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Designing VR for Cognitive Load

Why cognitive load is important for VR design.

Cognitive Load theory looks at the burden on working memory that is felt by a learner during learning tasks.  It was first outlined by John Sweller and there is a more detailed explanation here.

It is especially important in immersive contexts because in a VR experience your brain is potentially trying to process the visual environment, hear an audio track, understand the hardware controls, understand the aim of the learning experience, process the knowledge being provided and respond all at the same time.  This means that it’s easy to miss key details (often the actual learning) in favour of all the noise around them.

How cognitive load can help or hinder learning – the research

This study by Dr Mu Mu, Senior Lecturer at the University of Northampton and Yoana Slavova an MSc postgraduate student from April 2018 compared learning in a conventional powerpoint to learning in VR.  I asked them some questions about their work.

What were you trying to achieve through your research?
Over the years we have worked with numerous primary and secondary schools on VR trials that aimed at improving student engagement. The novelty factor of VR can undoubtedly contribute to better student attention in classrooms. As educators in University, we wanted to know whether the VR-assisted learning can reach beyond the initial “WOW effect” and improve knowledge acquisition in comparison with the conventional learning using lecture notes.

Your paper showed that ‘students are less likely to recall or recognise specific details due to the additional cognitive load in VR’ – why do you think this is, can you elaborate a little bit on this?
We think the cognitive load can be attributed to the use of new technology and also how media content is developed. Several students who claimed in our research interview that they “learned a lot” from VR content struggled to recall details such as the year and location of key historical events in comparison with students who studied using just lecture notes. This indicates that students might have been overwhelmed by the VR environment and the dynamics of the content. Cognitive load is not necessarily a negative factor in education. The more attention we pay to something, the more likely it is to be remembered. The challenge is to allow learners to focus on the details that are essential to learning.

Did you put in place any measures to lower cognitive load beforehand? 
Participants were given general guidance on the controls and how to navigate through the content. We expected university students to pick up the technologies quickly.

Do you have any advice for VR designers as a result of your research?
There are useful design principles we can borrow from computer games design to build better VR content for education. We really need to think about different aspects including storyline, cameras, level setup, visual overlay, user controls, and multiplayer while trying to avoid overwhelming audiences within their learning tasks. VR in education also deserves a new set of design rules. For instance, our research shows that text content still has its unique role in learning so we can work on how to augment rich VR content with simple and legible texts as a pathway to improve learning outcomes.

What sort of content is VR best used to teach in your opinion?
Teaching of subjects like medical sciences, geography and arts can certainly benefit from the use of VR. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see creative uses of VR in any subject area once VR development tools and resources become more accessible to educators.

Are you doing any further work in this field?
Yes. We have a few VR-related projects in our team. We have been working with a secondary school on coaching sixth form students (between 16 and 18 years of age) to develop VR courseware for their younger counterparts. Understanding users’ attention is also a key area in VR research. One of our postgraduate students is experimenting with VR eye-tracking solutions in an attempt to develop content that can react to viewers attention and emotion. In education, this could mean tailored experience for each student’s needs and capabilities.

In summary then, what does this mean for VR design?

Bearing in mind the comments by Dr Mu Mu and Yoana above it seems that the position is not clear cut.  Where the experience is well-designed to avoid overwhelming the learner then effective learning can occur.  Supporting the learner and giving them time to become accustomed to the technology can also help.  Also careful thought needs to be given to the role of text in learning.  As VR is an inherently visual medium it won’t be suitable in all cases for learning and designers need to focus on areas where it will make a real learning difference.