3 Instructional Design Strategies For Virtual Reality Learning

3 Instructional Design Strategies For Virtual Reality Learning
Summary: As the field of instructional technology pivots quickly to Virtual Reality, online learning developers must chose the correct strategy for creating the Virtual Reality learning experience. Otherwise learners will have a “cool” experience in the Virtual Reality environment, but not have tangible learning results.

Creating Effective Virtual Reality Learning Experiences  

According to Forbes, one of the top 5 industries to be dramatically changed by Virtual Reality in the near future is education. To stay on the leading edge of this technological and educational advancement, designers of online learning will need to learn how to properly design and develop Virtual Reality experiences for learners.  They will need to learn how to carefully craft a Virtual Reality learning environment.

It will be important to know how to apply the correct pedagogy, how to choose the right software and hardware, and how to apply the right instructional strategy to ensure learning.

As the field of instructional technology pivots quickly to Virtual Reality, online learning developers must chose the correct strategy for creating the experience. Otherwise learners will have a “cool” experience in the VR environment but not receive any tangible learning results.

The problem is that most online learning developers have never experienced Virtual Reality and will have a hard time applying traditional instructional design methods to the VR space. It is important to avoid mistakes early in the process so designers do not end up creating elaborate VR classrooms. Virtual Reality design strategies must go beyond traditional instruction to truly leverage the advantages of Virtual Reality for learning.

Here are 3 one should consider when creating a Virtual Reality learning experience. These are based on a book I co-authored with Tony O’Driscoll called Learning in 3D where we outlined over a dozen different design principles and learning archetypes for virtual worlds which are the “space” in which virtual reality takes place.

1. Conceptual Orienteering

This instructional strategy involves the creation of a VR activity or situation in which learners are presented with examples and for the purpose of creating an understanding of a key concept. An example would be creating a VR learning environment where insurance agents could walk around cars which have been virtually damaged in various types of accidents to help learners distinguish the types of damage caused by different types of accidents. The agents would learn what a side impact does to the car versus frontal impact. A VR environment would even allow agents to see the results of the impact on a person. The agents could view a virtual person and observe how the different types of impacts cause different types of injuries. So the concept of type of accident and type of injury could be linked in the learners mind. The idea is that they agents would be learning to classify information and examples through the visual experience. Therefore when they see the damage or talk to people involved in actual accidents, the agents could properly understand and classify what happened.

This concept can be taken beyond physical items. You can give a learner an experience of what it is like to have a mental condition like schizophrenia or a physical impairment like blurred vision or sudden dizziness. The idea would be to give the learner a conceptual orientation of what it would be like to have the condition so the learner can then better understand the implications of the condition. So for this design strategy, think of the concept you want to teach the learner and how the learner could go about exploring and better understanding that concept. Especially consider providing virtual examples and non-examples of the concept you are attempting to teach.

2. Critical Incident

This instructional strategy involves teaching people how to plan for, react to, or conduct activities that are unexpected, infrequent or considered to be dangerous when practiced in the real world. This could involve placing the learner into the middle of a disaster like a chemical spill or the aftermath of a hurricane, or into a more benign environment like a retail store where a person is in the process of shop lifting a smartphone.

Designing around the critical incident places the learner into an environment or situation similar to the real event, where they must use their prior knowledge to solve a problem or series of problems. If the incident is part of collaborative Virtual Reality learning experience, the learners will learn how to respond together and how to collaborate. An advantage of this type of design is that learners are immersed into a dangerous situation, but are not actually in danger which impacts the affective (emotional) as well as the cognitive domains of the learner. This design captures the learners’ attention and provides them with a relevant, realistic environment in which they must think rapidly and react correctly as they would in the actual situation.

3. Operational Application

This instructional strategy is the interaction and manipulation of objects for the purpose of gaining proficiency in functionality and performance. The key to this instructional strategy for Virtual Reality is that learners are challenged to apply physical world rules to objects in the virtual world. The learners may move from location to location to apply the skills or they can apply the skills in one virtual location. This makes Virtual Reality ideal for teaching a field technician how to install equipment in different environments for example.

Another example would be asking learners to properly load an airplane with cargo and then for it to virtually take off. The learners could them observe the results of their actions in loading the plane. For example, does it stay aloft or come crashing down because it was improperly loaded?  Was cargo damaged because of improper loading? Many of the VR hardware products now have controllers that can provide tactile feedback to the learner so the learner can obtain some sense of physicality while they are in the virtual world. Learners will be able to practice the proper steps and procedures for operating equipment and manipulating controls. The graphic capabilities of many VR platforms allow for extremely realistic representation of instruments and control panels.


Designing effective instruction for Virtual Reality technology is a whole new world for many instructional designers. To make the instruction meaningful, we’ll need to apply new instructional strategies and carefuly adapt exciting strategies to the new technology. The most important role of instructional designers in the near future will be to make sure that the “coolness” factor of Virtual Reality does not overshadow the powerful and meaningful learning that can occur when Virtual Reality is properly designed to maximize learning. These 3 instructional strategies are a good sttaring point for creating meaningful instruction with Virtual Reality.