The 20th century was marked by the rise and widespread adoption of experiential learning or “learning through reflection and doing.” According to David Kolb, who pioneered this approach as a learning model, knowledge is gained through both personal and environmental experiences. This paradigm shift in catering to learner behavior ensured that a lot of learners with different learning styles and abilities were brought into the fold of mainstream education.
In the 21st century, technology has augmented the educational experience by bringing to the classroom and the home, teaching aids that can cater to individual needs of all kinds of learners – even the differently abled. Virtual Reality (VR) devices not only bring learning to the doorstep of the learner, it also immerses the learner in a truly experiential environment and enables the differently abled to learn without being weighed down by the limitations imposed by their disability, in a risk-free environment.
VR Can be Useful for Those with Special Needs in Many Ways
Virtual Reality opens up a whole new world for learners with special needs. By creating environments that simulate a person’s physical presence, VR can help learners with special needs expand their knowledge, skills and experiences in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with traditional learning methods.
- For the physically disabled, VR offers the potential to try out-of-reach experiences, such as snorkeling or mountaineering, and even plan accessible routes to navigate new places and structures.
- Since VR is an immersive experience, it throws the user right in the midst of the action. For those suffering from an injury or trauma, the psychological benefits of being able to repeat activities in a VR space can help improve motor skills and aid recovery.
- For people with particular types of vision impairment, such as Stargardt's disease (a reduction in the central detailed vision), VR augmented aids can help them see images more clearly.
- People with Asperger's might find VR useful in practicing social skills in a non-threatening environment.
VR also helps create empathy about people with disabilities among others, by helping them experience disabilities through simulated environments.
Advantages of Choosing VR for the Specially-Abled
VR provides the specially-abled with safe, risk-free and personalized learning environments.
- Improved access to learning – The availability of a safe space ensures that those with special needs are able to commit to the learning process, without feeling threatened or intimidated by real world dynamics. VR also provides a judgement-free space for such learners to be able to practice and revise as much as they need without exhausting the educator’s, parent’s or peer’s patience, since sometimes even the best caregiver can themselves suffer from lack of self-care.
- Personalized learning transferable to the real world – Virtual environments can be controlled to offer a custom setting that matches the learner’s needs and pace. While learning may occur in a simulated space, learners with special needs can apply spatial information and life skills learned in a virtual setting to the real world.
- Immersive learning experiences – The virtual reality headset completely covers the participant’s frame of view. As a result, VR can provide a distraction-free experience for learners with attention deficit issues.
- New Age technology with expanding supply base – The availability of VR apps is increasing dramatically, and with every new software and hardware innovation, another avenue opens up for learners.
From Tesla to Google, some of the leading technologists of our times are embracing the power of VR. This technology can help ensure that disability need not come in the way of maximizing the benefits of education.
Challenges to Adopting VR
Great power always comes at a cost. While VR has tremendous potential for improving learning, the hardware and software need to be accessible and compatible, with assistive technologies that can aid differently abled students. VR tech has also been improving dramatically, although there still are some challenges to overcome:
- Technical challenges – VR environments are not precisely synced and mapped to the real world, which means that there could be a gap between translating skills picked up in a virtual environment to the real world. For those with physical disabilities, for example, learning driving in a VR environment is different from their real world experience, leading to anxiety and lack of confidence. Additionally, VR environments are still quite artificial, in that they don’t incorporate real world sounds and smells, which could make it difficult for learners with visual impairments to make the most gains from learning.
- High Cost – The high cost of VR headsets makes them unaffordable for many learners. VR is still not seen as a mainstream need for specially-abled learners and the high acquisition cost can be a fairly big deterrent for the average family, especially if one or more members are differently abled.
For those unable to access traditional educational offerings, either due to physical limitations or learning disabilities, VR can ensure a safe, accessible and easy to use way to learn and benefit from education. VR also offers a chance at levelling the learning space and making learning accessible like never before.