Evaluating the impact of virtual reality-supported teaching on primary student learning of eco-literacy

Dr Elaine Khoo (WMIER) with Andrea Soanes (Science Learning Hub),

Assoc Prof Chris Eames (TEMS), Claudio Aguayo (AUT AppLab)

Project Dates: February 2020 - December 2020

Why was the research undertaken?

Our project is a collaboration between University of Waikato, Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Sir Peter Blake Trust (BLAKE) and St Peter's Catholic School, Cambridge.

In 2018, BLAKE introduced a new free VR programme (NZ-VR) to Auckland schools to introduce students to broad ideas on marine conservation. BLAKE had partnered with NZ Geographic to create a Virtual Reality-based education programme using 360underwater videos consistent with its mission “to bring the ocean to every child” through their NZ-VR programme (see https://blakenz.org). The NZ-VR programme will be extended to schools across the country.

This study draws from the team’s interdisciplinary expertise to research the introduction and impact of a high-end immersive technology to offer research informed recommendations for VR-supported teaching-learning practice. Our project adopted a design-based research approach to co-design and implement an intervention with a case study Year7/8 class teacher and her students.

The introduction of VR into educational settings, especially where children and young people are involved, has been questioned in the literature. Concerns have been raised regarding the effect of the technology on children including the limited research available on its application for learning in actual classrooms (Freina & Ott, 2015). Examples of these are:

  • Ethical in nature: researchers concerned with the impact of immersive technologies on the development of children have called for explicit ongoing ethics-in-practice to monitor children’s assent, recognise and prevent harm and ensure children’s rights are respected (Southgate, Smith, & Scevak, 2017). While others concerned with the suitability of the technology for use with children under 12-13 years suggest that young people limit their time and take frequent breaks under adult supervision (Touchstone Research, 2018).
  • Physical in nature: questions on what constitutes a safe environment for children and young people when using VR technology have been raised. Concerns of this nature include the extent to which children are able to cognitively and affectively regulate their VR experience (Baumgartner, 2018), while others have found evidence of elementary children developing ‘false memories’ after being exposed to VR experience, and who believed their VR experience to be real even a week after the experience (Segovia & Bailenson, 2009).

A seminal study by Southgate et al. (2019) introducing immersive VR experiences in a primary educational context points to the value of putting in place resources that cater for the ethical and safety needs of primary children using VR in the classroom, including considerations for the organisational context of how VR use is to be implemented to ensure children’s physical safety, ethical, sociocultural and learning needs are met. Our team took onboard this recommendation to  support educators to consider the wider pedagogical, organisational, safety and ethical issues that come into play when intending to adopt VR in the classroom.

A past review of studies on VR in educational settings (Pellas et al., 2017) highlights that although VR environments offered the potential for collaborative problem solving and higher order thinking activities that are engaging for learners, the computer hardware and server requirements often represent technological-operational drawbacks resulting in learners experiencing There a steep learning curve in mastering the features of the environment while learning content. is a need to minimise the novelty effect (“wow” factor) of introducing VR in the classroom (Hew & Cheung, 2010) and outside the classroom (Eames & Aguayo, 2019). A recommendation is to pay attention to the affective and cognitive responses from students when using VR technology and the extent to which the technology interferes with attention to task and the processing of task-related information. Familiarity with the technology may reduce such effects as students become more familiar with the virtual environment (Southgate et al., 2019). We have taken this point into account with our study design.

Overall, research suggests that educators need support to think critically about the role of VR within their educational contexts. Increasingly there are calls for educators to work alongside designers/developers to apply ideas about learning and about virtual spaces to come up with better design for learning experiences to support more equitable learning experience for all children (Fowler, 2015). This project aims to contribute to a better understanding of these issues and to offer suggestions for how to maximise the VR-supported learning experience in a NZ primary classroom context. There is evidence for this as emerging study on learning about environmental education ideas show that virtual environments increase students' willingness to learn more about eco-environments, and, develop a more positive emotional attachment to them (Huang, Chen, & Chou, 2016). We have taken this point into consideration in our study.

What were the main goals of the research?

The research team conducted a small case study to understand ways to maximise the introduction of virtual reality (VR)-supported learning in a primary classroom with the aim of informing teaching-learning practice. This included:

  • Evaluating the impact of introducing VR on students’ understanding of marine eco-literacy concepts and developing scientific observation capability, and,
  • Developing relevant evidence-based curriculum resources to complement, inform and enhance BLAKE NZ-VR’s current resource bank that will be useful to convey/communicate the appropriate and possible teaching practice and approaches to primary-level teachers who are not familiar with VR.

The aims were translated into the following questions guiding the study:

  1. What is the impact of using virtual reality to support primary students’ understanding of marine eco-literacy?
  2. What is the impact of using virtual reality to support primary students’ learning of the science capability of observation?
  3. How can the use of VR be purposefully designed into classroom learning experiences?

What were the main methodology/ies used to capture data?

We conducted a single cycle design-based intervention research (DBIR) (Kirshner & Polman, 2013) to address the research questions (Table 1). DBIR promotes communication between practitioners and researchers through “agile interventions” as education designs play out in practice (Kirshner & Polman, 2013).

Table 1. Research design

Design Phase

Pre-VR immersion learning experience BLAKE NZ-VR educator visit

Post-VR learning experience: 

  • Initial   assessment of student understanding and skill development with observation
  • Pre-teaching   around targeted marine eco-literacy concepts and skills
  • Introduction   to teachers and students on how to use of VR, including preparation for   virtual experiences
  • Observation   (video and photos) of class
  • Student   survey on experience with VR, understanding of targeted concepts (e.g. marine   reserves)
  • Observation (video and photos) of class
  • Follow up   teaching revisiting and extending target concepts and observation skills
  • Post-assessment   of student understanding and skill development of observation as a science   capability
  • Observation   (video and photos) of class
  • Student   survey on understanding of target concepts, VR experience for learning & usefulness   of the VR de-sensitising resources
  • Focus group   interview questions with selected students on their learning
  • Teacher   Interview


Evaluation: Refinement of resources and artifacts

Data were collected through the following methods which involved different participant groups:

  1. Interview with the BLAKE NZ-VR educator who introduced the NZ-VR headset kits to teachers and students to understand their rationale, intention/expectation of teachers and students using the kits,
  2. Interview with the NZ-VR developer (NZ Geographic) to understand the rationale (design and/or pedagogical principles followed, if any) for the design (of affordances) of the NZ-VR experience,
  3. Interview with the case study teacher who used our curriculum resource and the NZ-VR kits to understand how and to what extent the curriculum resources and technology supported student learning,
  4. Observations (videos and photos) of students’ learning to understand how students are interacting with the VR kits,
  5. Pre and post assessment activity on students’ observation science capability,
  6. Pre and post assessment of student understanding and learning of targeted marine eco-literacy concepts and experience with V, and,
  7. Student focus group interview to evaluate their VR-supported learning experiences including evaluation of the VR desensitising resources.

Cross-analysis of the different datasets were conducted to identify general patterns related to VR-supported teaching-learning experiences. Taken together, the analyses informed the refinement of the curriculum resource. The educational researchers undertook the analysis, interpretation and reporting of the data.

The study obtained ethical approval from the Division of Education, University of Waikato’s Human Ethics Committee (no. FEDU003/20, approved on 20 January 2020). All participants took part on a voluntary basis.

What do you consider to be the key findings from the research

In terms of impact on students’ learning of marine eco-literacy concepts:

  • Our findings indicate the value of the intervention in supporting students’ developing knowledge, positive attitudes towards the marine environment, wth clear and specific intentions to act after the VR experience. Students expressed ideas of biodiversity, interdependence and systems thinking and illustrated these through the observational tasks
  • Students enjoyed learning through VR as it was experiential, developed their knowledge and it was fun.

In terms of impact on students’ developing observational skills:

  • Students showed evidence of improved observation skills, a key science capability
  • By focusing on observation as a specific teaching and learning approach wrapped around the VR experience, students’ observation capabilities developed in terms the quality and quantity of observations made
  • We noted students improved expression of biodiversity ideas, interactions between species

How VR can be purposefully designed into classroom learning experiences:

  • The teacher affirmed the value of the pre-intervention teaching of the topic & VR immersion/ desensitisation process to make learning engaging, authentic and purposeful
  • The pre-VR learning session importantly helped students to focus on the learning of the VR-supported content by removing the ‘wow’ factor frequently encountered in in novel technology-supported learning contexts. Students also affirmed value of VR sensitisation (pre-VR training)
  • There is evidence that an inclusion of pre-VR training focus on observation may have impacted students ability to observe more effectively during the VR immersive learning experience.

What group and/or organisations would be most interested in your research results

  • Educators keen to take up VR-supported learning activities
  • Organisations looking to create educational VR learning programmes
  • Practitioners, researchers and policymakers working at the intersections of applications concerning Educational for Sustainability (EfS), VR and digital pedagogies
  • General public and parents of children interested in immersive learning opportunities
  • VR developers

Implications for practice

  • The development of additional resources to support best use of VR in a classroom setting
  • A deepening of pedagogical approaches with the use of VR in a classroom setting


  • Evaluation report to BLAKE to inform the expansion of their NZ-VR programme
  • Presentations/publications in consultation with BLAKE

Media outputs from the project

  1. A case study will be published on the Science Learning Hub in 2021
  2. Project report output:
    Khoo, E., Soanes, A. & Eames, C. (2021). Evaluating the impact of virtual reality-supported teaching on primary student learning [Final Report]. Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, University of Waikato, New Zealand
  3. Evaluating the impact of virtual reality supported teaching on primary student learning: Final report


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Eames, C. & Aguayo, C. (2019). Designing mobile learning with education outside the classroom to enhance marine ecological literacy. Report to the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative. Wellington, NZ: TLRI, In press.

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Southgate, E., Smith, S. P., Cividino, C., Saxby, S., Kilham, J., Eather, G., ... & Bergin, C. (2019). Embedding immersive virtual reality in classrooms: Ethical, organisational and educational lessons in bridging research and practice. International journal of child-computer interaction19, 19-29.

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