Experience-based learning in virtual reality – areas of potential and challenges

Norbert Huchler, Regina Wittal, Michael Heinlein

Digital media including simulations and virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) are increasingly being used in initial and continuing vocational education and training. Although occupational learning in virtual spaces offers new possibilities, specific limits are faced compared to learning via an analogue object. In this article, a research and development project for the piloting of a virtual learning environment in the construction and maintenance of industrial cranes serves as a basis for a systematic investigation into which learning contents can be more or less effectively taught within virtual reality and into the requirements for VR tools which can be derived. The article concludes with a debate on the extent to which the findings can be generalised for (occupational) learning in digital spaces.

Using and shaping virtual learning environments

Digitalisation and technological development are also leading to greater accessibility and diversity of the learning opportunities created by digital teaching and learning media (cf. De Witt/Gloerfeld 2018; Kauffeld/Othmer 2019). These media are already increasingly being used for initial and continuing VET at schools, universities and companies. More complex learning environments such as simulations and VR/AR applications are not yet playing a major role because of higher procurement and development costs and have hitherto tended to be offered by specialist providers (e.g. centres of excellence, learning factories etc.). The expectation is, however, that learning and working involving virtual objects will be progressively integrated into everyday life (cf. for example the “Metaverse” which digital groups like Facebook are currently establishing). To this extent, it is important to address the possibilities and limits of learning in virtual or digital spaces.

Virtual learning environments are unable to map real practice on a one-to-one basis. They are inevitably always abstracted or excerpted digital portrayals of real or fictive learning situations. This brings both specific challenges and fresh opportunities. Learning in virtual environments also builds in a particular way on existing professional knowledge and know-how, because digital learning situations initially need to be adapted and then made compatible with analogue reality or with the purpose of learning (cf. Heinlein et al. 2021). This produces special requirements in respect of the structuring of digital learning spaces.

Areas of potential

VR allows users to immerse themselves in simulated worlds with the assistance of head-mounted displays. Navigation normally takes place via two controllers. VR tools offer a series of common benefits which also aid learning. VR applications can be deployed irrespective of place, time or the object being simulated. Abstract, invisible or unrealistic processes can thus be simulated and rendered experienceable too (for instance magnetic fields, work in a mine 100 years ago or a journey through the human bloodstream). Hazardous situations or venues which are difficult to access may also be mapped without any need to expose people to real danger. VR is capable of departing from the conditions governing the real world and thus of generating distinct new learning and teaching possibilities. Errors may be made constantly and without risk, and the consequences of actions are vividly illustrated.

Effective learning in digital spaces requires a specific object reference and the chance to witness and experience situations in a practical way. What is needed, in other words, is an interactive experiential space which is as open as possible, and which offers learning opportunities. The challenge is to structure VR-based learning processes in a way which permits implicit and explicit stores of knowledge to be addressed equally whilst at the same time facilitating the emergence of an object-related learning situation, i.e. one which is conducive to the acquisition of experience and competence. Immersion and presence are important. This means that the VR feels real to the users by dint of the fact that awareness of physical reality is upstaged by the stimuli being simulated. The result is that the VR is perceived and experienced as “reality”.

Virtual learning environments can and must be tailored and adjusted to the target groups(s) and to the respective learning objectives and contents. The learning pathway can be designed individually for different learning speeds and levels. Simulations can be structured modularly and repeated at will in order to tackle the learning contents in greater detail. Collaborative applications offer a vehicle via which learners can go through situations together or receive direct support from teaching staff. The integration of VR as a learning environment within a wide range of settings or its combination with other media (text, language, pictures) constitute further possibilities. This enables VR to offer many of the advantages of digital and of “blended” learning whilst also moving beyond these areas in some cases.


Nevertheless, VR applications are also associated with challenges and limits – especially with regard to vocational education and training. Fundamental boundaries to the use of VR exist alongside material problems (e.g. an adequate Internet connection, costs). First of all, the equipment (headset, controller) is a source of ergonomic, sensory and haptic restrictions. The limited possibilities of movement in the virtual space may have a detrimental effect on immersion. “Simulation illnesses” such as dizziness or feeling sick can also act as a brake on the use of VR. The main issue, however, is the lack of mature, low-threshold and transferable learning concepts and of relevant digital competencies for the deployment of VR on the part of users and teachers. The basic prerequisite for being able to realistically assess specific areas of potential and limits of VR learning environments is an understanding of the particular action and experience-related characteristics of virtual spaces and of supporting systems. The fact is that the learning chances afforded by VR do not primarily lie in the digital mapping of analogue learning opportunities.

Action and experience in virtual reality

The terms virtualisation or digital representation can be used to refer to either to the replacement or to the redesign of objects, phenomena, processes or persons. The objective is to use digital representation in order to provide availability of something which was unavailable (cf. Krüger 2019) or to make an absent factor experienceable, the point being to open up opportunities for exploration, manipulation, interaction and communication. Via the action of one or more persons, virtual reality becomes a separate reality which is perceived situatively as real and authentic. This immersion into VR can be assisted by visual, auditive and tactile elements (e.g. vibration of the controllers). This leads to the emergence of the substance of a virtual reality in the simulated properties of virtual objects (texture, geometry, physics), to the comprehensibility of simulated processes and to the plausibility of virtual “characterhood” behaviour (cf. Harth 2020; Höfler 2021).

Many of the properties and characteristics which are perceptible in reality (e.g. temperature, touch and feel or the nature of surfaces) cannot, however, be simulated in VR. For this reason, prior experiences act as a basis for mental supplement and for helping them to be envisioned situatively (cf. De Troyer et al. 2007; Diemer et al. 2015; Slater et al. 2010). Interaction with a VR represents a practice which, like dealing with real objects which can be experienced multi-dimensionally, has its foundations in a complex sensory perception, in an experimental and exploratory approach, in a great degree of proximity to the object and in an experience-related mode of thought (cf. Böhle 2017). Structuring objects and processes for VR in a practical and experience-led way means that they are able to connect up with the lifeworld of users, assist in closing the unavoidable gaps in the digital simulation and build a bridge between virtual and actual reality. When drawing up the didactic design of a VR learning environment, consideration should therefore be given as to when and why orientation to the physical regularities, objects and practices etc. of reality is being sought and as to where it is useful to depart from such laws in a targeted manner by implementing separate rules and (action) logics in order, for example, to foster innovative thinking and creativity.

Benefits, challenges and new chances being provided by VR learning environments

The aSTAR project (cf. Information Box; Heinlein et al. 2021) developed an interactive and modular VR learning environment for crane erection and maintenance. Fundamental work stages, environments and involved objects were recorded in order to ensure precisely aligned development. 

The emphasis was placed on typical erection and maintenance challenges and on how to overcome these because this approach enabled an understanding to be obtained of explicit service know-how and of implicit know-how in particular. Practical experience in the VR enables “actual physical witness” of how crane assembly proceeds and of the challenges with which the service technicians are confronted. In this way, users’ own knowledge was enhanced. They also gained a feeling for an outside task area and acquired new findings and perspectives to inform their own work. The focus is on the further development of work-related competencies via an exploratory examination of typical challenges and of imponderabilities pertaining to the concrete work situations faced by downstream areas rather than on the pure imparting of knowledge of formal content (e.g. fixed work steps).


The table builds on the experiences and empirical results of the project to present a systematic picture of the learning contents which can be effectively taught via VR and of those which tend to be more difficult to impart in this way. It also presents new opportunities provided by VR learning environments since the empirical evidence has shown that the separate logics of VR can also deliver learning outcomes with their own distinct quality. The purpose of the listing is to enable a better understanding and evaluation of the areas of potential and of the limits of learning in digital spaces.

“Competence development in a VR/AR-based work structure environment (aSTAR)”

Objective: Development of an interactive and modular VR learning environment for crane erection and maintenance in order to make work processes and conditions tangible (especially for upstream construction), to train cross-cutting competencies across different areas and tasks, and to trigger innovation.

Method: (1) Work process analysis and survey of requirements via the identification of the practical everyday challenges involved in the erection and maintenance (service) of industrial crane systems on the basis of guided and qualitative individual and group interviews with employees (approximately 20 skilled workers and managers) from the fields of service and construction and extensive documentary analysis (construction drawings, installation instructions, manufacturer information, quality assurance and other documentation).
(2) Determination on the basis of typical challenges of necessary competence bundles and of contents to be imparted.
(3) At the same time, development of a VR demonstrator for a standard crane with the involvement of employees (interviews and workshops) and following piloting and evaluation (two parallel VR environments, systematised observations, upstream and downstream interviews).
The data material was systematically and qualitatively evaluated both inductively (in an empirically based way) and deductively (theory-led).

Project term: 05/2019 to 04/2022

Funding: within the scope of the initiative “Future of work: SME sector – innovative and social”, financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the European Social Fund (ESF), managed by Projektträger Karlsruhe (PTKA)

Project partners: VETTER Krantechnik GmbH, Institute for Social Science Research in Munich, Kirchner Konstruktionen GmbH, University of Siegen

Project homepage: www.astar-projekt.de

Didactic challenges

The areas of potential offered by VR applications are associated with huge didactic challenges. The deployment of visual or auditive elements to support actions and provide coordination in the VR (arrows, flashing, instructions) can, in combination with the necessary shortening and abstract representation of reality, rapidly lead to a dequalifying and unconsidered “routine or abstracting game logic”. Adaption of the possibilities of a virtual environment tends to cause a drift away from the analogue world. This occurs because physical movements are, for example, replaced by digital navigation opportunities, and use is made of the logics and possibilities of virtuality.

VR scenarios often map a linearly linked ideal process which follows simplified rules, such as a binary task logic (e.g. right/wrong, complete/incomplete, if - then, first this, then that). The uncertainties and imponderabilities of the analogue practice, which must be dealt with situatively in the process, are difficult to simulate digitally. This becomes a problem with learning scenarios if the virtual experience produces false estimations and users underestimate the complexity of the practice or overestimate their own competence. For this reason, inferences derived from VR for the analogue world need to be scrutinised with regard to meaningfulness and transferability. Such a transfer process must take place systematically (e.g. must be supported).

A social addition is also always necessary. In a virtual space, the properties of objects and the possibilities for perception, action and interaction are severely limited. This is both because of the restricted depictability of the complexity of practice and due to the limited corporeality and materiality in the digital environment. The visual stimuli must be permanently and meaningfully self-supplemented by experience and knowledge or by a context. This needs to happen more forcefully than in the analogue world – or at least differently (cf. Heinlein et. al. 2021). The same applies to social interaction in the digital environment. Users can be represented by avatars. Gestures are possible in some cases, and individual facial expressions can now also be simulated. Nevertheless, sociality in a virtual space must be constituted differently. A greater emphasis may, for example, be placed on observation of the behaviour of a counterpart, on the way a person deals with objects (e.g. the urge to clear up) or on interaction (e.g. concluding a joint task with a “high five”). The sociality of the analogue lifeworld is transported into VR or else reconstructed there in the form of established practices, values and standards, power relationships and hierarchies, role models and gender aspects, prejudices and pathway dependencies and so forth.

Particular characteristics of analogue and digital learning spaces

Because of their own inherent logic, VR environments are not able fully to replace learning processes based on a real object or direct social interaction. The necessary abstraction involved when stepping from the analogue into the virtual world is associated with the risk of the objectification of work, work activity and knowledge. It becomes apparent that professional knowledge and know-how are very important both for performance in the VR and for transfer back into analogue practice of what has been learned.

If interaction and learning is to increasingly take place in digital environments, then more knowledge of the particular characteristics of acting in virtual spaces will be needed. Likewise indispensable are a careful didactic conception of virtual learning environments (with regard to the learning objectives and target groups), a considered systemic perspective of the interplay between analogue and digital elements across the whole learning process (including transfer) and supportive learning assistance where necessary. Many questions in respect of competence and performance in digital spaces remain unaddressed. The focus needs to be on further exploration of the opportunities and limits of VR and on the development of new and transferable learning concepts for VR.


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(All links: status 21/04/2022)

Dr. Norbert Huchler
Academic researcher at the Institute for Social Science Research in Munich

Regina Wittal
Academic research assistant at the Institute for Social Science Research in Munich

Dr. Michael Heinlein
Academic researcher at the Institute for Social Science Research in Munich


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 2/2022): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin