mode of content delivery, but the actual environment in which the learning takes place can be adjusted to the knowledge levels and learning needs of each individual student. Imagine a virtual science lab, in which students are learning about the properties of gases. Depending on the level of the student, the environment can offer more or less complex questions and content. The fact that the lab is virtual means that students can safely engage in authentic experiments, and make genuine observations as they manipulate variables.

For years, the video game industry has thrived on the concept of open worlds. Environments in which the user has the freedom to explore and act in nonlinear ways. While there is typically a predefined goal, the path the that goal is in the hands of the user. As educational technology advances, the possibilities for self-directed learning are a lot like an open world video game. The acquisition of knowledge is the goal, but the path to that goal may be unique to each learner.

The problem with treating a learning environment like an open-world video game is that the learner may feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the unknown. If they don’t know how to reach their goal, they may give up. They need some guidance in their quest for lifelong learning. In video games, players are frequently aided by computer-generated characters called non-player characters, or NPCs. NPCs interact with players at key points, giving them choices, and pointing them toward the next mission. In the world of learning environments, the role of the NPC can be played by an Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS). The ITS uses student profiles, live student performance data, cognitive and pedagogical theory, and the current learning objectives to offer the student the best possible choices.

The ITS does not restrict the student to a single, linear path. Instead, the system can narrow the range of options, leaving choices so that the learner can still explore, but taking some of the cognitive load of the open world off of the user. As users make choices, accept or reject ITS recommendations, and completes formal and informal assessments, the ITS can store all of this information in the student’s profile, further refining the process of optimization.

Immersive virtual reality environments have the power to create authentic learning experiences, with hands-on activities in a completely safe and supportive way. The learning objectives, set by instructors, explored by the students, and guided by dynamic intelligent tutoring systems, can be achieved in an organic way. When learners have the power to make choices and explore, and the choices and tasks available to them are customized to match their current skill level and learning style, the possibilities for improving the learning experiences of learners are endless.

The combination of immersive virtual reality and intelligent tutoring systems will create a powerful connection between the learner and the content. Learning analytics and content repositories provide nearly limitless combinations to suit the needs of any student. As the technology improves and becomes more accessible, these opportunities will be available to a wider range of students and instructors.

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