Virtual Reality in Classroom

X Reality: Transforming Higher Education Pedagogy



It’s hard to forget the first time you try virtual reality (VR), that moment when you realise you’ve been completely immersed in the experience, every which way you turn.  You are transformed to another time, place and in some cases world.  Developments in the VR space are allowing us to play with much more than an image wrapped around our heads, when you pick up a headset you can now start to explore the motion and senses that are stimulated by the device. 

Through this “hacking of the senses”, we can link together the visual three-dimensional view and three-dimensional sound to overload our senses and generate a feeling of touch in an environment where there is no touch or haptic feedback.  The result is a new space to design within, yet how do we link this to a solid pedagogical foundation?  While we might have a new shiny object to play with, making it work in a learning environment or more specifically a Learning Management System is another matter altogether.

Cross Reality (XR) is the broad term that encompasses augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR).  Whilst the concept of augmented reality has been around for centuries, the technological form is somewhat of a paradigm shift for educators.  Educators like to put things in boxes, not unlike a set of Russian dolls, where as we get deeper and deeper into the middle we then forget where we actually started or have little regard for the journey we might have taken in order to get to the middle.  XR challenges these boundaries and encourages us to step outside of that doll scenario and use technology to connect to the senses. 

Universities for years have had to adapt the way they work and teach in order to fit in with developments in technology – the primary goal being to improve education and make learning more engaging and effective.  Educators are fast realising the power a tool such as XR has in reaching this goal.  But with any new technology consideration must be given to the pedagogical foundations. 

Foundation One:  Situated Experiential Learning

Situated experiential learning is one of those theoretical frameworks that can hold promise to how XR technologies might be implemented.  Experiential learning enables learners to interact directly with the world they are studying.  Situated cognition positions the learning process in the “real world,” avoiding de-contextualised experiences.  Finally, situated experiential learning draws from both these pedagogical spaces and includes three important features:

  1. Immersion, a sense of presence;
  2. Interaction with the teacher and other students; and
  3. Complexity, which reflects the complexity of problems grounded in the “real world.”

Here are three tips for putting this pedagogy into practice:

1. Immersion – Introduce your learning experience by situating the students in a specific geographical or historical context using 360-degree video or images (like YouTube’s VR-ready videos).  Allow your students to explore using their mobile devices and supply Google Cardboard for a more immersive experience.

2. Interaction – Include activities like discussion boards for reflection and interaction.  You could even ask students to post video response reflections on their experience.

3. Complexity – Take the next step in creating a complex, situated learning experience by leveraging immersive, virtual reality documentaries like Clouds Over Sidra or Waves of Grace (

Foundation Two: Guided Exploratory Learning

Giving students carte blanche to engage in discovery learning sounds like a good idea but evidence shows this doesn’t necessarily work too well.  Mostly due to the misconceptions of how the student views a subject, they can’t quite escape their little bubble of misconception and they need a bit of guidance to that discovery learning.

Discovery learning is an inquiry-based constructivist approach.  The student draws on their own experiences and constructs plus organises knowledge in that sort of hands-on experimental approach.  With guided discovery learning, it is important to give the learners enough freedom to allow their cognitive learning juices to flow.  They are not just sitting there passively receiving information, they’re engaged in the process but at the same time you also give them enough guidance so that they’re not stuck in the less than useful areas of work. 

Put into practice, it looks like this:

1. Guidance – help the learner apply their cognitive effort in a meaningful direction.  Frame the knowledge space by:

  • Introducing the background of the topic.  Embed a short presentation or video or run an introductory Blackboard Collaborate session.
  • Asking specific questions, include ‘hint’ feedback to help steer them.  You can use a test with thought-provoking multiple-choice questions to frame the important features.
  • Embedding documents with hint-filled illustrations, diagrams or partially modelled solutions.  For more complex solutions modelling, you could record a screen-share or whiteboard session in Blackboard Collaborate.

2. Discovery – provide a balance between effective guidance and allowing learners to experience that “aha” moment of discovery by:

  • Introducing your learners to the problem, puzzle, mystery or real-world problem to address.  Text content will work, but think about additional modes like embedded images, audio or video.
  • Guiding learner discovery so that you confront common misconceptions in the knowledge space.  Scaffold your learner’s experience so they have regular opportunities for feedback.  Use formative assignments to manage collecting student contribution and giving meaningful feedback.
  • Keeping the activity procedures simple.  This allows cognitive effort to be directed to understanding and not ‘doing it right’.  Consider using short Blackboard Collaborate recordings to demonstrate the procedures in addition to written instructions.
  • Allowing learners to construct their own explanations.  Create an assignment where they posit a prediction and then conduct an experiment or activity to confirm or disprove their prediction.

Emerging technologies such as XR are increasingly being considered in complex and thoughtful ways by academics.  Whilst they may not yet be mainstream, we are moving towards a period where these technologies are potentially shaping the future of education, it will be interesting to see as these tools mature just how academics across the globe might apply them in the teaching and learning space.

To see XR technology in action, visit the Blackboard booth at ASCILITE from 2-5th December, 2019 in Singapore.