Virtual reality (VR) is synonymous with gaming. But today, the applications of VR extend far beyond Fornite and Mario Bros. VR has become an intriguing tool for teachers, including those working towards an Online Masters in Special Education. While VR may enhance learning for students with disabilities, research shows it can also jeopardize their health and well-being. Let’s explore what scientists say about the benefits and risks of VR in special education.
What is VR?
VR is an artificial three-dimensional environment. It can simulate real-world places, such as a theme park or beach, and fictitious scenarios. With a VR device, people interact with the environment. A VR headset, for example, lets you look around by turning your head in any direction. Some devices also feature sound and a handheld controller. Controllers like joysticks and trackballs allow people to manipulate objects and move within the environment.
How is VR used in special education?
Experts estimate that by 2021, over 15% of U.S. schools will provide VR equipment in classrooms. The adoption of VR in education is growing, but teachers are still experimenting with applications. For now, VR primarily helps educators deliver the academic curriculum and teach life skills.
In special education, teachers use VR to facilitate:
- Field Trips – VR makes it possible for students to experience new places. From the beach and museums to historical sites, students can take field trips without leaving the classroom. Virtual field trips are especially valuable for those with mobility issues.
- Experiential Learning – VR allows students to experience the topics they’re learning. For a student studying the solar system, VR would let them stand on Mars and examine its landscape firsthand.
- Everyday Learning – VR can also simulate everyday situations, such as a busy intersection or store. In these scenarios, students can build essential life skills, like learning how to cross the street or communicate with a cashier.
What are the potential risks of VR?
The effects of VR exposure on children’s health and well-being are unknown. As the use of VR expands – at home and school – so does the research on its impact. To date, scientists have identified various potential risks.
1. Psychological and Emotional Effects
VR can be a trigger for children with existing psychological disorders or emotional disturbance. In one study, approximately 7% of children with short-term exposure to VR were “psychologically disconcerted by the experience.” The children used VR devices to simulate riding a rollercoaster and swimming with a whale. Those triggered by VR said the experience was “too intense” or caused fear.
2. Brain Development
Scientists are concerned about the long-term effects of VR exposure on children’s development. Between the ages 6 and 12, the part of the brain that shapes personality, executive functioning, and social behavior is quickly growing. Exposure to VR during this time may affect development.
3. Sensory Issues
Studies have produced mixed findings on the effect of VR on children’s balance and vision. While some showed no impacts, other studies revealed an improvement in eyesight among children with vision impairment. In another investigation, approximately 16% of students experienced nausea, dizziness, headaches, or other physical discomforts while using VR.
What are the potential benefits of VR?
On the flip side, scientists say VR may be a "promising tool" for learning. A pair of researchers analyzed 10 years of evidence on VR in education. They concluded that by incorporating certain technological capabilities, including multisensory interaction, VR can contribute to positive learning outcomes. Further research indicates that the potential benefits of VR stretch to special education.
VR can make learning more exciting. It allows students to interact with new environments through sight, hearing, and virtual touch. Research shows that this interaction can be especially useful in teaching science. VR may help students grasp abstract concepts, like the solar system.
2. Social Development
Some VR environments feature simulated people. By interacting with them, students with disabilities can practice social situations in a safe atmosphere. In particular, children with autism or behavioral disorders can use VR to build social skills and confidence. Research also shows that VR can reduce racial bias and help children develop empathy.
According to scientists, children with autism can transfer skills learned in virtual contexts to the real world. As a result, special education teachers can use VR to safely teach skills that are “dangerous to practice in the real world.” In one study, children who learned fire and tornado safety skills in a virtual environment were just as successful as applying the skills as those trained through traditional tools, like role-play and videos.
Educational VR equipment allows teachers to see what students see, furthering their ability to differentiate learning. With the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program, teachers can guide students on a virtual journey using a smartphone app. The app captures data about students’ “attitudes, behavior changes, and ‘aha” moments,’” which teachers can use to address each child’s needs and improve learning.
What’s the future of VR in special education?
VR has an uncertain role in special education. There’s a growing body of knowledge around the risks and benefits, and educators must carefully consider the findings.
Interested in becoming a special education teacher? The University of Redlands offers an Online Masters in Special Education that empowers educators to advocate for diverse learners. An integrative blend of a teaching credential and a master's degree, it invites candidates to explore and master best practices in special education. To learn more about the Online Masters in Special Education program, complete the form and a University of Redlands online Enrollment Counselor will contact you shortly.