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This paper acts as a simplified analogy of my academic research regarding the pedagogical implications of virtual reality (VR). I acknowledge there are many potential roadblocks and limitations when using VR. Capital costs and vendor monopolies come to mind. Nevertheless, such issues cannot be addressed if educators do not know how to teach. Thus, I focused my research on the interplay of theory, technological affordances, and potential models to devise a possible avenue of what could be defined as best practice. Furthermore, I examine the instrumentalist and essentialist views of technology practiced in many educational organizations, arguing the need to move beyond this simple dichotomy (Southgate, 2020, pp. 38-39).

Foundational Information and Background

VR involves using a computer-based device to create an interactive, immersive experience that envelops the user’s senses to feel part of the virtual environment. Freina & Ott further distinguish virtual reality into two subsections: immersive and non-immersive (2015). Immersive virtual reality is often facilitated through a head-mounted display (HMD) as a stand-alone product or tethered to an external computer using 3D graphics and environments. Non-immersive virtual reality has the virtual world displayed through a computer screen, allowing the user to interact with the environment through peripherals like keyboards and mice (Parong & Mayer, 2018, p. 786). In order to keep a succinct understanding of VR, this paper will only be exploring the immersive subset. 

To further narrow the scope of this paper, it is essential to distinguish VR from other closely related technologies. For example, augmented reality (AR) is often associated with VR. AR combines virtual and real objects in a real environment, while VR entirely focuses on virtual simulations of objects and environments (Azuma et al., 2001, p. 34). The notion of the virtuality continuum (see Figure 1) further establishes the degree of virtual envelopment. The left side of the continuum, or real environment, solely consists of real objects and environments. As one progresses towards the right side of the continuum, more simulated objects are used until all objects are simulated within a virtual space (Azuma et al., 2001, p. 34; Milgram & Kishino, 1994, p. 3).

Figure 1

Virtuality Continuum

Note. The virtuality continuum describes the degree of virtual envelopment. Adapted from “Recent advances in augmented reality,” by Azuma, R., Baillot, Y., Behringer, R., Feiner, S., Julier, S., & MacIntyre, B., 2001, IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 21(6), 34-47. (


As part of the inquiry process, the concept of affordances needed to be addressed to help remove the ambiguity associated with the term. Affordances were established as part of the ecological field to describe the relationship between organisms and the features of their environment (Chemero, 2003, p. 189). Later, Norman brought the concept of affordances to design through, what he called, perceived affordances. Perceived affordances differ from traditional affordances as they focus on what the end-user perceives possible and not necessarily what is actually possible (Norman, 2004, p. 2). From an educational technology perspective, affordances are more closely related to the technology and refer to the actions made possible by employing the technology (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010, p. 12). For this paper, the term affordance will incorporate Dalgarno and Lee’s perspective. 

If affordances are the relationship between technology and action, features are the specific attributes that enable these affordances. The most predominant feature of VR is immersion (Fowler, 2015; Dalgarno & Lee, 2010; Mikropoulos, 2006). Immersion in virtual reality can be viewed as the ability of the simulation to stimulate the mental absorption of the experience (Ke et al., 2020, p. 9). Essential affordances like enhanced spatial representation and exploration through experiential learning (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010, pp. 18 – 20) are enabled through diegetic and situated immersion. Diegetic immersion occurs when the user is wholly engrossed in the simulation, and situated immersion occurs when the user can impact the simulation through a character (Ke et al., 2020, p. 9). A diegetic virtual experience utilizes the enhanced spatial representation to create an observable environment that is unlikely to include interactivity. Media, like the 360-degree video (YouTube, n.d.), which allows the user to view the product in all spatial dimensions but does not allow interactions within the environment, is an example of a diegetic virtual experience. Likewise, situated immersion employs spatial representation and experiential learning by creating a virtual environment and allowing user interactions. Military virtual training simulations (Ahir et al., 2020, p. 4) and VR-based games are examples of situated immersive experiences. 

Nevertheless, it becomes too easy to fall into the trappings of viewing VR as a set of affordances and features that enable immersive experiences. Such an essentialist perspective posits immersion as an independent force intrinsic to the technology without establishing an underlying pedagogy (Hamilton & Friesen, 2013, p. 3). Educators following this perspective risk using the technology as a checkbox to adhere to specific objectives with the inherent assumption that utilizing the technology automatically translates to good teaching (Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p. 1031). Likewise, an instrumentalist view of technology designates VR as a tool to meet specific pedagogical demands, implying VR is a neutral artefact separate from the social and historical dimensions that drive the pedagogy as well as the complex, dynamic nature of instruction (Hamilton & Friesen, 2013, p. 3; Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p. 1031). There are a plethora of VR lecture halls and whiteboards (Doghead Simulations, n.d.; Engage, n.d.) that align with this school of thought. In both perspectives, technology and pedagogy are viewed as isolated variables. They do not interact with each other as they are either essential to the process or a latent tool. 

Personal Experience

Notwithstanding, I find myself using an essentialist and instrumentalist lens to justify my practice because each has an established ground of acceptance and easily transferable terminology. Viewing all technologies, not just VR, as interchangeable pieces that can be added or removed from lessons without much thought or consequence creates an easy selling point for time-conscience educators. Likewise, stating that a single technology is the best means for reaching a specific objective gives some comfort in its absolutism. Nevertheless, such justifications are superficial as they ignore the problematic issues. Technology is not created or used in isolation. Social influences and human values guide its development; furthermore, the application of technology shapes social practices (Hamilton & Friesen, 2013, p. 15). The consequence of these problematic issues is that no technology or approach acts as a panacea. For example, the hypothetical scenario where an educator employs technology A to solve problem B is not realistic. Instead, it is crucial to consider the history, social context, technology, content, and pedagogy when creating content using any technology. 

As a K-12 practitioner, I have used VR as a teaching tool to examine topics that were either infeasible or impossible to do through other means. For example, students used an HMD to explore the local solar system. Likewise, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 360-degree videos helped students visualize the features and scale of different glaciers. In both cases, basic concepts and terms were introduced through traditional classroom instruction, while VR simulations were used to visualize the learning objectives in a realistic setting.  

Mayes and Fowler contribute this methodology to their courseware learning cycle of conceptualization, construction, and application or dialogue (1999). Conceptualization refers to the navigation students must make when they first contact the new material, weighing the novel content with their current framework. Construction is the process of building and combining concepts by completing meaningful tasks. Application tests and tunes the student’s conceptualizations through the application of the content. However, many of these applications in an educational setting are abstract and facilitated through discussions; thus, the moniker dialogue is used (Mayes & Fowler, 1999, p. 7). As a result, both learning experiences embodied the technology in a pedagogical framework. While students explored the solar system through their HMDs, they had to apply their knowledge and tune their concepts of scale and distance. Likewise, the 360-degree-videos of glaciers allowed students to combine all the previously learned concepts using a 3D visual representation. These examples demonstrate an intentional use of the technology to meet a learning objective. The surrounding content supplemented the future and past use of the technology by acknowledging concepts best explored through the affordances of the technology while creating a foundation of content knowledge needed to appreciate and comprehend the experience sufficiently.

Theoretical Framework

While the above example examines the intentional use of VR in practice, it does not give a conceptual lens to explore and identify the phenomena. The novel state of VR education has resulted in exploring the readily observable, for example, the affordances and features while inferring the possible impacts such observations may have on learning. I foresee two major hurdles when developing and implementing authentic VR learning experiences in the contemporary classroom that stem from a lack of theoretical backing: (1) teacher education is too compartmentalized, and (2) there is a lack of good practices easily replicated.  

Teacher education, until recently, has focused on two taxonomies, content and pedagogy. Traditionally, knowledge was the basis for teacher education (Veal & MaKinster, 1999, para. 3). Eventually, teacher education emphasized pedagogical practices, usually at the expense of content knowledge. These two domains create a bifurcation of teacher training that encouraged the focus on either content or pedagogy (Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p. 1020 – 1021). As Shulman argued, teacher training needs to focus on the intersection of these two domains, referred to as pedagogical content knowledge (1986, p. 7 – 8). Today, technologies play a vital role in the classroom, creating a third domain of teacher knowledge. However, much like the previous separation of content and pedagogy, technology is viewed as an isolated domain ignoring the complex and nuanced interactions between each domain that propagate good instruction. For example, when utilizing VR in the classroom, educators need to ask themselves if the content being taught aligns with the affordances of the technology, then create a pedagogical framework that balances the technology’s learning capabilities with the content. The application of knowledge, pedagogy, and technology is a complex task, riddled with contradictions; the only way to resolve these contradictions is to look at all the components in play and create a state of essential tension (see Figure 2) between each domain (Mishra & Koehler, 2006).

Figure 2

Essential Tension

Note. This figure shows an equilibrium between content, technology, and pedagogy.

The technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge (TPACK) framework balances the essential tension between the three domains by taking advantage of the affordances of the technology to support distinct pedagogies in appropriate content areas (Thompson & Mishra, 2007, p. 64). Central to this perspective is that learning is best situated when content is part of the context, acknowledging that knowing is an activity codetermined by the interaction between the environment and the individual (Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p. 1034). These views align with the constructivist theory, in which learning is subjective to the learner’s reality as learners create knowledge rather than acquire it (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 55). Applying the TPACK framework to teacher education changes the isolationist paradigm of acknowledging technology to the co-development of technology and content to drive pedagogy. Practically, it focuses on learning technology by design or learning by doing, by creating the opportunity for would-be educators to examine the interplay between theory and practice as they construct pedagogical artefacts based on their current technological and content knowledge (Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p. 1035). Applying such a framework to VR-based education means designers and educators would each develop a situated end-product based on their specific pedagogical needs, allowing them to test and reflect upon the interrelationship between the technology, content, and pedagogy. Furthermore, the TPACK framework can be used as an analytical tool by creating a common language to investigate novel models and epistemologies instantiated by emerging technologies.


The question, then, is how to apply the TPACK framework to create a model akin to a series of best practices. While there may be a specific activity that aligns with TPACK’s learning by doing approach, it is more of a generalized framework than a particular systematic procedure. What is required to create a model of best practices using TPACK is the balance of the technological affordances enabled through the immersive nature of VR against the intended learning objective with a compatible pedagogical methodology. 

The enhanced model of learning in 3-D virtual learning environments (see Figure 3) attempts such a balance (Fowler, 2015). In Fowler’s model, the first step emulates TPACK’s content knowledge by defining the intended learning outcomes or “what learners are expected to know, understand and be able to do by the end of the learning experience” (2015, p. 417). The second step maps VR’s technological affordances with a pedagogical framework disposing of the intended learning outcomes to create a knowledge domain akin to TPACK. Fowler refers to this homogeneity of technology, pedagogy, and content as design for learning, the “holistic activity of designing and planning activities as part of a particular learning session or course” (2015, p. 417). Furthermore, design for learning explicitly incorporates student learning needs with the pedagogical requirements and learning outcomes into the technology-enhanced experience (Fowler, 2015, p. 420). Integrating students’ needs into the learning experience expands on the TPACK framework to include the social context in which learning occurs—allowing a more specific learning experience tailored to the needs of the students based on solid pedagogical foundations through the integration of technology. 

Figure 3

The Enhanced Model of Learning in 3-D Virtual Learning Environments

Note. The model uses the intended learning outcome to parse the pedagogical framework and affordances of virtual environments into a design for learning domain. From “Virtual reality and learning: Where is the pedagogy?” by Fowler, C, 2015, British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(2), 412–422. (

Discussions and Conclusion

However, including specific learner needs and social contexts creates a highly specialized model. When viewing VR, which is already a niche educational technology, there needs to be a degree of generalization. The scenario of a specialized technology combined with a specialized model has little opportunity to establish guidelines and best practices because of its limited use case. However, even highly specialized models could be viewed as the initial step into greater experimentation and act as gateways to new models and epistemologies. As Weller noted, “when a new technology arrives, it tends to be used in old ways before its unique characteristics are recognized” (2020, p. 64).  

Bringing TPACK and Fowler’s model together is a complex task. Nevertheless, establishing a common language and theoretical lens enables future researchers and practitioners a sturdy foundation to develop, test, and compare methodologies. With this budding epistemology, the rules and principles that guide and inform future design can be identified or derived, establishing a set of design guidelines and best practices (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010, p. 26). Such guidelines already exist to support VR military applications (Fowler, 2015; Dixon et al., 2009) and could be adapted for educational use. However, the development of such models requires more actionable research into their suitability and effectiveness. 


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