Meaningful Immersion with Immersive Virtual Reality in Higher Education

Philip Jovanovic

Ontario Tech University


Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) is increasingly being used in higher education learning contexts around the World with applications in disparate subjects such as health science, science and engineering, business management, and the arts and humanities. However, the thinking that has governed the implementation of less immersive Virtual Reality (VR) over the past three decades has been found to be lacking when it comes to understanding pedagogy and assessment with IVR. This chapter introduces a distinction between VR and IVR, a discussion on the state of how IVR is conceptualized in higher education (HE), and actionable factors to address in improving the pedagogical thinking of IVR. The chapter also outlines frameworks currently in use to govern IVR implementation, practical benefits of using IVR in HE, and a brief on the challenges and limitations of using IVR in HE contexts. The literature presented in the chapter further supports a movement toward reimagining IVR as a classroom in its own right.


Immersive Virtual Reality, Higher Education, Immersion, Learning, Pedagogy,


This chapter presents a discussion on immersive virtual reality (IVR), specifically within higher education (HE) contexts. The chapter is focused on key themes (i.e., Pedagogy and Immersive Virtual Reality, Existing IVR Frameworks, Practical Benefits of IVR, and Challenges and Limitations of IVR in HE) based on my review of 22 academic peer-reviewed articles from 2016 to 2022 that were selected for their emphasis on IVR in HE. My selection of articles is premised on the rationale that in order to gain a deep pedagogical understanding of how to evaluate IVR for HE, we must first understand the lived experiences and perceptions of IVR from a narrative of voices from students and facilitators.

The goal of the following discussion is to outline key thematic elements necessary for developing a pragmatic and pedagogically rich framework for implementing IVR in HE. This goal is critical for both students and facilitators looking to implement IVR in their HE contexts for at least two reasons. First, a recent review of IVR literature by Hamilton et al. (2021) suggests that there is a lack of pedagogical understanding of IVR and that lack of understanding translates into pedagogically weak framework development for IVR in HE. This lack of a pedagogically sound guiding framework is corroborated by Majchrzak et al. (2022) who note that the IVR field in HE is void of any uniform, systematic measurement scheme. Second, the development of a strong IVR framework can assist students to begin understanding their experience of IVR, and a strong framework might also have the potential to promote metacognitive practice as a key element of students’ learning in IVR.

My hope is to provide a rich conceptualization of IVR that can inform the development of a framework used in guiding deep, meaningful learning within an IVR HE curriculum. Ultimately, I put forward the concept that rethinking IVR from the perspective of the technology as a classroom in its own right, not merely as a technology we need to find space for in existing classrooms, might be helpful in understanding IVR in the HE curriculum.

The next section of this chapter, Background Information, is used to address factors of pedagogy and immersive virtual reality as it relates to defining IVR and outlining the current state of pedagogical thinking in HE. Following the Background Information section, there is a discussion in the Applications section, which includes the factors of existing IVR frameworks, practical benefits of IVR, and challenges and limitations of IVR in HE. The chapter concludes with my attempt to bridge each factor presented in the chapter with a discussion on Conclusions and Future Research.

Background Information   Pedagogy and Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR)

This section presents an overview of IVR as an evolution of VR from the 1960s and outlines defining elements of IVR. A brief summary of my review of the literature on IVR in HE is given, as well as my pragmatic analysis of current literature on the state of pedagogical thinking when planning for the use of IVR in HE. Special attention is given throughout the chapter to a literature review by Hamilton et al. (2021) as the authors provide a clear picture of IVR pedagogy and, more critically, call for further research to develop a meaningful framework to guide the implementation of IVR in HE settings.

Defining Immersive Virtual Reality. While the term Virtual Reality (VR) is a common term in popular culture today, it appears to be a blanket term also used in academic research since the 1960s (Rashid et al., 2021). However, my review of the literature suggests that the VR acronym does not capture the specific distinguishing characteristics of the latest evolutions in the field of VR. While VR can be realized on desktop computers with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, IVR requires the use of head-mounted goggles to completely occlude the user’s surroundings and present users with a wide field-of-view of a 3-Dimensional (3D) environment. Additionally, users of IVR require hand-held motion-tracking controllers to manipulate objects in the virtual environment. These two elements, head-mounted goggles and hand-held motion tracking controllers, afford a greater sense of immersion in the virtual 3D environment (Schott & Marshall, 2018). This emphasis on immersion explains the evolution of the acronym from VR to IVR, and IVR is the preferred acronym that sufficiently captures the essence of the discussion in this chapter.

However, immersion is not an affordance exclusive to IVR. Even early forms of VR in the 1990s sparked discussion on immersion as a primary benefit of learning in virtual worlds (Psotka, 1995). To understand this range of immersion, or what Hamilton et al. (2021) call the pedagogical utility between immersive and less immersive modes of learning, researchers have tested the level of immersion as a variable of learning with various interfacing technologies (Legault et al., 2019; Makransky et al., 2019a; Makransky et al., 2019b; Meyer et al., 2019; Baceviciute et al., 2021; Liu et al., 2022). Overall, the findings from the literature suggest that IVR is an effective learning tool. However, there is no clear indication in the literature of research that takes a radical view of IVR as a classroom in and of itself and how this view might impact IVR pedagogy.

A Lack of Pedagogy in Immersive Virtual Reality. Taking a deeper look at IVR and pedagogy, Hamilton et al. (2021) point to a number of factors that illustrate a lack of pedagogical underpinnings in the field of IVR research in HE settings. Table 1 outlines a modified list of the factors extracted from Hamilton et al. (2021) that need to be addressed in IVR research, as well as my research on how we might address each factor. Bringing these factors to the forefront of IVR research is crucial as the field of IVR continues to expand into a wide range of subject matter, including education, health sciences, military and aerospace, science and technology, the arts and humanities, animation, urban planning, and architecture (Concannon et al., 2019; Vergara et al., 2020). Furthermore, understanding these limiting factors and potential improvements can help stakeholders interpret existing IVR frameworks, along with the practical benefits and challenges associated with IVR as it relates to their individual learning context. These existing frameworks, benefits, and challenges are discussed in the Applications section below.

Table 1.

Limitations of IVR Pedagogy Research and Potential Improvements

Factors Limiting IVR Pedagogy Potential Improvements
Lack of meaningful emphasis on affective and or higher-order learning skills Begin planning for IVR use with an intentional selection of higher-order learning skills from, for example, Bloom’s revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

Enhance affective connection between physical and virtual space by targeting embodiment through the establishment of multisensory immersion, presence, and interactivity (Calvert & Abadia, 2020; Estrada Villalba et al., 2021).

Lack of reference to a framework sufficient to guide IVR learning


Continue research and development of an IVR framework specifically designed for use in HE contexts with deep pedagogical foundations. Two useful frameworks to guide learning, but not for conceptualizing IVR as a classroom in its own right, are the Cognitive Affective Model of Immersive Learning (CAMIL) (Makransky & Petersen, 2021), and the Meaningful iVR Learning Framework (M-iVR-L) (Mulders et al., 2020).
Lack of holistic assessment in IVR Gain more insight into individual student interactivity by designing IVR learning spaces that allow for flexibility in the teaching-learning process (i.e., flexibility of time, space, and interactivity type), as well as favoring autonomy of students (Vergara et al., 2016).


Existing IVR Frameworks

This section of the chapter aims to provide practical information to stakeholders interested in implementing IVR into their HE contexts. The section includes two current frameworks designed to enhance the meaningful use of IVR in the curriculum. The list of frameworks presented here is not an exhaustive list. However, the frameworks do offer immediately available options to guide educators in planning their IVR curriculum. Educators can benefit from becoming familiar with the theories posited in these frameworks to be better prepared for assessing the benefits and challenges of IVR in their specific teaching contexts. A selection of benefits and challenges is discussed after a brief overview of the existing IVR frameworks.

The Cognitive Affective Model of Immersive Learning (CAMIL)

The first framework considered here is CAMIL (Makransky & Petersen, 2021), which is designed to be relevant for any current and future immersive learning technologies. However, the authors use IVR as an exemplary technology to illustrate the theory and process of learning in immersive environments. The theory posits that by capitalizing on the improved technological factors of IVR (i.e., immersion, control over embodiment and ability to manipulate objects in the world, or visual fidelity), facilitators can target one of two affordances of IVR (i.e., presence or agency) which in turn has a positive relationship with affective and cognitive factors (e.g., motivation, self-efficacy, and self-regulation) and ultimately leads to improved learning outcomes. The model is designed to predict four key learning outcomes; (1) factual knowledge, (2) conceptual knowledge, (3) procedural knowledge, and (4) transfer of learning. The overarching theme of the CAMIL model is that the technological medium, in this case, IVR, interacts with instructional methods. This suggests that the instructional methods used with IVR must align with and capitalize on the affordances of the technology. The challenge for educators is to pay close attention to how they connect relevant pedagogical knowledge to the affordances of IVR to promote effective learning outcomes.

The Meaningful iVR Learning Framework (M-iVR-L)

A second framework specifically designed for conceptualizing IVR learning with an emphasis on pedagogical thinking is the M-iVR-L by Mulders et al. (2020). The framework offers six key elements that expand on the principles of the cognitive theory of multimedia learning (CTML). The six factors are considering learning as the primary goal and immersion second, providing minimalist yet relevant learning with requisite pre-training, frequent scaffolding, just-in-time guidance, awareness of learners’ existing knowledge, and knowledge construction through problem-based tasks both inside and outside of the simulation. The limiting factor with the M-iVR-L framework is an emphasis on cautious immersion to limit stimuli. I consider this a limiting factor as my review of the literature resulted in finding multiple articles that point to immersion, engagement, embeddedness, and embodiment as elements integral to the learning process with IVR (e.g., Meyer et al., 2019; Calvert & Abadia, 2020; Baceviciute et al., 2021). Careful investigation is required to determine how scaffolding access to parts of the IVR simulation might have a counter-effect to the knowledge construction elements of the learning process.

Practical Benefits of IVR

This section provides an overview key benefits of IVR in the HE curriculum. A number of benefits are organized under two broad factors, Immersion and Engagement, and Cost Effectiveness and the Iterative Nature of Simulation. If stakeholders (i.e., students, teachers, and administrators) are aware of the benefits of IVR, there might be an improved shared sense of motivation to capitalize on the practical benefits of IVR. Furthermore, perhaps a shared sense of excitement might also encourage stakeholders to experiment more with the technology to test its potential, leading to a greater breadth and depth of knowledge of IVR pedagogy. It is important to note that these benefits do not represent the entire range of benefits. These are key benefits curated for this chapter from a synthesis of my overall literature review. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind these benefits are included for their practical nature, and it is necessary to weigh these benefits against the challenges discussed in the section on Challenges and Limitations.

Immersion and Engagement. Immersion and engagement are two metrics used in research when attempting to discern factors that contribute to a successful transfer of knowledge in knowledge transfer studies (Meyer et al., 2019; Baceviciute et al., 2021). Immersion provides users with a sense of environmental embeddedness, which is defined as a positive effect of the environment to assist learners in constructing and solidifying conceptual schemas (Baceviciute et al., 2021). The experience of environmental embeddedness capitalizes on engaging learners with more stimulation of their imaginary reasoning (Baceviciute et al., 2021), and may result in engagement that activates higher-order cognitive and affective processes in learners (Calvert & Abadia, 2020). To assist stakeholders’ thinking about immersion and engagement in IVR, it is paramount to avoid conceptualizing IVR as a simple, instrumental tool. Instead, stakeholders can conceptualize IVR in the same way Eynon (2017) describes a disparate view of digital environments in education; as spaces that emphasize practices, culture, questions, meaning-making, experience, and values.

Cost Effectiveness and the Iterative Nature of Simulation

In my review of the literature, the common factors of cost-effectiveness and the iterative nature of simulation were associated with keywords such as affordability, scalability, adaptability, low risk, and safety. Looking specifically at scalability, adaptability, and safety, Paszkiewicz et al. (2021) suggest that IVR learning environments offer a cost-effective way for facilitators to increase the reach of their collaborative efforts across cultures and across borders. Furthermore, the authors also see adaptability as a way for facilitators to modify the learning environment to fit the needs of students across fields of study and also provide a mode of continued interaction if situational factors (e.g., disasters or pandemics) limit or prevent in-person meetings. Finally, a common factor of cost-effectiveness in the literature is the safety of simulation. IVR environments offer a way to conduct what would otherwise be complex, difficult, or dangerous learning scenarios while also providing flexibility in the number of iterations facilitators and students can engage in (Lopez Rios et al., 2020; Baceviciute et al., 2021). While the initial investment in IVR hardware can be substantial, the above factors provide multiple ways institutions can offset long-term costs by enhancing and adding value to their curricula through the use of IVR. Offsetting long-term costs is an overarching challenge in the realm of IVR. However, the following section on Challenges and Limitations deals with more specific psychomotor and physiological issues associated with the use of IVR for learning.

Challenges and Limitations of IVR in HE

Challenges and Limitations is the final section under the Applications segment of this chapter. An analysis of two fundamental challenges or limitations of IVR is discussed; Overstimulation and Cognitive Load, and Simulator Sickness. It is imperative for stakeholders, especially educators, to have a keen awareness of the limitations of IVR so as to adjust their pedagogical thinking and to perhaps develop creative solutions through each of the stages of planning for, implementing, and using IVR in HE settings. It is worth noting that it is possible for the challenges to contradict the benefits. For example, improved immersion and embodiment is seen in the literature as a beneficial factor. However, overstimulation is identified as a limiting or challenging factor. At face value, it seems somewhat contradictory to encourage more immersion and embodiment while also trying to limit stimulation. Ultimately, the responsibility will be on induvial stakeholders to evaluate the discrepancies between benefits and challenges as they apply to their specific working context.

Overstimulation and Cognitive Load. The first factor that presents a challenge to facilitators, and may limit the learning of users, is the risk of overstimulating learners with overwhelming environments and activities. Overstimulation can create undue cognitive load on learners and have a negative impact on learning. However, as noted previously, there is a contradiction between the goal of complete immersion in a virtual learning environment versus the practical risk of overstimulating learners. For example, Makransky et al. (2019a) found that stimuli in immersive virtual learning environments can detract from learning and can make IVR less effective than desktop-based simulations. To address this issue, Mayer et al. (2019) generalize the results of their study to suggest that a pre-training element in lesson designs can help overcome the negative impact of cognitive load on learning.

Simulator Sickness. The second conflicting factor between the benefits and challenges of using IVR for learning is the fact that virtual simulations allow for experimentation in what would otherwise be dangerous, life-threatening environments. However, the contradiction is that simulations can also trigger an adverse physiological response in a significant number of users (Munafo et al., 2017). This adverse physiological response (i.e., simulator sickness or motion sickness) is correlated with an elevated heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and elevated sugar level of users in IVR (Chattha et al., 2020), as well as sex differences and postural instability (Munafo et al., 2017). A temporary way to address this limitation is for facilitators to offer a pre-use IVR suitability self-assessment questionnaire to users. Chattha et al. (2020) offer a five-factor self-assessment that includes descriptions of activities and specific physical conditions that can increase the probability of experiencing simulator sickness. One possible long-term solution to help overcome the challenge of simulator sickness is for device engineers to integrate users’ physiological data into the simulation to provide real-time visual cues for users to stabilize their own posture (Munafo et al., 2017).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Throughout this chapter, a path has been laid out through a crowded field of varying conceptualizations of VR and IVR, the pedagogies that inform those conceptualizations, and the technologies used to bring the pedagogies to life. While there is conflicting research on the outcomes of implementing IVR for learning (Makransky et al., 2019a), it is a critical task for researchers to develop a holistic IVR framework infused with deep considerations of pedagogy and the voices of students and teachers alike. The aim is to inform stakeholders of how these factors interact so that future applications of IVR in HE settings are premised on achieving meaningful, higher-order learning.

This chapter also outlined a selection of practical benefits from the use of IVR, which might explain the proliferation of IVR across academic fields of study but balances the benefits against the challenges and limitations of the technology. I posit here that it is not enough for stakeholders (i.e., students, teachers, administrators, researchers) to weigh the balance of benefits against challenges and limitations. Instead, I suggest that stakeholders should take each of the benefits, challenges, and limitations and treat them equally in adjusting how to conceptualize IVR from a pedagogical perspective. This simultaneous synthesis of factors might spark what Lopez Rios et al. (2020) call the extraordinary level of creativity necessary in constructing learning solutions. Perhaps by using extraordinary creativity for developing an IVR framework that is both rigorously researched and sufficiently flexible, we can achieve IVR implementation that features strong pedagogical foundations and also inspires real-time creative meaning-making. Taken together, creativity, rigor, and flexibility might be the requisite elements needed to unlock the vast potential of IVR and redefine IVR as a classroom. It is now up to stakeholders to use each of the elements discussed in this chapter, along with the redefined potential of IVR, and start developing a new framework designed for deep, meaningful embeddedness into the realm of IVR learning.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2023 Copyright © by Philip Jovanovic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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