Trends and Futures

Day 5: VR and Education

By Glen O’Grady, Frederick Chew and Craig Gall, Australian National University

Welcome to Day Five of the course.

This Will Revolutionize Education – (while we don’t agree with everything on this video it does warn us against the hype about technology and education)

Perhaps many of you have been waiting patiently for us to get to the point about how does VR relates to higher education? After introducing VR (and the associated technologies) and then describing what constitutes a VR experience, we have pointed to how VR has the capability to facilitate an embodied and empathic experience which appears to have enormous potential for teaching and learning.

Fowler (2015) in his review of published work on the design of specific educational virtual environments found very few of these studies had a clear underpinning pedagogical model. There was an assumption that because of the rich technical affordances of VR, around immersion leading to a high degree of presence that promotes embodiment and empathy, that somehow this alone is sufficient to constitute an educative experience. The implicit argument is that you can get deeper learning in VR by simply ramping up the fidelity and interaction in VR. This however, lacks a strong empirical foundation. Richard Mayer’s (2014) systematic examination of the effectiveness of computer games for learning illustrates strongly how whiz bang, eye popping, adrenaline filled “game-based” experiences do not naturally result in the achievement of planned learning outcomes.

Fowler’s critique affirms what we already know about the use of technology in teaching and learning. When designing for purposeful learning, the learning needs to be framed in terms of pedagogy and its associated affordances.

Already in the discussion forum this week there has been reference to constructivism as a pedagogical theory that might both explain and inform how we might design purposeful learning experiences using VR. The fundamental tenants of constructivism, as a set of philosophical propositions that relate to teaching and learning, can be described as:

  • Image source:

    What we know is what we construct in our mind. Therefore, one cannot simply insert into people’s minds, instead as educators we must provide learners with the opportunity to interact with sensory data, and foster their own construction or sense of the world. (Piaget)

  • Knowledge is a construct, it represents an individual’s own (best) understanding of the ontological world (reality). While knowledge exists in our minds we subject it to a continual process of negotiation as we interact with others and our environment. As a society, we have socially constructed, accepted and shared meaning making processes that influence us as to how we understand the world. Hence, as educators, we ask our students to make explicit their thinking and consider this in relation to what others think. (Vygotsky)

These propositions seem to resonate with the use of VR in education. VR allows a student to be immersed in a world especially created so an individual can have a “more” direct and shared experience of something in order to facilitate their personal process of meaning making.  Consider the following examples of the use of VR in teaching higher education and how they draw upon the following constructivist principles:

  • Creating first-order experiences where the user was free to navigate and primacy was given to first-person points of view, placing the user at the “centre” of the experience.
  • Use of simplified models for concepts and avoiding the use of convoluted symbolisms.
  • A capacity to allow a user to manipulate the virtual world, for example to change the size of an environment /objects so the user can explore the entities on various scales (e.g. from atom to solar system).
  • Transduction –  which in a VR context refers to extending user capability with representations of information which could not normally be perceived by the sensory system of human beings (i.e. using different colours for showing a body’s emission of different degrees of warmth, showing physical forces that are invisible in the real world)
  • Reification, when abstract concepts are translated into perceptible representations within the virtual world. Reification simulation of the kidney’s filtration process. See
  • Design the virtual world so it “feels” like a space that could exist even without the user’s presence. (based on Mikropoulos & Natsis 2011 and Stevens 2015).

Plant Genomics, by our own Tim Browne, visualizing complex time-series environmental data.

Virtual reality in the biology classroom

Teach Midwifery at University of Newcastle 

Law – Moot Courts

Human Anatomy

While these are all interesting examples, one of the things that stands out is that the VR experience may perhaps by itself not be sufficient and need to be weaved into a suite of pedagogical strategies to be effective for learning. Some of these examples also illustrate where we are currently at with VR and education – an initial or exploratory phase. Building in, and upon, constructivist principles will require more time and considerable resources! Despite the broad appeal and reference to constructivism, there are those who point to the shortfalls (see Slezak 2014). At the very least, it is worth considering how the advances in technologies and corresponding understanding of the effects these technologies have upon our cognitive and social emotional capacities might cause us to rethink how we understand learning and teaching. For the last several decades we have relied on cognitive learning theory to inform how we design learning, and prior to that was behaviourism. The central idea of cognitive theory, from which constructivism has arisen, has been that it is the mind that makes sense of the world. However, if there is one thing VR is reminding us of that sense making is an embodied empathic, visceral, engaged, “flow” experience – at the very least should we consider a broader conception of the mind body relationship (Damasio 2006). Perhaps what we need is a new pedagogical framework based around learning as an “experience” that is more holistic – embracing the internal and external aspects of experience (Parrish 2010).  What do you think?

What pedagogies might work in VR? Post your thoughts in the forum

  • Collaborative learning
  • Case studies
  • Peer learning
  • Enquiry based learning
  • Problem based learning
  • Project based learning

Are new pedagogies (and theories of learning and teaching) needed today?


Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes’ error. Random House.Fowler, C. (2015). Virtual reality and learning: Where is the pedagogy? British journal of educational technology46(2), 412-422.

Mayer Richard. E. (2014) Computer Games For Learning: An Evidence Based Approach MIT Press. Cambridge.

Mikropoulos, T. A., & Natsis, A. (2011). Educational virtual environments: A ten-year review of empirical research (1999–2009). Computers & Education56(3), 769-780.

Parrish, P., Wilson, B. G., & Dunlap, J. C. (2011). Learning experience as transaction: A framework for instructional design. Educational Technology, 51 (2), 15-22.

Slezak, P. (2014). Appraising Constructivism in Science Education. In International Handbook of Research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching (pp. 1023-1055). Springer Netherlands.

Stevens, Jonathan A., and J. Peter Kincaid. (2015). “The relationship between presence and performance in virtual simulation training.” Open Journal of Modelling and Simulation 3, no. 02 :41.


10 thoughts on “Day 5: VR and Education

  1. * What pedagogies might work in VR?
    Collaborative learning: One point I disagree with in the video “This Will Revolutionize Education” is the assertion that teaching is fundamentally about the relationship between teacher and student. I think it is more about student and student, with the teacher there to foster that relationship. This is particularly the case for university programs training professionals to work in teams. So if VR is to be of use it will need to work for collaborative learning.

    * Are new pedagogies (and theories of learning and teaching) needed today?

    New theories of learning are needed, but only by educational researchers, so they have something to write a paper about. 😉

    In my view learning is about DOING things, in the world, in cooperation with other people. Most of the educational theories I have had to learn about are little more than folk-law: a theory is proposed, a small group of students is studied and the theory is considered valid. Before investing billions of dollars in VR for education, perhaps a few million should be spent seeing if it actually works.

    ps: Another point I disagree with in the video “This Will Revolutionize Education” is the suggestion that education has not changed. But we are now in the post-lecture Internet education era. Most students are now routinely studying on-line, supplemented by classroom group work and occasionally attending lectures. At least that is what happens in my bit of academia.

    1. I agree Tom that there is a lot in the video that could be disputed but his main thesis is sound – that we have tended to overstate revolution in education.

  2. What pedagogies might work in VR? Post your thoughts in the forum?
    I think basically all pedagogies should all work in VR. But the point is how effective to enhance learning and teaching in terms of measurable outcomes, say, scores in the assessment. We still need real scenarios in addition to VR scenarios, probably because the variables in VR are well controlled. I just can’t imagine a surgeon would be qualified for conducting VR only procedures.

    Are new pedagogies (and theories of learning and teaching) needed today?
    We seem to know little about what students expect from VR teaching. New theories that works for students must be developed to improve VR teaching. Personally I would like to see more real teacher-student and student-student interactions. Some might be expected, and others might be unexpected. I am fascinated by those unexpected, which is what VR hasn’t demonstrated so far.

    1. I agree with Wei. It’s interesting to think about what forms of assessment would be incorporated into achieving learning outcomes through VR. And, since the field is so new, at least with respect to teaching, new understanding, if not new theories, will for sure need to be developed to determine the effectiveness of VR in pedagogy.

    2. I second that agreement with Wei. I think it’s possible for all pedagogies to work in VR, because at the end of the day VR is still a tool. When carefully constructed and controlled, it may be an excellent tool that enhances the learning experience.

      I think new pedagogies (and theories of teaching and learning) are always needed. As we understand more and more about how we learn, we are going to become better equipped to teach in an effective way. I don’t think there will ever be a completely right way to teach or learn that will work for everyone, so we need to be flexible and open-minded to new ideas, and actively seek them out.

  3. I really like Wei’s idea about the value of the unexpected in the educational experience. A big draw-back of VR for education is its limitation as a platform for experimentation. Routine experiments are designed to illustrate probable outcomes for given inputs, but some of the best learning (and lots of break-throughs) can happen when unintended outcomes develop instead. As it is impossible to map unknown outcomes for a given experiment, and as VR will only ever represent the outcomes devised by the individual(s) who programmed the VR, this gets lost. This doesn’t mean it is of no use, of course, just that we have to be very clear what is that we want VR to achieve for us.

    Thanks for another great coffee-course, btw!

  4. I was in Sydney for a long weekend, so went along to the SMPTE Exhibition of video equipment. There were numerous VR units on display, as well as drones. One company was handing out cardboard VR headsets. These are a sheet of perforated cardboard with a couple of cheap lenses .You fold it up to make a stereoscope and insert a smart phone in a slot as the display screen. The best known is “Google Cardboard”.
    Unfortunately my phone has only a 4 inch screen and is a bit small for the unit which seems design for a 5.5 inch screen (I guess I could cut it down). Even so it worked okay on digital reproductions of Victorian era stereoscopic slides, proving that VR is not that new. 😉

    ps: The company handing out the VR headsets specializes in caching digital video around the world. This will be an issue with VR as the amount of data needed for photo-realistic images is greater than for conventional video and the latency needs to be low. That is something to keep in mind if the students are not on campus.

  5. Came across an old sterograph captioned: “The stereograph as an educator – Underwood patent extension cabinet in a home library … Photograph shows a woman viewing stereographs in her home; she is sitting in front of a fireplace with a cabinet for stereographs on her right.”

    So I printed a copy of this steriograph and taped it over a hold cut in my Google Cardboard. This turns the VR device into an old fashioned stereograph, showing VR from the Victorian era. 😉

  6. I agree with the above comments that VR is a tool and could be used with different pedagogies, but perhaps it’s best suited for individual learning as peer interaction is still an issue.

  7. As I’ve been pointing out in my posts, VR is “only” a tool and technology and we should start with the question: what do we want our students to learn, before designing the VR experience or even considering the use of VR. Any pedagogy will work but some will involve more creativity, learning design and effort than others. Like in the set of pedagogies given above, collaborative learning would require more effort to set-up and design using VR.

    As we accumulate research data about the use of VR in education, we will develop new methods of teaching in the future. At the moment, I think it is more important to explore its possibilities in teaching and learning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *