The State of Adaptive Learning in Virtual Reality

From chalkboards and notebooks to Smartboards and Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, learning has evolved from the traditional classroom. These modern technologies resulted from years of research into different learning methods. Many researchers still champion Dewey’s experiential learning method [1], where direct interaction with content enhances student learning. This student-led method lays the foundation for other learning techniques, like adaptive learning, where personalized content adjusts to student skill levels based on their input. In the age of educational technology, or EdTech, the prospect of learning in VR extends beyond Dewey’s utopic classroom into a fully immersive and student-led learning space. Unfortunately, a rift still exists between this ideal prospect and the reality of what the virtual headsets offer. Digital media-based solutions can enable better student-led VR learning experiences. This essay will address the gap that divides adaptive learning and VR and will summarize potential digital media solutions.

The Ideal Experience

Imagine students in an EdTech classroom tasked with playing a history game called ‘Egyptopia’. Donning VR headsets, they spawn inside the Great Pyramid of Giza with the directive to escape. As students navigate the labyrinth of tunnels and teleport between chambers, they uncover clues about the pyramid and the people that made it. To escape the pyramid and explore the city of Cairo, students must use in-game lessons to overcome knowledge-based challenges. As learners’ knowledge of the pyramids deepens, they advance through Egyptopia; any negative association with learning dissipates. They come away from the game with a dynamic understanding of the pyramids and an appreciation for Egypt. The psychologist Csikszentmihalhi named this immersive state ‘flow’ [2]. Flow energizes learners, enhancing focus, maximizing productivity, and increasing information retention [3]. To enter flow, students require clear goals, unambiguous feedback, and perfect alignment between challenge and their skills [4]. By encouraging flow, experiences like Egyptopia have potential to gamify and boost learning. Unfortunately, numerous issues block real VR learning experiences from attaining this potential.

The Drawbacks

Among these issues, researchers have most often reported cybersickness, lack of feedback to users, and insufficient realism as barriers to learning [5]. These issues stem from both hardware and digital media shortcomings. Users moving quickly through VR environments report cybersickness, including nausea, dizziness, and headaches [6]. VR displays have limited space to present information, and this limits feedback on game progress, making users feel lost [5]. Similarly, VR hardware impedes visual realism, making users feel bored and frustrated [5]. These drawbacks impede the application of VR to education, so they require solutions.

Some Solutions

In absence of hardware improvements, digital media provides the principal approach to address VR drawbacks. To reduce cybersickness, researchers have considered teleportation, gaze-directed, and walk-in-place movement strategies. They determined teleportation minimized cybersickness, but unfortunately also minimized enjoyment [7]. To improve user feedback, designers have adapted traditional game elements such as pop-up menus and cut-scenes to VR, adding new features as gaze-directed navigation [8]. To enhance user perceptions of realism, designers have included 360-degree real-world footage in place of synthetic graphics [9], and they have adopted “uncanny valley” strategies, depicting alternate worlds instead of attempting realistic simulations [10].

While these digital media approaches have improved VR for EdTech [5], they also suggest many options for future consideration. For example, combining teleportation with gaze-directed movement might improve overall game experiences while still preventing cybersickness. Developing VR-specific feedback techniques, rather than borrowing classic game elements, might provide new user feedback possibilities. Mixing 360-degree real-world footage with synthetic characters might provide realistic graphics with reasonable hardware demands. While some of these options are under active research [11], they have yet to be fully realized within EdTech. Motivated digital media specialists applying user research to EdTech can go a long way toward the Egyptopia ideal, where games adapt to players, so players flow through learning.


[1] Dewey, J. (1907). The School and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[3] Mao, Y., Roberts, S., Pagliaro, S., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Bonaiuto, M. (2016). Optimal Experience and Optimal Identity: A Multinational Study of the Associations Between Flow and Social Identity. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1–67.

[4] McLean, A. (2003). The Motivated School. London: Sage Publications.

[5] Kavanagh, S., Luxton-Reilley, A., Wuensche, B., Plimmer, B. (2017). A systematic review of Virtual Reality in education. Themes in Science and Technology Education, 10(2), 85–119.

[6] Ling, Y, Brinkman, W-P., Nefs, H-T., Qu, C., Heynderickx, I. (2011). Cybersickness and anxiety in virtual environments. In Joint VR conference of euroVR and EGVE (pp. 80–82). Nottingham, UK.

[7] Boletsis, C., Cedergren, J.E. (2019). VR Locomotion in the New Era of Virtual Reality: An Empirical Comparison of Prevalent Techniques. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, 2019, 1–19.

[8] Bowman, D.A. and Wingrave C.A. (2001). Design and evaluation of menu systems for immersive virtual environments. In Proceedings IEEE Virtual Reality 2001 (pp. 149–156). Yokohama, Japan.

[9] Choi, K., Yoon, Y-J., Song, O-Y., Choi, S-M. (2018). Interactive and Immersive Learning Using 360° Virtual Reality Contents on Mobile Platforms. Mobile Information Systems, 2018, 1–12.

[10] Stein, J-P., Ohler, P. (2017). Venturing Into the Uncanny Valley of Mind The Influence of Mind Attribution on the Acceptance of Human-Like Characters in a Virtual Reality Setting. Cognition, 160, 43–50.

[11] Farmani, Y., Teather, R.J. (2020). Evaluating discrete viewpoint control to reduce cybersickness in virtual reality. Virtual Reality, 1–20.



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