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The Phenomenology of Virtual Reality Technology in Education

Graeme Scott Harkness

ETEC 511

University of British Columbia

Francis Feng

December 2018

As the province moves towards 21st century learning the focus is on developing proficiency of

core competencies and also the incorporation of technology into the classroom (BC Ministry of

Education, 2017). The core competencies are a set of standards that province feels all students

should be working towards improving. The core competencies consist of critical and creative

thinking, positive personal and cultural identity, personal awareness and responsibility, social

responsibility, and communication (Ministry of Education, 2017). Another focus of BC

education is to incorporate technology into lessons in order to promote digital literacy skills in

students (Ministry of Education, 2017). While there are many ways to introduce technology into

lessons, it should be done based on accepted educational theory and pedagogy. Social

constructivism learning theory has been increasing in popularity as BC moves to the competency

focus. This is because constructivism learning is based on active and collaborative student

learning (Baviskar, 2009). Virtual reality is an emerging technology that both promotes the

incorporation of technology and is competency focused. Technically, VR has been an “emerging

technology” for the last 40 years but only recently has the quality and consistency of the

technology and the access to the technology made it more popular for more users. With the

quality and consistency of VR technology increasing the technology has increased in popularity.

The current, most widely used platform for VR is Sony’s PlayStation VR (530,000 in Q3), then

Oculus Rift (210,000), and HTC Vive (160,000). Virtual reality is a broad term that is better

broken down into virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. Virtual Reality (VR)

creates an “artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights

and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one's actions partially determine what

happens in the environment” (Virtual Reality, 2018). Augmented Reality (AR) creates “an
enhanced version of reality through the use of technology to overlay digital information on an

image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera)”

(Augmented Reality, 2018). Mixed Reality (MR) is the merging of real and virtual worlds

where the user interacts with and manipulates both real and virtual elements (Intel, 2018). Even

though these variations each have their unique experiences to offer they all further the

phenomenology of VR as a whole. As such, in this essay the term “VR” will be the umbrella

term that applies to VR, AR, MR.

As I mentioned previously VR has been around for decades but has never caught on or

reached its potential due to a lack of quality and consistency in the hardware and also because of

the prohibitory cost of purchasing the technology. However, there has never been a shortage of

potential applications. Now that some bigger companies are investing in VR such as Sony,

Facebook, HTC, and Microsoft the cost has started to come down and more applications are

becoming a reality. For example, surgeons are beginning to train using the HTC Vive headset,

tools that provide haptic feedback, and software that is created by Fundamental VR in order to

simulate a real surgery (Fundamental VR, 2018). This experience allows the surgeon to actually

feel resistance when they are entering tissue with a scalpel and allows them to practice the

surgical skills that are usually reserved for operating rooms with real life consequences.

Even though the potential of VR is beginning to be reached users are still restricted to

those with considerable funding and consequently not accessible through the limited budget

offered through public education. However, there is another variation of VR, 360 video, that can

offer the benefits of VR without the large cost associated with it. Throughout the rest of this

essay, 360 video will be used in the examples as it will be the technology that will most likely be

incorporated due to its more budget-friendly price. A Ricoh Theta 360 video camera can be
purchased for $229 on Amazon.ca and all of the video can be edited and uploaded using a

standard computer. The Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive which cost $449 and $499 respectively on

Amazon.ca also requires each head set to have its own computer to run them which can cost

$1000-$3000 per unit.

In this essay am going to investigate the phenomenology of virtual reality technology and

specifically why educators are beginning to incorporate the technology into their teaching

practice. A case study, involving two students, will be used to highlight the educational

affordances of VR and demonstrate why it has led to the increase interest in the technology. In

addition, I am going to argue that the educational affordances of using this technology in the

classroom can be utilized without the prohibitory cost of the standard virtual reality

equipment. Michael Siligadze (2018) states that VR technology is too expensive and the

educational value is questionable and as such should not be pursued at this point. I will argue

that using virtual reality technology in a Biology 11 classroom will offer rich and meaningful

educational experiences that cannot be paralleled in a traditional setting and can also be achieved

at an affordable cost by using 360 video.

Case study

The following case study is being presented in order illustrate the educational

affordances of using 360 video in the context of a high school Biology 11 course. The Bamfield

Marine Sciences Centre is a popular destination for biology classes as students can experience

firsthand what it is like to conduct scientific inquiry in ocean science.

Steve Johnson
Steve is a 16-year-old male Biology 11 student who is not interested in biology in the

least but the course was the “least boring” option and so decided to take it because he needs the

science 11 credit. Steve is not involved in any school activities as he has a part time job after

schools that fills up most of his time. When Steve does have down-time he spends it online

gaming with his friends.

September 2017

As the trip is in March 2018, the marine excursion was offered to the 175 Biology 11

students in September. This is so the students could plan and participate in multiple fundraising

opportunities to offset the potential $700 cost of the trip. When Mr. Harkness went over the

proposed field trip Steve mentioned he would not spend $700 for 4 days at Bamfield. He told

Mr. Harkness he was crazy to even ask as he, “had better things to spend his hard-earned money

on”. Steve has had a history of inconsistent attendance and that trend continued for most of


November 2017

After the first couple months of the course Mr. Harkness asked his students to complete a

survey to see what components of the course they are enjoying and what parts need some

improvement. Even though the survey was anonymous, Steve followed up with Mr. Harkness

personally to tell him that he is actually enjoying the course more than he thought. Steve

January 2018
Steve has been mentions that this was his favourite course and says he is interested taking

Biology 12 next year and even going to university afterwards to student biology. Steve tells Mr.

Harkness that he wished he knew how much he would enjoy the course in September and so he

could have signed up for the trip. Unfortunately, there is no room but if there is a cancelation he

would like to fill that spot.

March 2018

There were no spots available and no cancelations so Steve was unable to attend.

However, Jas from Steve’s class, took 360 video all the field work. When she returned, Jas

edited and published all of the 360 videos to YouTube so anyone could view and experience.

Steve borrowed a viewer from Mr. Harkness and went through each excursion.

Jas Sidhu

Jas is a 16-year-old female Biology 11 student who is keen and works very hard in class.

Jas is member of the senior girl’s volleyball and basketball team, and is also involved with every

major leadership initiative at the school.

September 2017

When Mr. Harkness went over the proposed field trip Jas was the first person to sign up

and convinced 2 of her closest friends to join as well.

October-December 2017

Jas organizes multiple fundraising events which ends up reducing the cost of the trip to

$500 per student. She also heard that there were quite a few students that wished they were able

to go but they were too late to sign up or they did not feel they had the time to travel to Bamfield

for 4 days. In response she approached the principal, Robert Roxall, and proposed the school

purchase a 360 video camera in order to record the various events of the trip. Mr. Roxall thought

it would be an excellent way to provide a rare marine field trip to anyone that was interested

March 2018

During each of the outings at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre Jas, or one of her close friends,

recorded everything they saw. When they returned to the school they edited each to reflect one

field experience. They then uploaded the separate experiences to YouTube where they provided

context for each of the videos and offered insight into what the viewer may experience while


Educational affordances of VR

Constructivism learning is an active, constructive, and collaborative process that allows

the learner to solve meaningful problems to make sense of the world (Fox, 2001). Through these

collaborative and active lessons students are able to focus of building skills and competencies

rather than only acquiring content. Constructivist learning criteria should include eliciting prior

knowledge, creating cognitive dissonance, apply the knowledge and also providing time to

reflect on the learning (Baviskar et al., 2009). In constructivism, the learners will build on
previously learned information. However, the teachers and students need to be sure that they

have a previous base of knowledge to build on. Therefore, the teachers need to have a way to

elicit the prior knowledge so the new information can be added (Baviskar et al, 2009). In the

case studies, Steve and Jas both will show a level of understanding or proficiency in the area the

360 video is supposed to promote. For Steve, the 360 video is offering a unique experience in

that he is not able to be physically present at Bamfield so he will experience it through watching

the 360 video. In Biology 11, Steve has learned about the scientific method and the curricular

competencies and was adequately able to show his knowledge and abilities. For Jas, 360 video

will be assessing her abilities to think critically and creatively by shooting, editing, and

publishing video. She has done this process before when she created a video during a previous

evolution assignment. Once the prior knowledge has been elicited the learner is then presented

with information that is at odds or contradicts what they have just learned. Since the new

information does not line up with the previous information, the students will experience

cognitive dissonance. This is supposed to motivate the student to build the new knowledge

(Baviskar et al., 2009). For Steve, this cognitive dissonance is promoted when he is watching the

360 video and is expected to survey the animals in the tidal area. He has been shown how to

survey an area before and has done well but when he is able to move his head around and have

agency to decide where to look with a limited amount of time it is more challenging than he

expected. However, Steve is able to pause the video feed, go back, and re-watch the video to

ensure he was accurate with the number of organisms in the area he was surveying. For Jas, the

cognitive dissonance presents itself when she goes to shoot, edit and publish the video. She has

never shot a 360 video and there is more to consider when the viewer is able to look wherever

they like. She wants to ensure the viewer gets a chance to be able to see the entire surveyed area
and so she has to set the camera low to the ground so the viewer can actually see the specimen.

She needed to take into consideration all of the different sides the viewer will see whenever she

shot video of the hands-on learning experiences. When she returned to the school she also ran

into some difficulty as editing and publishing is different with 360 video. Jas learned that she had

to inject metadata into her file before she could upload it to YouTube. Once that was done, the

viewer on YouTube will see the video as a 360 degree experience. Once the students have come

to an understanding of the new information it is important to apply the information in order to

make the new earning permanent (Baviskar et al., 2009). Application of concepts occur when the

students take the information they just learned and use it in novel ways. Steve was able show his

understanding of the concept when the class went to collect pill bugs for their animal behaviour

lab later in the year. Students selected different areas with different conditions and surveyed the

areas. The goal was to connect pill bug behavior, that the students tested in class, to the

locations of the pill bugs in nature. For Jas, she was able to apply her knowledge during future

activities that promotes critical thinking. Finally, the students must undergo some sort of self-

reflection. They should ask and answer questions that check their understanding of their

cognitive dissonance (Baviskar et al., 2009). This will be done to ensure they have achieved the

intended learning goal. At the end of the animal behaviour unit, Steve, was asked how the 360

video experience affected his understanding of surveying the pill bugs in the animal behaviour

unit. Steve mentioned that by using the video and having access to it multiple times he was able

to understanding the process of surveying more quickly and in more depth than he would have

been able to do if he tried it for the first time with the pill bugs. Jas was asked what she felt she

learned when shooting, editing, and publishing the 360 videos. She mentioned that there was a

large learning curve when shooting 360 video because there was, “no place to hide”. Everyone is
always in the shot so she had to consider what everyone was doing at all times. She also

mentioned that the editing and publishing was more challenging than she originally thought as

she had never heard of metadata until she realized her videos needed it or they wouldn’t upload

to YouTube as 360.

In addition to promoting sound pedagogy VR gives students access to unique location

and experiences. Essentially, time and space are no longer a luxury as 360 video can be taken to

capture potential experiences. In the case of Steve, he had no desire to go Bamfield when it was

first was offered but as he was exposed to more of the course he realized what a tremendous

experience it could have been. Luckily for him, Jas recorded 360 video of the experience which

allowed him the agency to decide where to look and consequently mimic the feeling of being

present. Another example of creating an otherwise unattainable experience is shooting a video of

a specific time or a specific event. A 360 video have been used to allow the user to feel what it

was like to be a young cadet during the 1860s in the Civil War (American Heroes Channel,

2016). The user goes through a pre-recorded video that is supposed to simulate the sights and

sounds of a battle during the Civil War. The psychological effects of war can be immense but

this video was done in a way that gives the user empathy and insight into what the cadet would

be feeling but isn’t so dramatic to cause trauma in the user. In fact, research has shown that VR

can be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (Rizzo, 2004).

Supports competency focus of BC education

British Columbia education has recently made a shift away from teacher-centred, content-

focused lessons toward student centred, competency-focused lessons. VR is a medium that

promotes the development of these competencies. The use of 360 video as the medium for a

class project allows multiple core competencies to be developed through the process. For

example, self-determination, self-regulation, and well-being are all facets of the Personal

Awareness and Responsibility core competency. Through creation of the 360 Jas was able to

strengthen her proficiency in all of those areas. However, the development of these competency

is not intuitive and it is up to the teacher to foster this understanding and have students reflect on

them through-out the process. Jas has the opportunity to examine her self-efficacy when trying

to publish the video. She would have run into problems and upon reflection she can judge if she

was able to express her needs and seek help or if she was able to advocate for herself. For each

competency there are times during the creation, editing, and publishing of the 360 video that

allow students to improve and later reflect on their ability to perform various skills or show

understanding of what they are able to do.

Challenges for incorporating 360

The power of VR is that it can take the user to another world unlike the one they live in.

In this world the user has agency to go where they want and do what they want where in the real

world there are limitations in what one can do. I was lucky enough to be enrolled in the EDUC

490V course at the University of British Columbia where I was able to experience the newest VR

technology. I was able to walk through a simulation of Stanley Park using the HTC Vive and I

was able to walk down the forested drives and sea walls and it felt like I was actually there. I was

also able to try out Facebook Spaces using Oculus Rift technology where I was able to
experience a meeting with other students’ avatars. There, in a virtual setting we were able to talk,

draw, interact with objects and even see each other’s facial expressions while we interacted. Both

of these experiences easily could have been experienced in the real world as my colleagues were

3 feet away and we were 10 minutes from Stanley Park but for someone from another country

these would be novel experiences. The last VR technology I used was the Microsoft HoloLens

which allowed me to see a heart in front of me with the real-life classroom around it. I was able

to use the hand controls to rotate the heart and interact with it as though it was real and right in

front of me. All of these experiences were incredible and I enjoyed being brought to a different

world or experiencing things that I otherwise would not be able to experience. These experiences

were tremendous because I was in control and I was able to decide where to go in Stanley Park

and I was able to decide how to rotate the heart. This brings me to the drawback of 360 video.

When using 360 video the user has some agency in so much that they can decide where to look

but they are limited as the video is pre-recorded. They are unable to walk around or control what

is happening in this new world. This is why 360 video is a starting place for VR. Students, or

other users, can use 360 video to be exposed to new experiences that are otherwise unattainable

but are limited in what control they have.

I have felt comfortable incorporating technology and exploring the potential benefits or

various hardware and software since I started teaching in 2007. In my first year, the district I was

in rolled out a 1:1 device initiative where grade 7 students were given a laptop and had it until

they graduated. As a result, I was able to realize early in my career the benefits and limitations of

technology and getting the most out of my students. However, some teachers have not had this

experience and do not feel comfortable exploring or implementing new technology into the

classroom even though pedagogy is sound and backed by research. As such, trying to convince
teachers that are uncomfortable using technology to try using 360 video to give students unique

experiences may be difficult.


Based on the evidence showed in the research articles provided it is believed that

incorporating 360 video technologies can be advantageous for student learning. This technology

promotes constructivism learning, gives students access to placed and experiences that aren’t

possible in traditional classrooms, and supports student development and reflection of the core

competencies that are promoted in British Columbia education. In addition, the potential

preventative costs are avoided by using cheaper, more accessible VR technology such as 360

video. As mentioned, this apparent concession still provides the educational affordances of “true

VR” but at a fraction of the price.

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