Can a VR headset help us learn better? Virtual and mixed reality will soon be a normal part of teaching

I put on my headset and dive into a cell from a tree. A virtual forest can illustrate both small and large things in a new way.

The space resembles an industrial hall. My teacher is a robot who hovers in mid-air and bounces around the space. I try to scamper after it, but even with just two buttons on my controller, I keep pressing the wrong one. The headset feels uncomfortable on the bridge of my nose, and I don't realise that I should turn around when the teacher moves behind me.

Pilvi Ahtinen, my digital tutor, instructs me patiently. Practice makes perfect: I'm soon diving into wood cells and comparing forest survey data collected through various methods.

Ahtinen wrote her master's thesis in education on the new opportunities virtual reality can offer teaching. She is a member of the Mixed Reality Hub, a research team established at the University of Helsinki's Department of Forest Sciences, which is spreading the gospel of virtual reality to the rest of the University.

MIXED REALITY HUB STUDIES AND INSTRUCTS

At the University of Helsinki, forest scientists have made the most progress into using mixed reality in teaching, since their first experiments were already conducted a few years ago. There have been similar forays at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, and the first Faculty of Medicine course to use virtual reality is scheduled to launch next spring.

"There is a game-like element of play to virtual reality, which makes the experience more interactive. The issues being learned leave a stronger memory trace when the learning features more stimuli," explains Jani Holopainen, postdoctoral researcher and head of the Mixed Reality Hub team.

There are different types of learners. Some are motivated by technology, others are not. Holopainen led a course for doctoral students of biosciences, where participants had to draft a business plan from their research and present the plan in virtual reality. He got more positive student feedback than from any other course before — except from one student, who hated it.

THE TROPICS AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

The digital tutors are intended as a solution to the fear of new technology, as they help users create virtual material and use the equipment. No previous knowledge is required from teachers and students.

"We want this to be as accessible as possible, so everyone can see how easy and useful the methods are," explains Jani Holopainen.

The team is also studying the ways in which students learn and experience the methods. This autumn, the intention is to compare the learning experiences in Professor Markus Holopainen’s geoinformatics course, which some students are completing using traditional methods and others with mixed reality.

Markus Holopainen is the director of the Bachelor's Programme in Forest Sciences. He can see the real benefits of mixed reality in his own field, for example in forest surveys. New students can study laser scanning methods in virtual reality before heading to the woods on their fieldwork course.

In addition, virtual reality offers entirely new ways of illustrating very small things, such as cells, or distant places, such as the tropics. Forest scientists can also take advantage of their virtual expertise in their working life.

"In forest planning, it is now possible to more effectively visualise the impacts of various measures on forest owners," states Markus Holopainen.

TEACHING POLITICIANS

A group of climate and forest scientists are also using virtual reality to visualise impacts, as they intend to show politicians how Finland's logging targets will influence forests and their ability to absorb carbon.

"We started to feel that our words as experts were just not getting through, and thought it was time for a new approach," explains Tuomo Kalliokoski, postdoctoral researcher.

Funded by the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation, the group has drafted a three-minute virtual reality presentation which shows the consequences of Finland's energy and climate strategy in concrete terms.

HELMING A HARVESTER

Virtual technology has become a connecting thread between educational institutions of different levels. The work of the Mixed Reality Hub involves universities of applied sciences and vocational institutions in the field of forestry, in addition to academic universities.

"We are delighted to serve as guinea pigs," says teacher Janne Ruokonen from the Tampere Vocational College Tredu.

According to Ruokonen, virtual reality has helped his students feel more at home in the harvester simulator, as the experience is very lifelike. Practising dangerous and challenging situations beforehand improves occupational safety.

Studies have also shown that virtual reality is a useful tool for learning a variety of skills. Jani Holopainen muses that doctors could use it to train for disaster situations, or medical students to help them prepare for their first autopsy.

As a teacher, Janne Ruokonen can see where the student is looking and whether they can predict what's about to happen — for example, have they reserved sufficient space for the tree trunk to fall after cutting. Seeing which things are difficult for students to learn makes the teachers' work easier.

DRIVERLESS RESPONSIBILITY

Teachers of mathematics, social sciences and philosophy are the next groups to start thinking about how mixed reality could be applied in their work. What can virtual reality offer to these fields? In mathematics, for example, displaying spaces visually could help students comprehend spatial geometry.

"In philosophy, virtual reality could be used to consider various moral questions, for example the responsibility issues surrounding self-driving cars," Jani Holopainen explains.

"I believe that there are potential applications in every field of science. In virtual reality, the only limits are the limits of our imagination."

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/08/18 issue of Yliopisto magazine.

Jani Holo­painen: Tech­no­logy helps turn learn­ing into a per­son­al­ised ex­per­i­ence that leaves a strong memory trace.

More about the subject: Teaching & studying at the University