The Promise of Immersive Learning: Augmented and Virtual Reality’s Potential in Education

Ellysse Dick August 30, 2021
August 30, 2021
AR/VR solutions can enhance classroom experiences and expand opportunities at all levels of learning. The federal government should support further innovation by investing in research, skill-building, content development, and equitable adoption of immersive technologies.
The Promise of Immersive Learning: Augmented and Virtual Reality’s  Potential in Education


The Value of AR/VR in Education

Current Applications of AR/VR Technologies in Education

Considerations and Recommendations for Policymakers




Digital technologies are continually transforming the field of education. In a 2019 Gallup survey, 65 percent of U.S. public school teachers said they used digital tools every day, while 13 percent used them a few days a week—and 85 percent saw “great value” in using them in the future.[1] As momentum for educational technologies continues to grow, educators and institutions are looking for new ways to integrate digital solutions into classroom experiences. Augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR)—immersive technologies that enable users to experience digitally rendered content in both physical and virtual spaces—offer notable potential for edtech innovation. These technologies expand the possibilities of learning environments from K-12 classrooms to medical schools by reducing barriers from physical space, enhancing collaboration and hands-on learning, and providing individualized learning approaches that can help students at all levels thrive.

AR/VR as an educational tool is hardly a novel concept. But immersive learning has only recently transitioned from small-scale experimentation to a multimillion-dollar market with rapidly growing use.[2] Classrooms across the country use AR/VR for virtual field trips, science experiments, immersive simulations, and more. Many basic experiences are compatible with mobile devices, and advanced headsets simultaneously improve in quality and decrease in cost. The technologies necessary to develop and access immersive content are also becoming easier to use and more affordable.[3] This report explores the current state and potential contributions of AR/VR in education and highlights a sampling of the solutions across subjects and learning levels that are building the foundation for the immersive classrooms of the future.

Policymakers can play a valuable role in accelerating adoption and encouraging innovation to realize the full potential of AR/VR technologies in education. Congress should direct the Department of Education to help to bridge existing knowledge and content gaps by:

  • investing in research into best practices to mitigate health and safety concerns for young children, and providing guidance on age-appropriate use;
  • providing resources and opportunities for educators to develop the skills and knowledge needed to successfully deploy these technologies, and developing resources and guidance to integrate AR/VR technologies into digital literacy initiatives to reduce the “learning curve” for students at all levels;
  • accelerating the development of quality, relevant, and age-appropriate immersive educational content by investing in government educational content for AR/VR and expanding AR/VR innovation in colleges and universities; and
  • supporting initiatives to expand access to AR/VR devices and applications.

The Value of AR/VR in Education

Researchers have been exploring the potential of immersive technologies as an educational tool since at least the 1990s.[4] AR/VR technologies are a promising addition to the growing field of education technology because of their immersive experiences, their ability to share information in new and engaging ways, and their potential to offer virtual experiences that expand access to educational opportunities that would otherwise be limited by cost or physical distance. However, AR/VR devices and applications have only recently become affordable and user-friendly enough for these solutions to actually be implemented in classrooms.

AR/VR technologies offer a wide range of capabilities to present information in more interactive ways than their two-dimensional counterparts. At the highest level, advanced VR systems can fully immerse users in a virtual environment, where they can interact with virtual objects as well as other individuals in real time. This kind of experience lends itself to hands-on learning that either simulates real-world experiences or presents complex information in ways that would not otherwise be possible. For example, students can view microscopic objects in 3D, or stand in the middle of a physics simulation. VR also offers the ability for users to enter pre-recorded 360-degree visual experiences—either still images or video—they can view but not manipulate or interact with. This less-immersive (but often lower-cost) approach can be beneficial when the visual presentation or sense of presence is the most important element of a given experience, such as visiting a historical site.

With AR, or mixed reality (MR), users can interact with virtual objects that appear within their physical surroundings. This is most beneficial for scenarios wherein users need to interact with virtual objects while also maintaining situational awareness of their physical environment. For example, students could follow digital overlays of instructions for complex activities such as learning how to repair a complex machine or conducting a medical procedure. Much like VR, AR also offers less-interactive experiences, allowing users to view static virtual objects or information within physical space. This is most beneficial when the object itself holds the most educational value—such as placing a virtual model of a sculpture or historic artifact in a classroom, or overlaying additional text or images on a historical site.

There is growing enthusiasm among students and educators—as well as parents, administrators, and institutions—around using immersive technologies as educational tools.

  • In a 2016 survey of 1,000 U.S. teachers conducted by Samsung Electronics and GfK, 93 percent said their students would be excited to use VR, and 83 percent believed these technologies could help improve learning outcomes.[5]
  • In a 2017 joint report from digital and VR content companies and the DigiLitEY academic network, 70 percent of U.S. children ages 8 to 15 and 64 percent of parents expressed interest in VR experiences.[6]
  • In a 2018 study from Common Sense Media, 62 percent of parents overall—and 84 percent of parents who had used it themselves—believed VR could provide their children with educational experiences.[7]
  • Another 2018 survey finds that just under 50 percent of higher education institutions have either partially or fully engaged in VR deployment.[8]
  • In a 2020 survey from Perkins Coie and the XR Association, respondents named education as the second most likely sector to be disrupted by immersive technologies in the near future.[9]

AR/VR-based education tools offer enormous potential to transform the way students of varying ages and disciplines learn. Indeed, although research into the value and efficacy of AR/VR in education is ongoing, several studies indicate that AR/VR tools can enhance learning outcomes in both K-12 and higher education settings.[10] Immersive solutions can present opportunities for educational experiences that would otherwise require significant travel or resources, such as visiting a faraway location or performing experiments in a laboratory. These experiences can also transcend physical space limitations to create educational opportunities that would not otherwise be physically possible, such as visiting another planet or period in history or manipulating enlarged models of microscopic objects. Further, AR/VR experiences can engage students in hands-on, gamified approaches to learning in a variety of subjects—which have been shown to support cognitive development and increase classroom engagement.[11]

In addition to offering new types of experiences for all learners, AR/VR tools can improve overall learning outcomes for students.[12] Immersive experiences have been shown to reduce cognitive load and distance, encourage higher engagement, and improve memory recall for complex or abstract topics, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects that often rely on two-dimensional representations of otherwise intangible concepts.[13] And individual-level immersive learning allows for more personalized approaches that can accommodate different learning styles, speeds, and abilities.[14] For certain types of learning, they can also provide feedback to students and educators and adjust individual learning objectives to meet students where they are—helping students realize their full potential and leaving fewer of them behind.[15]

AR/VR in K-12 Education

Due to the unique capabilities of these technologies, immersive solutions are gaining popularity among K-12 educators and administrators. AR/VR solutions can either enhance, partially replace, or fully substitute for traditional classroom learning. Perhaps the most common use in K-12 settings currently is enhancing classroom experiences. For example, teachers can walk students through immersive virtual field trips or allow students to interact with 3D models using AR. However, schools are also turning to AR/VR solutions for blended and distance learning. The pivot to online and hybrid learning during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the value of teaching tools not being tethered to a physical location.[16]

Immersive technologies allow students to passively participate in remote learning experiences and engage with instructors and peers in real time using shared virtual elements.[17] For example, mobile AR allows students to view a painting on their wall or an object in their living room, while AR/VR-based virtual labs would allow them to conduct hands-on experiments regardless of whether they are present in a fully equipped classroom or laboratory. Fully immersive VR experience also have the advantage of reducing distractions during remote learning, thereby encouraging students to be fully present during lessons.

AR/VR technologies also offer promising tools to engage students—both in the classroom and remotely—with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or other cognitive or learning disabilities.[18] For example, VR experiences can help treat phobias in young people with ASD.[19] Meanwhile, AR can assist students with learning disabilities by altering or enhancing physical learning tools such as textbooks or flash cards.

AR/VR in Higher Education

AR/VR technologies are equally valuable in more advanced learning environments. College and university educators across disciplines are implementing immersive technologies in their courses.[20] In a 2018 survey of higher education institutions from Internet2, over two-thirds of institutions had either partially or fully deployed AR/VR solutions, and one-third were testing them.[21] Some academic institutions have even introduced dedicated spaces that allow students and faculty to access AR/VR devices and develop their own content. These dedicated labs, as well as hardware students either own or borrow, create new opportunities for students and educators to experiment with immersive learning (see box 1).

Box 1: AR/VR Access and Content Development at Higher Education Institutions

AR/VR labs, lending programs, and similar efforts can accelerate adoption of AR/VR edtech solutions at colleges and universities. These programs often provide students with their first hands-on experience with immersive technologies, and serve as a resource for faculty looking to integrate AR/VR solutions into their lessons. Interest in these offerings is growing: In the same Internet2 survey, although less than one-third of institutions (27 percent) were using AR/VR as part of their production IT environment, about half (53 percent) planned to deploy these technologies within the next three years.[22]

The following are three examples of existing programs introducing students and faculty to immersive learning.

The Harvard Innovation Labs AR/VR Studio is open to all full-time, degree-seeking Harvard students.[23] The studio includes a selection of AR/VR devices as well as content production equipment and software, and offers open sessions as well as guided workshops that encourage students to explore the potential of this technology.

Colorado State University launched an Immersive Reality Training Lab in 2019 to accommodate up to 100 students for simultaneous immersive learning experiences.[24] Part of the university’s Health Education Outreach Center, the lab was designed to enhance biomedical education with immersive simulations—without burdening students or faculty with the necessary equipment costs.

The University of Michigan XR Initiative, part of the university’s Center for Academic Innovation, provides funding and guidance for faculty projects that implement AR/VR technologies across disciplines.[25] The university also has several onsite labs with AR/VR devices and offers an equipment checkout service.[26]

One well-established use of AR/VR in higher education is immersive simulations. Virtual simulations offer relatively low-cost alternatives to more traditional in-person scenarios while maintaining a level of immersion that makes participants feel like they are “really there.”[27] This is particularly useful for high-cost or high-risk scenarios, such as in health care education.[28] Indeed, the cost of requisite software for a virtual simulation can be as low as one-tenth the cost of physical alternatives in medical education.[29] Beyond medical education, virtual simulations can also facilitate soft-skills training, such as negotiation and communication skills.[30]

Immersive learning can also supplement career and technical education. Much like scenario-based simulations, AR/VR solutions allow individuals to build skills through hands-on experience while also minimizing both the cost and risk associated with field training.[31] For example, students can practice operating or repairing 3D models of complex machinery to build familiarity and safety awareness before handling the real thing. Immersive tools for technical education can also better prepare students to utilize these and other emerging technologies in their chosen fields.[32] This baseline knowledge will be increasingly valuable as industries such as construction and advanced manufacturing continue to adopt AR/VR and other advanced technologies.

Finally, AR/VR solutions can enhance research collaboration as well as hybrid learning models.[33] Immersive environments allow students and instructors to interact face to face and in real time, regardless of where they might be physically located. Immersive collaboration could mitigate many of the factors that contribute to “Zoom fatigue”—a growing concern, as long-distance collaboration and communications increasingly rely on videoconferencing—such as cognitive load, restricted mobility, and prolonged eye contact.[34] In fully digital environments, all participants can also interact with virtual objects, including complex 3D models that would be costly to reproduce in the real world. MR solutions can also enhance hybrid collaboration and learning models that combine both in-person and virtual interactions; for example, by allowing an instructor to communicate with remote students by video chat while simultaneously conducting an in-person demonstration.

AR/VR for Educators and Administrators

Immersive technologies can enhance not just learning environments but also broader education systems. Just as immersive solutions can improve learning outcomes for students, they can also serve as valuable tools to better equip teachers for success.[35] Virtual training allows educators to hone their skills with simulated, virtual students first before doing so in a real-world classroom where their actions could significantly impact students’ lives.[36] As the technology continues to grow and develop, administrators and officials may also find value in leveraging immersive solutions for collaboration, communication, and community engagement.

Current Applications of AR/VR Technologies in Education

AR/VR technologies offer significant potential to enhance learning at all levels and across disciplines. As immersive technologies evolve, new use cases in educational contexts are continually emerging. This section highlights some of the recent innovations that are building the foundation for the future of immersive educational technologies.

K-12 Education: Enriching Classroom Experiences and Expanding Opportunities

Immersive technologies have the potential to create more engaging, effective, and equitable learning environments for children. Current solutions in this space include libraries of immersive content suitable for educational use, specialized content for targeted subjects and learning levels, and tools developed specifically to support students with learning disabilities.

Immersive Learning Curricula and Resource Collections

Many existing AR/VR products for K-12 learning offer preset curricula and collections of immersive experiences teachers can adapt to specific learning objectives. Existing offerings include publicly available resources from government agencies, education-focused collections from libraries of immersive content, and specialized services from companies focusing specifically on implementing AR/VR in immersive experiences.

Public Resources

The Smithsonian Institution offers a repository of open-access 3D models that allow users to view items from Smithsonian museums’ collections in their physical surroundings using AR on a mobile device.[37] Unlike print or digital two-dimensional representations, these models give the viewer a sense of scale and allow them to interact with them in three-dimensional space. Educators can use these resources to enhance classroom learning in subjects such as natural and U.S. history. The initial collection comprises 10 items, including full-size skeletons, cultural objects, and statues, all available with any camera-enabled mobile device on the web-based Voyager platform.[38]

Figure 1: The Smithsonian Institution's AR tools allow users to view life-size replicas of popular exhibits—such as this mammoth skeleton from the Museum of Natural History—in their own physical surroundings. Image source: Smithsonian Institution via Instagram.[39]

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also offers publicly available immersive educational resources instructors can integrate into lesson plans or broader learning experiences in museums or planetariums. These immersive experiences can place students in scenarios that would otherwise be impossible—such as experiencing life onboard the International Space Station or exploring another planet.[40] In 2018, NASA released a VR experience that allows users to view a rocket launch from the launchpad.[41] The agency also offers a collection of web-accessible 360° videos users can view on either a headset, computer, or mobile device.[42]

Content Collections

The New York Times guide to “VR in the Classroom” includes lesson plans that integrate the publication’s collection of 360° videos.[43] The guide includes lesson plans for STEM and humanities subjects and step-by-step instructions for teachers who may not have extensive experience integrating immersive content in their classrooms. Although the lesson plans offer a beneficial resource, teachers can also use the 360° videos as standalone tools. The videos can be viewed on a computer or mobile device or using a head-mounted display.

Figure 2: The “NASA SLS Oculus Rift Experience” lets users explore a virtual model of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and watch a simulated launch from the launchpad—an experience that would not be possible in the real world. Image source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).[44]