Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Using Immersive Environments (Virtual Reality)

The ever- evolving nature of technology continues to influence teaching and learning. One area where advances have impacted educational settings is immersive technology. Virtual reality (VR) immersive technologies “support the creation of synthetic, highly interactive three dimensional (3D) spatial environments that represent real or non-real situations” (Mikropoulos and Natsis, 2010, p. 769). The usage of virtual reality can be traced to the 1960s when cinematographer and inventor Morton Heiling developed the Sensorama, a machine in which individuals watched a film while experiencing a variety of multi-sensory effects, such as wind and various smells related to the scenery. In the 1980’s VR moved into professional education and training. The integration of VR in higher education became apparent in the 1990’s, and continues to be explored within colleges and universities in the 21st century.

Pedagogically, virtual reality experiences can be appropriate for course material in which students benefit from 3D spatial representation where they can interact with the learning environment, construct knowledge, and engage in meaningful learning (Huang et al., 2010). Virtual reality continues to yield a variety of emerging classroom uses and best practices.


There are variety of ways to integrate virtual reality into teaching and learning across disciplines:


  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics & Healthcare: Within STEM and healthcare education, virtual learning experiences can be implemented in courses where students learn visually and spatially complex topics such as in human anatomy, biochemistry, and molecular biology (Hoffman and Vu, 1997). In support of VR learning, Jang et al. (2016) found that direct manipulation of anatomical structures in a 3D VR environment was more effective than passive viewing. Similarly, astronomy courses may also benefit from the integration of VR given the importance of spatial thinking and reasoning within the discipline. Within healthcare, clinical skills training is another area in which VR can benefit trainees by  providing them with opportunities to practice high-risk clinical procedures (Mantovani et al., 2003; Haluck and Krummel, 2000). VR has also been used to teach empathy through embodied patient experiences (Embodied Labs, 2018).
  • Humanities and Social Sciences: A variety of VR applications support foreign language learning, capitalizing on immersion as a way to promote mastery.  Learners can engage in conversation using language software, and obtain real-time feedback to improve their word choice and pronunciation (e.g. Mondly, House of Languages, ImmerseMe).  Within humanities disciplines such as history and geography, students can explore architectural structures and landmarks using VR.  (e.g. Yale course: The Hero in the Ancient Near East).
  • Additional Applications: Various skills such as public speaking, interviewing, networking and engaging in business negotiations can also be improved through virtual reality experiences. (See: VirtualSpeech, STRIVR).


Prior to developing a VR activity for the classroom, instructors can assess the availability of VR equipment and related resources at the institution. They can work with appropriate instructional support staff to become familiar with existing disciplinary applications of VR. See the information at the bottom of the page on VR resources at Yale.




  • Consider course learning objectives and whether virtual reality can help students achieve desired outcomes. If students can benefit from immersion and interaction with 3D representations related to course content, VR may be an appropriate activity.  

  • Design or identify a VR activity that aligns with course objectives. Identify VR applications that relate to course content in a meaningful way. Consider the placement of this activity within the course schedule. For example, a VR experience might either precede or follow discussion of the material during a typical class session depending on instructional goals.

  • Make plans to measure student learning, aligning assessments with learning goals and activities. Some options include a pre-assessment prior to the VR experience and a post-assessment after, traditional quizzes, tests in addition to student reflections on their VR learning experiences. Depending on the VR application chosen, a student might also obtain feedback in real-time while participating in the VR experience.

  • Allocate time and resources for students to learn how to use VR. This can include providing students with opportunities to become accustomed to using VR software.

  • Clearly articulate the goals of the virtual reality activity to the students and how it will help them achieve learning outcomes prior to the start of the activity. Emphasize that the VR technology is a tool to support their learning.  



  • Decide which type of hardware to use and/or determine the type(s) available at the institution. There are two common categories for VR/360 hardware devices: Dedicated PC Headsets and Mobile.

    • PC Headsets: These headsets are wired to PCs limiting the deployment for classroom use and also require PCs with a minimum of GPU (Graphic Processing Units) available. Hand controllers, along with positional tracking, allow for a more interactive and immersive experience. Permanent studio installations are a common approach.  

      • HTC Vive - Typically the most expensive solution, this device offers highly precise motion tracking, and works natively in the SteamVR platform.  

      • Oculus Rift - Owned by Facebook, and offers a simple desk setup. Works within the proprietary Oculus software platform.  

      • Others: There are more and more dedicated PC headsets coming on the market from Dell, HP and other manufacturers. These offer a range of features at a range of prices.

    • Mobile VR:  Offers a lower cost 3D experience compared to full PC based VR, making it more accessible to a larger audience, especially if required phones are already owned. Generally this is a less immersive experience because it does not allow for positional or hand tracking without additional hardware, nor has the graphical processing power of PC.

  • Search VR platforms such as those included below for VR software applications with content that aligns with course objectives. All platforms described below have searchable marketplaces for finding available software. They differ in the number of titles offered and hardware compatibility. Some VR applications are only available directly from the developer.

    • SteamVR - Traditionally used as a video game platform. Has become the largest repository of VR software applications, both from established and independent developers. This platform is all open to many types and brands of dedicated PC VR devices.

    • Oculus Platform - Owned by Facebook. Also offers a wide assortment of software, but is only available for use with Oculus VR hardware.

    • Windows VR - Compatible with Dell, HP and other VR devices. This platform is newer and still being developed.

  • In the event that it would be more appropriate to create original VR content for an activity, consider the following:

  • Scanning existing objects (assets)

    • A wide variety of scanners are available that can capture real world objects digitally. These can range from small, affordable attachments on a mobile device to high-end, highly precise instruments.

    • Assets can also be created from real-world objects using photogrammetry which is a technique used to create 3D objects using a series of 2D photographs (Agisoft Photoscan, RealityCapture). Lynda.com offers a course on how to capture 3D objects with a traditional still camera via photogrammetry (See: 3D Scanning with a Camera).

  • Moving from 3D Print Models to VR Experiences

    • In most cases, the digital models used for 3D printing may also be used in a wide variety of VR applications. Some are plug-and-play and other solutions require 3D and programing knowledge. In many cases, viewing an object in VR will give a better understanding of what the object may look like when finished printing. Additional annotation elements can also be added depending on whether the software is used to enhance instruction, or create further instructional elements with the proper software development.

Additional Resources

Oliver Kreylos’ Blog: http://idav.ucdavis.edu/~okreylos/


Stanford Blog - Virtual Human Interaction Lab: https://vhil.stanford.edu/



Embodied Labs. (2018). Retrieved from: http://www.embodiedlabs.com/


Haluck RS and Krummel TM. (2000). Computers and Virtual Reality for Surgical Education in the 21st Century. Arch Surg, 135(7): 786-92.


Huang H-M., Rauch U, Liaw S-S. (2010). Investigating learner’s attitudes toward virtual reality environments: Based on a constructivist approach. Computers and Education, 55: 1171-1182.


Jang S, Vitale JM, Jyung, RW, Black, JB. (2016). Direct manipulation is better than passive viewing for learning anatomy in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment. Computers & Education, 106: 150-165.


Merchant, Z. et al. (2014). Effectiveness of virtual reality-based instruction on students’ learning outcomes in K-12 and higher education: A meta-analysis. Computers and Education, 70: 29-40.


Mikropoulos TA, Natsis A. (2011). Educational virtual environments: A ten-year review of empirical research (1999-2009). Computers and Education, 56: 769-780.


Monahan T, McArdle G, Bertolotto. (2008). Virtual reality for collaborative e-learning. Computers and Education, 50: 1339-1353.