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Can Virtual Reality Assist Special Needs Students?

Friday, June 10, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Scientists, developers and educators have debated the potential value of virtual reality as an educational tool for decades. While some see virtual reality as a gimmick and a distraction, others note the immersive nature of virtual reality as a method of giving students a deeper learning experience. Special needs educators in particular are curious whether virtual reality can be a particularly beneficial technology in the classroom.

Benefits of Virtual Reality in Education

The benefits of virtual reality apply to both general and special education students. Immersive learning games can give students more practice with classroom concepts, allowing students to engage their lessons on another level. Teachers can use virtual reality to take their students on virtual field trips around the world; for example, teachers can augment a lesson on ancient China with a virtual tour of the Terra Cotta Soldiers in Xi’an. Colleges are even using this technology to create virtual tours for prospective students. The possibilities for using virtual reality in the classroom are endless.

Possible Negative Effects

Critics of virtual reality in education argue that this type of technology can distract students from core concepts. Detractors fear that teachers will become more and more responsible for entertaining students in years to come and that students’ achievement levels will suffer. Another complaint is that basic technology in the classroom remains unavailable for many schools around the U.S., making virtual reality an unnecessary luxury. Even though the cost of a virtual reality headset is down from $10,000 for some early prototypes to $350 for the Oculus Rift now in development by Facebook, the expense per student remains prohibitive for most schools.

Virtual Reality and Special Education

Exciting research has shown great potential for the use of virtual reality in special education classrooms. Many researchers believe virtual reality could benefit students with an array of disabilities, including sensory impairment, autism, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, behavioral disorders and severe cognitive disabilities.

Virtual reality apps are already in development to provide therapies for special needs students that encourage learning on multiple levels. For example, a virtual tour of the solar system both provides a science lesson and has a calming effect on students with emotional difficulties. Virtual reality can also teach social-, purchasing-, safety- and other daily skills as well as community literacy as a part of an occupational therapy program. For students on the autism spectrum, a “virtual peer” can help with learning valuable social skills such as eye contact, verbal interaction and empathy.

Virtual reality technology has come a long way since its early development more than 25 years ago, but there is still work to do to make it accessible, affordable and practical for most classrooms — particularly special needs classrooms, where the technology has the potential to make a real difference.

Learn about University of Texas Rio Grande Valley online M.Ed. in Special Education program.


Chafkin, M. (2015, October 1). Why Facebook’s $2 Billion Bet on Oculus Rift Might One Day Connect Everyone on Earth. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from

Herold, B. (2014, August 26). Oculus Rift Fueling New Vision for Virtual Reality in K-12. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from

Jeffs, T. (2009). Virtual Reality and Special Needs. Themes in Science and Technology Education, 2(1-2), 253-268.

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