Augmented and Virtual Reality in Education

Lisa A. Dieker
Pegasus Professor


Amanda Lannan
University of Central Florida

What is Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality?

The minute we finish typing a sentence explaining what augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies are, changes have already occurred in the development of both. This explosion of growth has occurred in the past five years as AR and VR have started to become mainstream for the first time. Originally these technologies were only seen in military, aviation, and medical training fields. In fact, some form of AR or VR has been used in those capacities for more than half a century. One of the first VR systems, Project GROPE, started in 1967 and was designed to look at the interactions between protein molecules and drugs. Later, in 2009, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Da Vinci system®, a surgical robot, to begin performing surgical procedures. For gaming enthusiasts, though, a quality virtual reality experience wasn’t available until 2013 when the Oculus Rift was introduced. Today these technologies can be found everywhere. From virtual visits with a medical provider and touring a prospective new college, to the widespread Pokémon GO phenomenon, AR and VR applications are becoming commonplace.

What exactly are these technologies and how is VR different from AR? Before we share how they are different let us start by discussing how they are alike. Both concepts involve immersing a “real” person – hence the word reality – in an experience blended with technology.

What are the differences, though, in augmented versus virtual reality? Simply put, AR is technology designed to augment or improve real life experiences by providing enhanced access to relevant information blending the real world with technology. Eye-gaze controlled devices, internet searches based on GPS location, and barcode markers are all examples of augmented reality. Virtual reality, on the other hand, goes far beyond just merging reality and technology. VR is a highly sensory, fully interactive experience allowing the consumer to become completely immersed in a virtual world. Typically, users wear peripherals to interface with the virtual world.


Why is it important?

From employment to friendship these immersive devices and experiences are becoming what the creation of television or the Atari (the first mainstream in-home gaming system) provided – a way to connect with the world regardless of location and physical boundaries, as well as a way to build and interact with community near and far, both virtually and in real life. Furthermore, like the way the introduction of mainstream television and gaming caused an explosion of new careers, the same is true with the development of AR/VR. As such, knowing about these concepts, having access to these devices and experiences, and exploring potential careers aligned with AR/VR provides a future all students need to have the ability to participate in, shape, lead, engage, and ensure equality in access.


Who is doing it already?

The simple answer to this question is everyone, but no one is doing it well when it comes to full accessibility – just yet. When we define “well,” we don’t mean the quality of the experiences; we mean the availability of standardized access. For example, the ability to have a sign language interpreter to virtually caption descriptions in AR/VR experiences isn’t even in the discussion phase, as most creators are doing just that, creating, and trying to find ways to make these types of experiences a household concept. Building and designing AR/VR experiences that are both engaging and profitable are at the forefront of attention in these emerging fields. However, that’s not to say there is no accessibility at all in the field. AR experiences are occurring in apps on mobile devices with built-in accessibility features, making the AR experience more accessible for users with disabilities. As a result, AR technology can be used in classrooms to let students do things like tour the inner workings of the human body, travel back in time to learn about history, or travel to other countries to learn about current events, culture, and geography without leaving their desks.

Unfortunately the accessibility features in VR are proving to be more challenging. Unlike their AR counterpart, VR cannot be used on mobile devices with built in accessibility features. VR experiences require external mechanisms, like a headset, which aren’t accessible. This is because until recently VR work was more encapsulated in hospitals, military, and flight as opposed to at home or in the classroom. However, the creation of the Vive, HoloLens, Oculus Rift, and other emerging tools are providing ways to do many things without leaving your seat. A person can take a virtual roller coaster ride, have historical experiences, and even take trips around the word. A simple tool like Google cardboard glasses (under $5) are creating opportunities for mainstream use of virtual experiences. As these devices become more mainstream and the demand increases, one hopes to see increased improvements in the accessibility of the technology.


How can it be used in the classroom?

The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are continuously developing and quickly becoming some of the most sought-after careers. To ensure students are well qualified for these high tech positions, access to advanced technology throughout their education is essential. By incorporating AR and VR, teachers are able to optimize student learning through a multimodal approach, giving them real life experiences they may encounter as the surgeons, scientists, architects, and military personnel of tomorrow.

For students with disabilities, incorporating innovative technological solutions could provide access to content and experiences not otherwise accessible. AR and VR removes the barriers of time and distance, increasing real-time collaboration among field experts and providing students with real 21st century skills.

Research is just emerging to identify the best methods of incorporating these advanced technologies into the classroom and to develop the best new pedagogical approaches. Augmented and virtual reality are already being used to positively impact learning for students. Virtual field trips, language immersion, and game-based learning are just a few innovative ways teachers are transforming education using AR and VR technologies.


Challenges and opportunities for students with disabilities

The challenges for AR depend on the device since these types of experiences seem to be aligned more often with already accessible mobile devices. However, how the images translate for those who cannot see is not clear at this time. The challenges in both AR/VR are clearly evident for those with limited vision. Concern also exists for use of devices, especially in VR, for those who experience sensory challenges and seizures and those who might struggle in understanding what is real and not real.

AR/VR may also pose challenges to those who rely on captions for audio content. As a person looks around a scene, any spoken audio will need to be captioned, and depending on where the person is looking, there may be multiple audio streams that need to be captioned, and the positioning of the captions can be problematic. According to the BBC Research & Development’s white paper entitled “Exploring Subtitle Behaviour for 360° Video,” giving the viewer the freedom to look around a 360° video also results in a new challenge for subtitling. Dynamic subtitling allows subtitles to not be placed in a fixed location and supports multiple techniques using eye tracking data as was discussed in the BBC R&D’s white paper “Dynamic Subtitles: the User Experience.”

Understanding the challenges and opportunities AR and VR present for students with disabilities is complex and depends as much on the technology being used as the student’s impairment. Beyond the basic challenges of expensive equipment and providing effective educator training, developing guidelines for rapidly changing technology needs to be considered. Some physical challenges could limit the use of certain controllers, a visual impairment would require a screen reader or magnifier, and a learning disability or an intellectual disability could mean replacing dense text with pictures or diagrams. However, just as the use of AR and VR can create challenges in the classroom, the opportunities they offer are also significant, and in many cases, can level the playing field. For example, with students who have difficulty visualizing complex concepts, the use of AR and VR affords learners a way to view content in 3D form from a variety of angles. Virtual gaming can support learning by activating students’ prior knowledge when new material is introduced. Augmented and virtual reality require a higher level of interaction, thus increasing academic engagement. Benefits of technology on social and emotional learning have also been identified. The potential is limitless, but the barriers need to be addressed as they emerge in the field.


Case studies or examples of what is being done for special populations

At the University of Central Florida, we have been working in AR spaces, or, as we call it, mixed reality spaces, for over fourteen years, and our work is being used by over 50,000 teachers annually to practice working with virtual students. We have also been exploring the use of our virtual simulator, TeachLivE, for students with autism and intellectual disabilities who have found this a safe environment in which to have conversations and practice language and social skill acquisition with their peers. In the area of VR, several educators at Stanford have been using these tools to help students with attention issues and development (Adams et al. 2009).

Considerable research is being done to identify the potential impacts these emerging technologies could have on teaching and learning, especially for students with disabilities. For example, The Connect Project (Petrou et al. 2009) utilized a VR system to provide science instruction to students with and without physical disabilities. By using advanced technology, students engaged in hands-on learning and conducted experiments otherwise not available in school. The findings showed minimal differences in the test scores of students with and without physical disabilities. In another study in 2013 middle school students who are blind or visually impaired learned science by using a haptic device and a computer running specially designed haptic-based applications that allowed the students to interact with the material by touch. The results showed marked improvement on a posttest after students used the AR devices (Darrah 2013). Augmented and virtual reality are also being used to increase student social competencies. One such program is kinful, a social-emotional learning curriculum. This program creates virtual cultural exchanges designed to offer experiential opportunities and increase social-emotional learning.



Conclusions/Actions for Parents, Educators and Students

As the authors of this section, and as parents of a young adult with a disability and a person who is blind, we find the possibilities of AR and VR interesting, yet challenging for many with disabilities. We believe the action for all is to stay vigilant in ensuring students with disabilities are early adopters of tools that will directly impact their future social, emotional, and employability, while at the same time staying the course of what we do best – demanding access for this evolution of technological tools to be accessible to all. As we have seen in the past, demands for accessibility for one population has created benefits for all. The increasing popularity of augmented and virtual reality are completely reshaping the field of education.

As the use of AR and VR technology becomes more prevalent in academia, the actions that educators, parents, and students take will have a direct impact on classroom success. Before choosing to use a specific program or device in an educational setting, the Universal Design for Learning guidelines should be consulted. Preplanning by educators will establish opportunities for success from the beginning rather than attempting to retrofit based on individual student needs. Parents know their children best, and, therefore, can provide tremendous insight into the most successful methods and strategies. The role students’ play in their educational progress has the most bearing on long-term outcomes. Advocating for an accessible education increases opportunities for themselves as well as future students. If fluid solutions are in place, barriers for students with disabilities will be greatly reduced, giving them equal access to the same tech tools as their peers. Therefore, if educators, parents, and students have high expectations and work collaboratively to achieve success, students can use augmented and virtual reality technology to maximize their educational and vocational outcomes.


Published: 2018-08-31

Ideas that work.The DIAGRAM Center is a Benetech initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (Cooperative Agreement #H327B100001). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. Department of Education.


  Copyright 2019 I Benetech

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