Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogy

Associate Professor Erica Southgate has published a new book Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogythrough Routledge, which explores the instructional, ethical, practical, and technical issues related to the integration of virtual reality (VR) in school classrooms.

The book reports on world-first research to come out of Southgate’s VR School Study which embedded high end, highly immersive VR in three high schools in the Hunter region. The book presents new pedagogical  frameworks to enhance learning  in high school and tertiary education .

Associate Professor Southgate says the aim of the book is to stimulate a deeper conversation about the pedagogical value of VR by sharing insights into what happens when you take this emerging technology out of the controlled conditions of a laboratory and put it into the dynamic, natural setting of the school.

“Often technology companies test their products in labs, but rarely are those products tested in the real classrooms and then researched in terms of efficacy for learning,’ she said.

“As highly immersive VR is an emerging technology, only available since 2016, it was exciting to undertake the first research globally to look at whether it was feasible to put the technology in school classrooms and what effects it had on learning .”

The 3-year study involved embedding the Oculus Rift, which is a highly advanced ‘6 degree of freedom’ VR headset with gestural controllers for interaction into ICT, science and drama classrooms. Teachers were co-researchers  and helped develop the research questions,  methodology and collect and interpret data.

“This study was unique in its participatory nature. A lot of research is done on teachers, not with them. I think it’s important to understand what teachers bring to theorising the use of technology in schools,” Erica said.

“Teachers who are considering the use of emerging technology often ask the question, ‘What equipment and/or software should my school invest in?’ I would suggest that educators ask more pedagogically valuable questions – What are the learning affordances of VR applications and how can these be used to create educational opportunities that are not readily accessible or different from those currently available for my students?”

Erica says the book is rich in insights because it was embedded in classrooms which are structured in some ways and spontaneous in others.

“This book seeks to highlight the complications and possibilities for using VR in schools by exploring the intended and unintended effects of embedding the technology into actual classrooms and using a methodological approach to capture how students approach learning through the wonders of virtual environments,” she said.

“Students in the study worked in Minecraft VR and were tasked with building a body organ  using the game’s engineering properties. We wanted to know how long the students would remain on the learning task, or would they go off task in this marvellous fantasy world of Minecraft VR.”

“VR is a relatively unsupervised space so we were interested in capturing student’s metacognitive learning behaviours, such as planning, monitoring and evaluating their work while they worked together in the virtual world.”

Through first person point of view screen captures the collaborative behaviours were clearly illustrated.

“Minecraft VR was very good at allowing for collaboration and we also saw co-regulation of others behaviour. The students were actually working as a true team on their project. We talk about students acquiring 21st century learning skills such as teamwork and problem-solving, but often people don’t understand what that involves. Through this study we were able to empirically capture that on video.”

The challenges of embedding a new technology into an industrial era environment were also documented in the book.

“Trying to find a large enough space that is appropriate for the safe use of VR was a challenge teachers had to deal with as well as trying to timetable it into an already packed curriculum,” Erica said.

“There were reliability issues with the technology as 15% of the time it didn’t work. We also noticed gender played a part in the student’s engagement with the technology. Some girls felt embarrassed using the head set as they couldn’t see if others were looking at them. We also found that often boys tended to do the building work in VR while the girls did research work.”

Erica says the book is for ideal reading for teachers and educators in general tertiary and higher education as well as anyone interested in pedagogies’ in immersive learning.

“The book will be valuable to pre-service teachers interested in new ways of learning. It’s also useful for technologists interested in how to develop their products in ways that are suitable for real world environments.”

It’s also relevant to policy makers because of the high level of interest in the use of artificial reality and VR schooling.

“The book offers a window into the real world use of VR for policy makers and educators alike who are interested in the potential for technology for learning  and the practical and ethical issues related to it.”