How Virtual Reality can Improve Online Learning

Penn State engineers are working on technology to make online learning more interactive.

Source: Penn State

Photo credit: Tom Flach

Online learning can sometimes be impersonal and unstimulating. A group of engineering students is hoping to change that by integrating virtual reality tools into distance education.

“Online learning gives us huge opportunities in higher education. You can connect with more diverse people across greater distances, for example,” said Conrad Tucker, an assistant professor of design and industrial engineering at the Pennsylvania State University. “But online courses also limit you in some ways — there’s little immersive or tactile interaction, and sometimes it’s hard for students to engage with the material. IVR [Immersive Virtual Reality] systems are a potential solution to that problem.”

With funding from the Center for Online Innovation in Learning, Tucker and his students have been working on ways to utilize IVR systems such as the Oculus Rift into online teaching. All of the technology was developed by the students (with the exception of the IVR headset). 

Photo credit: Tom Flach

Photo credit: Tom Flach

That includes a haptic glove that allows users to interact with the virtual world. Still in its prototype phase, students can assemble a virtual coffee maker with the equipment, creating a more authentic environment than using a traditional keyboard and joystick. The team designed its simulations with the help of Unity3D software, which is used to develop video games, interactive media installations and architectural visualizations.

“You know that you’re not really in this new place, but in some ways you are,” said computer engineering student Bryan Dickens. “You can look around and see things that seem real. You’re moving yourself through a different world, and that’s what the virtual reality device is aiming for.”

In a recent study, the group discovered that students performing a task with its technology were significantly more efficient compared to those who didn’t use IVR. They asked 54 undergraduate engineering students to assemble a coffee pot; one group fulfilled the task with IVR technology and the other used a traditional computer program.

Photo credit: Tom Flach

Photo credit: Tom Flach

On average, the group using Oculus Rift completed the task in 23.21 seconds. Meanwhile, the other group assembled the pot in 49.04 seconds – more than double the first group’s time.

“Immersive virtual reality systems like the Oculus Rift have many benefits,” said Tucker. “But one of the major ones is that when compared to the non-immersive system, IVR systems give you a much more natural experience. It’s like you’re actually there.”

Tucker added that the next step is to collaborate with students internationally. “Oculus Rift and other similar technologies allow you to sync your devices with others regardless of location and work on the same project,” he said. “You can always Skype with people around the world, but you don’t get the same experience. This technology would allow you to collaborate with others all over the world.”

Tucker’s paper on IVR technology will be released at the upcoming ASME 2015 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences & Computers and Information in Engineering Conference. For more information, visit Penn State’s website