‘It’s just not the same’: The realities of virtual realities in teaching and learning in Higher Education

When we first proposed to colleagues that we could use virtual reality in our higher education teaching, it is fair to say there was some healthy scepticism. Some colleagues had early experiences of VR headsets and worried about feeling sick. Others couldn’t see how it might relate to their work.

We had been awarded Alumni funding to purchase the kit we needed both to start using existing VR content, but also, more excitingly- to make our own. We had envisaged capturing in 360° a variety of education settings which could then be used in our teaching.

It was hard not to be disheartened when before we had even started colleagues suggested; ‘it’s not the same.’

In the current context of attacks on universities as teacher education providers – this was very understandable. But, we of course were not ever saying that visiting a space in VR would be the same as a classroom. It’s different and these differences are important. 

I am going to say more about these differences, but first I want to talk about innovation.

In the highly performative context of education, words like ‘innovation’ are loaded. To be new or innovative are the future and trying to ignore the digital is to be reactionary or a ‘luddite’ – something I have been called more than once. For me though, this is not a reason not to try to do new things. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have been around when people first started making movies and I love the idea that I can be a small part of understanding the potential of VR in education at the point at which this medium is being designed.

So, much as I empathise with those who may feel that using new technologies represents complex moral and ethical dilemmas – especially in our sector – I still want to play.

To digress for a moment, my late sister used to advise me that we should not allow ourselves to be defined by the very things we most despise – whether that’s illness in her case or by an education system in mine.

Being at the forefront of how this technology can be used is not about being seen to be innovative then – but a way of being political, an act of feminism and a commitment to challenging inequalities (more on this in the next blog).

The reluctance some showed in trying out the new kit worried us a little, but in one taster session as part of our EdD, Dr Liz Chesworth early childhood colleague got very excited by the potential:

The 360° VR kit offers an incredibly useful and innovative addition to my teaching, allowing students to immerse themselves completely in different environments, reflect on themselves as educators in that environment and consider critically, how the spaces they create are never neutral

Dr Liz Chesworth

Liz worked with Hadrian Cawthorne, the Senior Learning Technologist in the School of Education who led this work to create some new resources. This involved going into a school to to capture 360° images, some of empty classroom spaces, but also some moments of children playing.

You can find these here where you can see that the images are hosted on a platform which enables the teacher to add interactive content.

Now, of course, this is not the same as being in the classroom but the differences are important.

Firstly, you can enter a classroom, but the classroom is not changed by your presence – you are invisible. You are not something else for the teacher to worry about and you can ‘walk about’ freely.

Secondly, when students enter learning spaces they rightly focus on being ‘present’ in the classroom, whereas using 360° content means that the students can interact with interactive content created by the tutor and even discuss what they are seeing and hearing as they experience it without disrupting it.

There are many scenarios when this might be useful. Before you enter a classroom, VR experiences provide an orientation so that students understand what to expect and have ideas of things to look out for. This is especially useful when we consider the needs of international students who may not have experienced UK schools, but equally international education settings in VR can ensure all students access a wider range of contexts.

There are many more issues with being physically in classrooms, or libraries or museums – we all understand this better than ever post-pandemic. But, 360° content can be accessed safely and at any time to suit the student – so they can ‘travel’ in time and visit a space when it might in reality be closed IRL.

Far more powerful than this however, is where the content includes ‘scenes’ as Liz’s did of learning, in this case young children playing. The content created by Dr Chesworth gives students an opportunity to access an example of play which they can walk around, taking in what’s going on at different angles and for different children.

We used this content with students to give them an experience of data analysis on our EdD programme: 

Viewing and using the 360° classroom film was an awakening experience. Never before have I had the opportunity to engage with such an interactive tool at the click of a button! As a teacher and researcher this tool is highly liberating. You have the power to assess what is going on in front, behind, above and around. I was able to tap into deep level analysis, as I followed each child on their individual journey, observing how they interacted with people, resources and the provision. It opened up so many discussions that would have been unreachable had it not have been for the 360° camera. 

Kat Vallely, EdD Student 
Image of children in the reading corner, captured by the 360 camera.
Image of children in the reading corner, captured by the 360 camera.

This sort of experience doesn’t have to be accessed via a headset either, there are some advantages in terms of immersion to the headset, but we use web hosting so the footage can be accessed via a web link. 

So it’s quite easy to make, very easy to access and although it’s not the same as being in the classroom, the differences include invisibility and time travel.

Ok so suggesting that using VR is going to turn you into a superhero may be pushing it a bit, but it does enable you to see and hear and even touch the world in news ways which offer rich learning opportunities for our students wherever they are.

So if you’d like to talk about developing a resource for teaching let us know.