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Learning in Digital Worlds: The Future of Virtual Reality in Education

“I am most excited about the possibility for these immersive and agentic environments to give students opportunities that are impossible in real life… I think virtual reality is great for letting students explore inside the human body, float around in outer space, or time-travel in a location to see the impact of different phenomena on the environment over time.”

Eileen McGivney, PhD Candidate, Instructor, and Researcher, Human Development, Teaching and Learning at Harvard University

The power of VR lies in providing users the chance to do something hands-on that might not be possible in the real or the remote world. That means students studying climate change can virtually dive a coral reef to see the effects of ocean acidification up close, or it can give scientists the ability to analyze molecules in 3D at the nanolevel.

We spoke with Harvard University instructor, researcher, and PhD candidate for Human Development, Teaching and Learning, Eileen McGivney, to learn more about the benefits of immersive technology in the classroom.

Meet the Expert: Eileen McGivney

Eileen McGivney

Eileen McGivney, PhD Candidate, Instructor and Researcher, Human Development, Teaching and Learning at Harvard University

Eileen McGivney is a current PhD student, instructor, and researcher at Harvard University. She studies learning in immersive virtual reality environments, including how virtual field trips impact students’ learning, motivation, and identity exploration. She is also a member of the Next Level Lab where she researches immersive technologies for workforce development.

At Harvard, she has studied the implementation of EcoXPT, a virtual world-based curriculum for middle school science. Additionally, she has researched diverse learners in online course environments and women’s belonging in Makerspace learning. Prior to Harvard, she worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and the Educational Reform Initiative in Istanbul, Turkey.

Q&A with Eileen McGivney What goes into designing and implementing a virtual reality (VR) or technology-immersed educational experience?

McGivney: There are a lot of aspects of designing VR-enabled learning. For one, there is the hardware, which needs to be accessible for all students who will use it and will depend on where and how it is used in courses.

There are also the content and virtual environments, which need to be designed to support certain learning goals. For example, making a 360 video to visualize a place or phenomenon versus creating a VR lab where students will recreate experiments they might do in a physical lab. These are different kinds of VR that support different learning goals.

Finally, there is the implementation of the experiences in lessons, which should use principles of instructional design. For example, the experiential learning framework outlines how VR could be best used by providing students an opportunity to plan their learning and be introduced to a topic or questions. Then the VR serves as an experience itself. Afterward, they should reflect on what they experienced.

I think one important thing to know about creating educational VR is just how many different skills and perspectives it takes. This isn’t only a matter of getting devices into classrooms; we need partnerships between technical teams who can create the hardware and software, designers who understand the educational goals, and also the populations of students who will be using it, instructional designers, and teachers themselves who can help adapt the experiences to suit their classrooms and fit into their curricula.

As with all technologies, it’s a complex process and we shouldn’t rush into creating and implementing them without engaging all these different stakeholders and communities. How can VR-enabled learning provide benefits to students compared to a traditional educational experience? Are there any limitations or barriers to using VR of which to be aware?

McGivney: VR has affordances that enhance learning in ways that are typically challenging to bring into classrooms. In general, the chief affordance of VR is that it provides a strong sense of presence in a virtual environment that makes people feel as though they are there in reality, despite the fact that they know they are standing in their living room, or classroom, or university laboratory.

As far as education goes, as a technology, it also affords a great deal of agency when designed to do so. People can interact with the virtual environment in a way that is just not possible to do with video or text. Two-dimensional environments like video games also provide a great deal of agency, but when it’s coupled with the immersive nature of VR, [they] can allow people opportunities to really engage with the environment in a realistic way. For example, you can not only observe what a space station looks like but actually feel like you’re using the tools and completing the missions that astronauts would do. This gives us the opportunity to situate learning in more authentic environments and activities.

For me, I am most excited about the possibility of these immersive and agentic environments to give students opportunities that are impossible in real life. So rather than thinking about recreating typical learning environments like labs or classrooms, I think VR is great for letting students explore inside the human body, float around in outer space, or time-travel in a location to see the impact of different phenomena on the environment over time.

That said, VR has a lot of limitations. Based on what I have seen, it is not a good tool for teaching content knowledge. That’s actually better accomplished through text or video, without distractions from the rest of the virtual environment. It also is not comfortable enough to wear for more than about 15 minutes, so you certainly don’t want to plan a whole lesson or curriculum within the VR, but use it incorporated into other activities.

Other limitations will depend on how it’s designed and used. Some research I am doing is showing how students’ agency is restricted when experiences are guided or controlled by a teacher, which I think serves as a cautionary tale about making VR more standardized and less exploratory. What are some considerations sometimes overlooked that you think should be paid more attention to when designing VR-enabled learning environments, if any?

McGivney: I think the point I made above about teaching content or even just basic skills. Many people have a limited definition of what learning is and default to thinking about how we teach the same content we’re already teaching, but maybe make it more efficient or cheaper. I think we don’t even know yet what the potential of these rich, virtual environments can be for learning more complex skills, dispositions, or understanding.

It’s also really important to include the populations you want to reach in the design of the technology and experiences themselves. We are starting to see some of the downside to the intensity of VR experiences, and there are real risks to the highly emotional reactions it engenders when people use it. Most VR is being created by a limited population, American, white, typically male. What does this say about its potential risks for other communities?

We need to think critically about how they are designed and deployed and who owns the technology in light of cultural differences in learning—and how students bring their identities into their experiences learning. What are some VR and technology-immersion projects you are working on that push applications of the technology and the field forward?

McGivney: This year during Covid, I worked on some applications of VR in remote learning contexts, which was exciting because VR has not been deployed in authentic learning environments before. What we learned was a lot about how people experienced the benefits and drawbacks of the technology in this context. I could see this being helpful in how to implement them in online learning in the future when devices are more readily available.

This coming school year, I will be working in a couple of high school science classes, using off-the-shelf VR field trips from NASA and National Geographic in lessons about complex phenomena. We’ll be looking at how students experience these, and whether the agency afforded in some experiences increases students’ learning and motivation; whether it facilitates identity exploration about being a scientist; and how students’ experiences vary based on the real-world context and their identities.

This will be interesting because so few studies have applied VR in real classrooms over time, so we will be able to see what happens when we use VR for a more sustained period of time after the novelty wears off. Also, we’re excited to see how students’ experiences vary when we work with diverse populations. How do you believe the field of VR-enabled learning will evolve over the coming years? Do you see any variance in adoption across industries or global regions?

McGivney: My hope is that we take time to explore the true potential of VR for bringing rich experiences to education, helping give students the opportunity to explore new environments and see things in ways that enhance their motivation to learn and explore their identities and possibilities for the future.

But I fear the technology will be too quickly deployed into classrooms with a focus on just getting the hardware into classrooms and it will be misapplied. The crucial thing to me is developing the technology with diverse teams who bring expertise in the technology and learning design, and include the various communities who will use it.

I think right now a lot of the big players in VR are shying away from educational applications or are designing the tools to be restrictive, such as the Oculus requirement to use Facebook accounts. I hope we’ll see new players come up who are willing to tackle the more complex challenges of making educational applications.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.