Toward a pedagogy of presence: Research summaries and new project workflow

It’s been a while since I last posted and a lot has happened between then and now. Most important is a new work assignment that will be exploring the use of virtual reality environments for instructional purposes at the university- and college-level. I have my own personal project that aligns with this assignment, which I will be blogging about here, but I also think that it is important to situate this project within a framework of pedagogical theory and best practices. So, in addition to posting images of 3D models and video captures of walkthroughs, I will also be posting summaries of the research I read. Between the research and the project development, I hope get a better handle on what virtual reality is and how it can best be used to teach.

What I found particularly useful about the first article I read, which is summarized below, was the connection it made between the technical affordances of virtual reality and the type of learning that would take place in the environment. Based on my own experiences with 3D digital game-based learning environments, I would agree with Fowler that pedagogical requirements need to be included in considerations of how the technology is deployed. Although the affordances provided by the technology ultimately influence the manner of deployment, possibly even reshaping the curriculum, they should never be the primary driving force. Rather, the tool should complement the task.

Fowler, C. (2015). Virtual reality and learning: Where is the pedagogy? British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(2), 412-422.

Virtual reality technologies hold the promise of creating effective learning environments, although the pedagogical use and design of these environments are not well researched. Most studies seem to focus on the technical affordances of virtual reality environments, relying broadly on constructivism or related learning theories to connect instructional benefits with the affordances they provide. What is needed, according to Fowler, is an approach that is not solely derived from the technical considerations of virtual reality, but also considers the pedagogical requirements informing the design of the learning experience.

Relying on the work done by Dalgarno & Lee (2010), Fowler suggests that two unique characteristics of 3D virtual learning environments are (1) representational fidelity, meaning the quality of the display and consistency of object behavior, and (2) learner interaction, which results from the sense of embodiment experienced by the user in the virtual environment. These characteristics, when combined, provide users with the psychological sense of presence, a sense of co-presence when other users are also present in the environment, and the opportunity for identity construction. However, as Fowler further describes, “the assumption that high levels of representational fidelity and learner interaction will result in deeper learning is questionable” (p. 415). Instead, the pedagogical needs of the learner must also be considered along with the technical affordances of virtual reality. Here the concept of “immersion” may be the means of connecting the technical with the pedagogical.

Building on the learning stages framework articulated by Mayes & Fowler (1999), Fowler suggests a principled approach for relating technical concepts, like representational fidelity, to ways of understanding and delivering a learning experience. This framework consists of three fundamental stages: (1) conceptualization; (2) construction; and (3) dialogue. In order to align these stages with the terms used by Dalgorno & Lee (2010), Fowler suggests that the stages could also be called (1) empathy; (2) reification; and (3) identification. In the first stage, a learner will “encounter some kind of explanation or description that provides the opportunity for a new concept to be created” (p. 416). In terms of a virtual reality experience, this would be immersion in the representation of a concept or concepts. In the second stage, learners “must, in order to deepen their understanding, start to explore, manipulate or ask questions, and this means they must perform some actions on, or with, the new concept in a way that will provide feedback” (p. 416). Instead of simply being immersed in the representation, the learner becomes immersed in a task that is situated within the representation. The third stage situates the learning within a wide social context and requires learners to “test their emerging understanding through some kind of interaction or discussion with others” (416).

Fowler (2015), Images

By matching the stages of the learning framework with the technological affordances provided by the virtual reality environment, the principle of “design for learning” can be realized. This principle, which seeks to situate learning requirements within a specific learning context, “goes from a general contextual description of the teaching and learning environment through a set of teaching and learning requirements based on defining what stage the learner is at and what learning outcomes have to be achieved by undertaking a given set of learning activities. The practitioner then has to determine a particular teaching and learning approach that can best meet the requirements. The whole process can then be recorded in a learning specification” (pp. 419-420). Fowler suggests using the revised and updated version of Bloom’s taxonomy (see Anderson et al, 2001) to connect the learning stages of the framework with appropriate learning objectives in a virtual reality environment, and the work done by Conole, Dyke, Oliver, & Seale (2004) to connect these objectives with tangible learning activities. For example, the ability of virtual reality environments to create a sense of presence (technical affordance) can be connected to the learning framework (conceptualization/empathy stage) by creating immersive learning activities that require users to receive information; scope domains; identify boundaries; and discover, interpret, and classify facts.

Works Cited

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R. et al (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Conole, G., Dyke, M., Oliver, M. & Seale, J. (2004). Mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design. Computers & Education, 43, 17-33.

Dalgarno, B. & Lee, M. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 41, 10-32.

Mayes, J. T. & Fowler, C. J. H. (1999). Learning technology and usability: a framework for understanding courseware. Interacting with Computers, 11, 485-497.

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