FOR RELEASE:  Feb. 6, 2019

Rebecca Valli
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'Moon walk' shows virtual reality offers no edge in learning outcomes — but students think it’s cool

Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – Picture yourself in a virtual reality simulator, atop the spinning Earth, the moon and all its phases just beyond, the stars surrounding you in glorious 3D. In this simulation, you have no body; there’s nothing between you and the universe but light saber-like controls shining in front of you – and a set of quiz questions.

The simulation, “Learning Moon Phases in Virtual Reality,” is part of a multi-phase research study to determine whether the compelling, immersive nature of virtual reality (VR) provides a better learning outcome than conventional hands-on activities. The study – which found no significant difference among hands-on, computer simulation or VR learning – is one of the first to look at the impacts of VR on learning.

“We’ve seen a lot of technology fads in education,” said senior author Natasha Holmes, the Ann S. Bowers assistant professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University. “And while technology can be very powerful in the classroom, as a discipline-based education researcher, it’s my job to do the controlled studies with real students to understand how, when and why these tools impact students.”

“It’s important to understand how the novelty of the technology affects how people use it,” said co-author Andrea Stevenson Won, assistant professor of communication and director of the Virtual Embodiment Lab at Cornell. “Can the enthusiasm people feel for VR be turned into learning gains?”

The researchers randomly assigned Cornell undergraduates to one of three methods: hands-on, computer simulation or VR. The instructions and quiz questions were as closely matched to each other as possible, with the activities modeled on common astronomy tutorials.

 “The similarity in learning outcome is particularly interesting, given that the VR participants had to learn how to use new technology at the same time they were learning the moon phases,” said lead author Jack Madden, doctoral candidate in the field of astronomy. “What would the outcome have been if they’d already been familiar with using VR to learn?”

But while learning outcomes might have been similar, participants’ attitudes toward the methods were not. After completing their activity, each participant was shown the other two methods. The VR activity was preferred by 78 percent of the participants; one person described it as “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Those who did not prefer VR cited feeling “uncomfortable with the overwhelming sensory input.” For some, feeling like being in space was so exciting that it distracted from their learning.

The paper, “Virtual Reality as a Teaching Tool for Moon Phases and Beyond,” was published in the peer-reviewed 2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings..

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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