Daily Archives: May 20, 2020

A hand holds a digital tablet over a page of text with a decorative border, while the tablet's screen displays a 3D model of a cathedral.

Truly Immersive Worlds? The Pedagogical Implications of Extended Reality


This article provides an overview of the extended reality applications virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) and examines the affordances and constraints of each with regards to their application in the humanities. The interactive nature of these extended realities engages their audiences in new and compelling ways. VR and AR applications have moved beyond gaming and are proving particularly effective and engaging for historic recreations. However, these technologies also present new challenges, precisely because they create immersive worlds so captivating that these environments may be perceived as “real” rather than as simulacra, especially by students and the general public. Using both VR and AR projects based in medieval Europe (Bologna 3D Open Repository and 3D Paris Saga) as case histories, we discuss some of the issues that these technologies pose to their creators and to their consumers—from how they might be used to make a heritage site more meaningful, to how they pose dangers of an excess of verisimilitude. As these technologies become more ubiquitous in academic settings, these early ventures into extended realities highlight some perhaps hitherto unconsidered pitfalls as well as demonstrate the promise that these new technologies offer in terms of pedagogy and community outreach.


In the summer of 2016, the world was introduced to the emerging technology of augmented reality (AR) in the form of Pokémon Go, a location-based, AR-enhanced game that became one of the most popular mobile apps of the year. Many people were already familiar with virtual reality (VR), “a medium composed of interactive computer simulations that sense the participant’s position and actions and replace or augment the feedback to one or more senses, giving the feeling of being mentally immersed in the simulation (a virtual world)” (Sherman and Craig 2003, 13). As a popular gaming environment, VR has four key elements: it is a virtual space for the participant; it is immersive on both a physical and mental level for the participant; it provides sensory feedback directly to the participant; and it is interactive, responding to the participant’s actions (Sherman and Craig 2003, 6–11).[1] VR, in its most effective form, requires the user to be isolated from a conscious awareness of the real world by some sort of head-mounted display, such as Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, or HTC Vive. Alternatively, the user can experience VR in an enclosed, projection-based or flat-monitor-based environment, such as a CAVE.[2] Typically, the experience must be held in a static, controlled space; otherwise, the user might collide with real-world objects in the effort to participate fully in the virtual world. And, for many individuals, the VR experience results in motion sickness, sometimes known as VR sickness or cybersickness.[3] In contrast, AR is a medium in which digital information is overlaid on the physical world that is in both spatial and temporal registration (i.e., alignment) with the physical world and that is interactive in real time (Craig 2013, 36). Consequently, AR is much more accessible because the required equipment, usually a smart device (iPad, iPhone, Android tablet, or Android phone), is minimal. The fact the user remains cognizant of the real world around them while using the technology reduces the possibility of motion sickness and does not typically limit the user to a static, controlled space for the experience.

Both technologies have applications beyond gaming and are proving particularly effective and engaging for historic recreations. Such recreations can have a significant impact on learning, for they engage viewers—both the general public and students—in an educational immersive experience. Many of these viewers may never visit the actual historic site in their lifetime, so accuracy is important. Consequently, we need to keep in mind that a 3D digital model is a re-creation and not the real place. And as we move forward with VR and AR, we must give serious consideration to the goals we need and/or wish the technologies to meet, particularly with respect to pedagogy. At this point in time, VR and AR are very successful in engaging audiences for both entertainment and educational purposes:

The increasing development of VR technologies, interfaces, interaction techniques and devices has greatly improved the efficacy and usability of VR, providing more natural and obvious modes of interaction and motivational elements. This has helped institutions of informal education, such as museums, media research, and cultural centers to embrace virtual technologies and support their transition from the research laboratory to the public realm. (Rousso 2002, 93)

For the user visiting a virtual heritage site, the experience can be highly engaging and educational as long as expert guidance is provided. VR and AR cannot substitute for pedagogical instruction. It is not so much that the user must be reminded that the virtualization is not real; rather, supporting documentation must be easily accessible within the virtual world to help the participant understand the meaning and significance of the 3D models they encounter. And content builders must take an interdisciplinary, if not transdisciplinary, approach to the creation of the 3D models and their VR- or AR-enhanced worlds if the learning experience of the participant is to be as significant and valuable.

These technologies have the promise not only of engaging students in the history itself, but also of inviting them to consider how the work of history is done. As scholars and experts, we require the 3D models and their environments to be historically accurate, but that accuracy is necessarily limited. All models are inevitably interpretations of available evidence, and making that process more transparent to the student leads not only to a better understanding of the subject matter but of the process as well. As Willard McCarty has noted,

The best model [e.g., digital humanities tool] of something, that is, comes as close as possible to what we think we know about the thing in question yet fails to duplicate perfectly that knowledge. Failure of the model in an engineering sense is its success as an epistemological instrument of research, because skillfully engineered failure shows us where we are ignorant. (McCarty 2003, 1232)

Failing to create the perfect 3D model of an object in terms of historical authenticity is to be expected and appreciated for what it can teach us not just about the technology but about the 3D model itself in terms of our understanding of its historic accuracy. As teaching tools, VR and AR force the historical experts, as content creators, and their students, as content consumers, to think very carefully and intentionally about the recreation. For example, precise verisimilitude of a medieval English village could only be achieved by travelling back in time to the Middle Ages to conduct the kind of fieldwork envisioned by Connie Willis in her 1992 science fiction novel The Doomsday Book—an unlikely prospect by anyone’s standards.[4] However, it is important that we think beyond what VR and AR can do today. Even if we fail to achieve what we want the technology to do, we will learn from our mistakes and, in so doing, improve both the technology and our students’ understanding of the historical method.

Historical Accuracy: A Theoretical Approach

Virtual constructions of historical objects and architecture raise very real concerns about verisimilitude. To what extent are such 3D models accurate representations of the original? In many ways, VR serves to validate Jean Baudrillard’s understanding of simulacra and concerns about the hyperreal. In Simulacra and Simulation, he argues that the loss of distinction between reality and its representation results in the hyperreal—a world “without origin or reality” (Baudrillard 1994, 1–7). It is pure simulation and, as a result, creates an anxiety of origin and authenticity. Virtual worlds, including those associated with VR, can evoke an apprehension about the hyperreal, especially if the 3D model is used to substitute for the original. The current interest by computer graphic experts and enthusiasts in the creation and redistribution of virtual historic sites illustrates the problem. “Archaeological illustration and reconstruction is not new,” as Clifford L. Ogleby notes,

but the advent of high-speed affordable computers and the associated graphics capability gives people the opportunity to create better looking imagery. The imagery, however, is often the result of the technology, not archaeological or historical research. When this imagery is distributed without the accompanying research that explains the decisions made in the reconstruction, it is open to a variety [of] interpretations. This problem is compounded when the imagery is posted on the [world wide web], as the image can be extracted from the surrounding text and interpreted as an artifact rather than as a diagram. (Ogleby 2007)

Ogleby demonstrates this issue using easily obtainable images from the web that purport to portray accurate reconstructions (some computer generated) of the mausoleum at the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus.[5] The images are imprecise and even erroneous, yet accepted by the general public as real: “Many people will tend to ‘see’ a photo-like image to be more like a photograph, and therefore a record of a real place in time” (Ogleby 2007). Not surprisingly, these online images almost always fail to include provenance, authorship, and veracity—information that would help the viewer to determine the authenticity of each 3D model and would serve as a reminder that the image being viewed is just that, an image, and not the original. The problem is only exacerbated when these models are incorporated into a virtual environment such as Google Earth or Second Life (Ogleby 2007).[6] These immersive and interactive worlds can encourage the non-expert user, such as a student, to accept the computer-generated model as an overly realistic recreation of the original.

Nevertheless, we should not be dissuaded from using the technology for pedagogical purposes both in the classroom and the community at large. Pierre Lévy argues convincingly against viewing the virtual as simply unreal: “The virtual, strictly defined, has little relationship to that which is false, illusory, or imaginary. The virtual is by no means the opposite of the real. On the contrary, it is a fecund and powerful mode of being that expands the process of creation, opens up the future, injects a core of meaning beneath the platitude of immediate physical presence” (Lévy 1998, 16). It is an actualization rather than a realization, one that involves “the production of new qualities, a transformation of ideas, a true becoming which nourishes the virtual in a feedback process” (Lévy 1998, 15).[7] The virtual and the real are not binary opposites. Rather, they exist on a continuum that supports a complete range of realness from the fully real to the fully virtual. Such a reality-virtuality continuum was first proposed by Paul Milgram and his colleagues. They suggest that everything in between is a mixture of reality and virtuality, including AR in which the real world is augmented by virtual enhancements and AV (augmented virtuality) in which the virtual world is augmented by the real (Milgram et al. 1995, 282–92).[8] The more obviously artificial nature of AR/VR visualizations may be used in a classroom setting to illustrate the sorts of choices that historians make in any evaluation/representation of historical data. What becomes important is not the degree of artificiality but rather the transparency of the method. Just as the creator of the virtual representation must make choices about how “real” to make their visualization (what to include and exclude), so the historian makes choices regarding what data to include and how that data is represented. The artificiality of extended reality technologies thus opens the door to conversations about not only the material being studied, but also the means by which it is studied.

The appeal of VR and AR is not new. Humanity has long held a fascination for trying to create a virtual experience of reality. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, panoramic paintings became particularly popular, including the development of 360º murals that were intended to fill the entire field of vision and make the viewer feel as if he or she were in the virtual world depicted by the paintings (Thompson 2015).[9] The nineteenth century also saw the development of the stereoscopic[10] viewer and images, precursors to the View-Master and, more recently, Google Cardboard (Virtual Reality Society 2016). Experimentation in film also contributed to the development of the technology, particularly the widescreen camera lens. French filmmaker Abel Gance introduced “polyvision,” a specialized widescreen film format that involved the simultaneous projection of three reels of film in a lateral montage, in his 1927 silent epic Napoléon (Cuff 2015, 24). Polyvision, as well as the later development of CinemaScope and Panavision using widescreen lenses, gave the audience a panoramic and, subsequently, more immersive film experience. It was not until 1929 and the development of the flight simulator (Virtual Reality Society 2016) that a virtual environment was designed for teaching rather than for entertainment purposes. This focus on the pedagogical potential of virtual environments has become even more important today as VR and AR evolve from game platforms to teaching tools.

Both technologies exemplify the concerns faced by experts building virtual heritage sites.[11] For historians, archaeologists, and other scholars, the photorealism of the 3D models is the primary goal. In general, there are ten principles of 3D photorealism: clutter and chaos; personality and expectations; believability; surface texture; specularity; aging dirt, rust, and rot; flaws, tears, and cracks; rounded edges; object material depth; and radiosity (light reflections off diffused surfaces) (Fleming 1998, 3). To achieve photorealism, the computer-generated object should demonstrate at least seven of these ten principles (Fleming 1998, 3–4). The virtual world should not be pristine and unblemished because reality is messy and dirty. This concern for photorealism does not, however, apply in the same way to human 3D models. In fact, few virtual heritage reconstructions include human figures and for good reason. Firstly, creating realistic human models is time consuming and expensive since it requires a digital artist with considerable skill in drawing and modelling figures from life. Architectural and cultural artifacts are usually less difficult to build as 3D models. Secondly, living models, unlike objects, are expected to move in some way. Animation adds a complex layer of technology that is usually not the primary focus of the recreated physical environment. Thirdly, and most importantly from a pedagogical point of view, human 3D models can complicate the virtual experience by encouraging the user to try and interact with them rather than focus on the physical reconstruction of the heritage site. Finally, there is the consideration of how exactly “real” such human figures should be. The more realistic the 3D model of the living figure, the more likely that it will become an example of the uncanny valley phenomenon described in social robotics: that is, the 3D model will be almost too real so that the minor imperfections of the recreation become disturbing and even repulsive.[12] Thus a caricature of a human figure may be more appealing and effective than a truly realistic and complex representation in VR or AR.

Two Historic Recreations: Modelling Challenges

Bologna 3D Open Repository is the result of a collaborative project between the municipality of the city of Bologna and CINECA Interuniversity Consortium, an academic supercomputing group that offers technological support to education, business, and the community. The project’s primary goal was to build 3D models for the creation of a virtual Bologna that the municipality could use to promote the candidacy of the city’s historic porticoes, or arcades, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The repository is now maintained as a site dedicated to the collection and sharing of the 3D models for didactic purposes—namely teaching students about the city and its history. Figures 1 through 3 show some of the 3D models created by the consortium:

View of 3D model of the Portico of San Luca in Bologna

Figure 1. Portico of San Luca.

Aerial view of 3D model of the hilly landscape south of Bologna

Figure 2. Hilly landscape south of the city.

3D model of the medieval character, Apa, leaning against a desk with an open book on it

Figure 3. Scene of a medieval university lecture.

Through these visualizations, students can learn about the architectural history of Bologna from the medieval period through to the 18th century. The computer graphics are high quality and demonstrate a number of the principles of digital photorealism. In particular, the architecture and landscapes exhibit great attention to detail and authenticity. The project includes human figures, not typical of most historic recreations, and these figures are generally caricatures rather than realistic representations of people. Certainly, such a use of humor in a virtual historic re-creation emphasizes the project’s desire to appeal to a broad, public audience (Guidazzoli, Liguori, and Felicori 2013, 58–65).[13] And the less-than-realistic style of the human figures avoids the potential issue of the uncanny valley.

Like the Bologna 3D Open Repository, the 3D Paris Saga project uses AR and VR to tell the narrative of the architectural history of Paris. Their approach, however, differed considerably. Dassault Systèmes, a European software company that specializes in 3D design, built a complex virtual world that traces the history of the city through almost 2,000 years with a special focus on a 3D reconstruction and interactive experience of the fourteenth-century Palais de la Cité and the Sainte-Chapelle (“Voici” 2015). The project originally included a 90-minute television documentary, a CAVE experience of the virtual world using 3D glasses (Vitaliev 2013), a PC-compatible interactive 3D website, and an AR-enhanced print book (Dassault Systèmes 2012). The visual accuracy and detail of the 3D architecture, topography, and atmosphere enrich the photorealism of the virtual world (see Figure 4). The fact that familiar monuments are shown in various stages of construction transforms the virtual experience into a deeper educational one. Considerable attention is also given to the appearance of the skies, reflecting typical Parisian weather rather than an idealized and eternal perfect sunny day (see Figure 5). Again, 3D human models that inhabit the virtual city are not a common feature of such historic recreations. They are merely shadowy figures and remind the viewer that Paris was always inhabited; however, because the figures are so ethereal, they avoid the uncanny valley phenomenon and encourage the viewer to explore the historic constructions rather than try to interact with the animated models themselves.

Aerial view of 3D model of the Grande Cour and Trésor de Chartres in Paris

Figure 4. View of the Grande Cour and Trésor de Chartres with shadowed human figures in the courtyard (Dassault Systèmes).

Despite its initial success, the VR element of the project is no longer easily accessible: the CAVE environment is only available at Dassault’s Paris headquarters by appointment to select visitors.

View of 3D model of the rose window on the west façade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

Figure 5. View of the rose window on the west facade (Dassault Systèmes).

Virtual reconstructions such as these help students understand cultures, histories, and artifacts that are physically, temporally, or culturally distant. While it may be difficult for American students to visit Notre Dame, extended realities can help them experience it in a way that more traditional media cannot.[14]

The AR-Enhanced Text

The most successful component of the 3D Paris Saga has been the AR-enhanced companion print book published by Flammarion. Whereas current AR technology uses a mobile application on a smart device to trigger the digital enhancements embedded in the printed page, Dassault requires the user to hold select pages from the print volume up to the web camera on a PC.[15] Like a virtual pop-up book, the 3D models appear on the page as viewed through the computer screen (see Figure 6).

AR-enhanced book opened to show the 3D model of Paris emerging from the printed page

Figure 6. AR-enhanced print text (Dassault Systèmes).

The user may turn the book in order to see all sides of the 3D model, thereby gaining a greater appreciation of Parisian architecture throughout history, including the Middle Ages. However, interacting with the book and the technology is awkward and lacks the mobility that a smart device offers. It is also counterintuitive to the standard reading process since the user holds the book but looks away from it at the computer screen.

AR-enhanced texts are not new. Mark Billinghurst and his team at HitlabNZ (the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand) created some of the first examples in the early 2000s. Called “MagicBooks,” the texts are designed to encourage children to read:

The computer interface has become invisible and the user can interact with graphical content as easily as reading a book. This is because the MagicBook interface metaphors are consistent with the form of the physical objects used. Turning a book page to change virtual scenes is as natural as rotating the page to see a different side of the virtual models. Holding up the AR display to the face to see an enhanced view is similar to using reading glasses or a magnifying lens. Rather than using a mouse and keyboard based interface users manipulate virtual models using real physical objects and natural motions. Although the graphical content is not real, it looks and behaves like a real object, increasing ease of use. (Billinghurst, Kato, and Poupyrev 2001, 747)

Although early forms of AR used abstract, specifically designed images (often QR codes) to trigger enhancements, the technology has advanced to the point that any complex, informationally dense image may serve as a fiducial marker. The use of mobile apps and smart devices makes interaction with the text easy and intuitive.

A new wave of AR technology seems to be driven by the increased capability and ubiquity of our mobile devices. Jordan Frith notes that early theories about the internet hypothesized that humanity (or at least that bit of it that could afford computers) would become more isolated and private—living their lives at home—we assume spending their time (and money) ordering from Amazon (Frith 2002, 136). Mobile computing has diverted us from this possible future. Instead, we are bringing our private lives into public spaces, attempting to control these spaces through our AirPods or earbuds, our Google maps, and Four Square—all the while curating our experience of the urban environment on social media.

It is to this mobile landscape that AR brings such promise. AR’s ability to overlay the physical world with digital information offers a new kind of experience and understanding of our world. Victoria Szabo argues that AR may be used to make the site of cultural history more meaningful to their visitors through the layering of digital information over the physical space. As she explains, “Mobile AR systems have the potential to help users create situated knowledge by bringing scholarly interpretation and archival resources in dialog with the lived experience of a space or object” (Szabo 2018, 373). In so doing, she argues, the visitors move from comprehension of the site which entails historical distance and critical interpretation—in other words traditional educational materials that might guide visitors through the site—to apprehension. Apprehension is more experiential learning and “relies on the tangible and felt qualities of the immediate experiences” (Martin 2017, 837; quoted in Szabo 2018, 374). The ability of AR to merge the “real” physical world of the historical site with digital material such as reconstructions, interpretive data, etc. facilitates both apprehension and comprehension.

When we consider an AR publication, however, we are moving away from Szabo’s paradigm to its inverse. With the book form, we are beginning not with the physical space—which already brings with it the tangible learning central to apprehension—but with the more traditional way of making meaning within education: the book. AR is still in its infancy in the publishing industry, but interest in its possibilities is growing. According to one 2017 poll, only 9% of Americans have experienced an AR application (Martin 2017, 20). Yet in this same year, five major tech companies, including Apple, launched AR frameworks or apps following the surprising success of the AR game Pokémon Go in 2016 (Tan 2018, 22). According to Digital Capital, an investment group, AR and VR are poised to become major players in technology. They estimate an AR/VR market of $108 billion with AR as the primary force and with predicted revenues of $90 billion by 2022 (Tan 2018, 22). This market data may seem irrelevant to academia, but what it means is that publishers are beginning to move into AR as well, creating new opportunities for academic AR publications. Major news media such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, CNN, Hulu, and Huffington Post have all experimented with some form of Virtual, Augmented, or Mixed Reality (VAMR) media (Martin 2017, 21). Deniz Ergurel, technology journalist and founder of the media start-up Haptical, asserts that VAMR marks the next major technological shift. According to Ergurel, “Every 10–15 years, the technology landscape is reshaped by a major new cycle. In 1980s, it was the PC. In 1994, it was the Internet. And in 2007, it was the smartphone. By 2020, the next big computing platform will be virtual reality” (Martin 2017, 20).

AR text, because it is multisensory, can bring some of the features of experiential learning to its readers including the visual features of the text, historical contextualization, images, audio, video, data visualizations, supplementary text, and most importantly, 3D AR augmentations. The multimodal possibilities of AR texts make them particularly useful to teachers of literature that is culturally or historically distant because, through such reading environments, students may be more easily introduced to the material culture that surrounds and creates the texts they are studying. Furthermore, this approach allows the students to engage with the material in a multimodal fashion, appealing not only to the language centers of the brain, but to the visual and aural centers as well. The digital environment encourages the reader (and even the author) to “play” with the text in terms of design and interactive engagement (Douglas 2000, 65). The brain’s ability to play is something we, like many animals, are hardwired to do for survival; consequently, the process of reading text, especially digital text, has neurological value precisely because it encourages the brain’s playfulness (Armstrong 2013, 26–53).

Conclusion: The Future of VR and AR

The argument can be made that neither VR nor AR offers a truly immersive experience because not all five primary senses of the participant are engaged. Certainly, computer technology can generate both visual and aural enhancements in the form of 3D models and recorded sound. However, touch, smell, and taste are more challenging. Haptic tools, such as gloves or a stylus device, are becoming more popular and offer both the VR and AR user the ability to touch and sense physical contact with virtual objects. AR actually has the advantage of offering much more real-world haptic information by default than VR can. With AR, the user can feel the actual book because it can be a real-world object, but, in VR, the technology must do something to allow the participant to feel such an object because the entire environment is computer created. Demand has been less so far for smell and taste, although there have been some experiments, largely unsuccessful, in adding odors to virtual worlds. Recent developments in the creation of technological tools to trigger the sensation of taste in an individual, such as the “digital lollipop” (Ramasinghe and Do 2016) and Electronic Food Texture System (Niijima and Ogawa 2016, 48–9), show promise for the eventual incorporation of this primary sense into the VR experience.

If full sensory engagement is required for a virtual world to be completely realized, then perhaps the most immersive and interactive experience of the Middle Ages may be one that is not computer-generated at all: Jorvik Viking Centre. Located in York, England, the museum and tourist attraction was created in 1984 and has long been famous for its appeal to the senses of its visitors, most significantly the sense of smell. A quick glance at such online review sites as Trip Advisor, Virtualtourist.com, etc. makes it clear that the intentional smells associated with the exhibit are not just memorable but also a significant factor in recommending the Jorvik Viking Centre. The exhibit’s use of scents to enhance the Viking experience has even generated scholarship exploring the effectiveness of odor in retrieving the memory of the tourist experience. Apparently, it is very effective (Aggleton and Waskett 1999, 1–7).[16] The Centre, in fact, intentionally engages all the senses of its visitors in order to make the historic re-creation a memorable and educational experience. In 2015, it actively promoted its non-digital exhibit in the language of virtual and augmented technologies, inviting guests to have a 4D Viking encounter rather than a mere 3D one. In this campaign, the Centre emphasized that all five primary senses of its visitors will be fully engaged (Jorkvik Viking Centre 2015):

  • Touch: Handling collection of Viking Age artefacts, including bone, antler and pottery, on offer to visitors in the queue—participants will be blindfolded and asked to identify the object/material.”
  • Sight: Binoculars are available in the ‘Time Capsules’ that take visitors around the recreated Viking city. These are to be used to spot the various animals that inhabit the scenes of the ride experience. A ‘spotter’s guide’ will be issued, allowing visitors to score themselves against their finds.”
  • Taste: A Viking Host will be on hand to explain the Viking diet and offer up tasters of unsalted, dried cod (a Norse delicacy) and for visitors over 18, Mead, a beverage made of fermented honey, will be available.”
  • Smell: JORVIK is already famed for its re-creation of the smells of the 10th century York but this will be taken a step further with the introduction of ‘smell boxes’ in the ‘Artefacts Alive’ gallery. A new aroma will be located next to a display of object, with the smell paired to match the contents. [Four] smells will be available: Iron (for the Iron working display), Leather (next to the leather and shoemaking), Beef (for the general living display), and wood (for our wood finds).”
  • Sound: A Viking will entertain visitors with period-specific musical instruments (including a recreation of the panpipes found at Coppergate) and retellings of some favourite Viking sagas.”

But as entertaining as the Jorvik Viking Centre clearly is, do we really want, or even need, a fully immersive and interactive experience? From the perspective of pedagogical effectiveness and student engagement, perhaps not. AR may, in fact, be the technology that has greater potential as a pedagogical tool precisely because it allows the user to learn in a digital environment while always keeping a strong foothold in the physical world—a reminder that the 3D world is not, ultimately, a real place.


[1] For further discussion of these key elements, see Søraker 2011, 44–72.

[2] Cave Automatic Virtual Environment: an immersive video theatre experience in which a participant wearing shuttering glasses views stereoscopic images as they are projected on the walls of a self-contained space in response to the participant’s position and actions.

[3] Such motion sickness may be caused by display and technology issues, sensory conflict, or postural instability; see LaViola, Jr. 2000, 47–56.

[4] Curiously, in 1935, a version of what we consider to be VR glasses was, in fact, envisioned by science fiction writer Stanley Grauman Weinbaum in his short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”; see Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22893/22893-h/22893-h.htm.

[5] Given the current interest in VR and AR, it is tempting to turn to 3D model sites, such as TurboSquid, to purchase ready-to-use models; however, evaluating these models for historical accuracy is essential. For example, searching on “medieval castle” brings up a wide selection of 3D models from fairly realistic structures to fantasy, fairytale confections that should be avoided for virtual historic sites; searching on “medieval woman” is even more problematic in terms of the results.

[6] Rousso expresses similar concerns about virtual heritage representation: “First, the issue of validity of information, commonly referred as authenticity. Second, the importance of accuracy in the representation of this information. Authenticity and accuracy are characteristics that archeologists, historians, and museum people strive to achieve and that the general public comes to expect from them. On the other hand, technologists dealing with the visualization of certain content are more concerned with the technical issues that pertain to implementation of the visualization and less concerned with authenticity and accuracy of the content itself” (Rousso 2002, 93).

[7] For a fuller analysis of Lévy’s understanding of actualization, see Ryan 1999, 78–107.

[8] For a detailed analysis of Milgram’s concept, see Craig 2013, 28–35.

[9] For an example of a 360º mural, see the Mural Room of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse which depicts the history of Santa Barbara, California, painted by Daniel Sayre Groesbeck in the early twentieth century: https://www.billheller.com/vr/Santa-Barbara-County-Courthouse-Mural-Room-360/.

[10] Stereoscopic imaging is the technique of creating an illusion of depth by using two offset images, one for the left eye and the other for the right, so that the brain processes both as a single, 3D image.

[11] We are making a distinction here between virtual heritage sites, which are 3D reconstructions of archaeological sites, architecture, or any other type of object, and 3D “real virtual worlds,” which combine 3D with “community, creation, and commerce,” such as World of Warcraft and Second Life; see Sivan 2008, 1–32.

[12] The phenomenon was first described by Masahiro Mori in 1970 and translated as “uncanny valley” by Jasia Reichard (Mori 1978).

[13] The project team has, in fact, used the 3D models to produce an award-winning stereoscopic short film, APA Etruscan (2012), for the Museum of the History of Bologna in which APA, an Etruscan character (see Figure 3), takes the viewer through a virtual history of the city.

[14] It is perhaps worth noting that, even though such virtual reconstructions are typically informed by the real world, the 3D digital exterior model of Notre-Dame de Paris created by Dassault Systèmes for the 3D Paris Saga as well as the 3D interior model created by Unisoft for the game Assassin’s Creed Unity may prove to be valuable resources for the rebuilding of the Cathedral after it was severely damaged by fire on April 15, 2019. Ironically, the real may now be informed by the virtual; see Wong 2019.

[15] For an example of how the book works, please see the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbZuQcXchkM.

[16] Capitalizing on the Centre’s success with odor and its notoriety, York’s tourism board published Britain’s first scented tourist guidebook in 2014 (Gordon 2014).


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Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Billinghurst, Mark, Hirokazu Kato, and Ivan Poupyrev. 2001. “The MagicBook: A Transitional AR Interface.” Computers & Graphics 25, no. 5.

Craig, Alan B. 2013. Understanding Augmented Reality: Concepts and Applications. Waltham, MA: Elsevier.

Cuff, Paul. 2015. A Revolution for the Screen: Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Film Culture in Transition. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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We are extremely grateful to Alan B. Craig for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this article and for drawing our attention to the Bologna 3D Open Repository.

About the Authors

Tamara F. O’Callaghan is a Professor of English at Northern Kentucky University where she teaches medieval literature, history of the English language, and introductory linguistics as well as digital humanities approaches to literature. She received a Ph.D. in medieval studies from the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, with a specialization in Middle English and Old French literature and medieval manuscript studies. She is the co-author of the textbook Introducing English Studies (Bloomsbury, 2020) and has published on medieval literature and manuscript studies as well as on the digital humanities and teaching. She also co-directs The Augmented Palimpsest Project, a digital humanities tool which explores how the medium of AR can be used in teaching medieval literature.

Andrea R. Harbin is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, Cortland where she teaches medieval literature, the history of English, and Shakespeare and serves as department chair.  She has worked as a digital humanist since 1998 as curator/editor of NetSERF: an Internet Database of Medieval Studies. She received a Ph.D. in Medieval English Literature with a specialization in medieval drama from The Catholic University of America, and has published articles on digital humanities, pedagogy in medieval studies, and medieval drama. She is likewise a co-director of The Augmented Palimpsest Project.

Screenshot of the Chirality VR experience displaying two 3D models being manipulated by virtual hands.

Virtual Chirality: A Constructivist Approach to a Chemical Education Concept in Virtual Reality


Extended reality (XR) is a growing interest in academia as instructors seek out new ways to engage students beyond traditional learning material. At the University of Florida, a team of library workers at Marston Science Library identify and design virtual reality (VR) learning objects for faculty and staff across campus. In summer 2019, the team at Marston Science Library and faculty in the Department of Chemistry partnered to pilot the implementation of a VR learning object into a general chemistry course. The Library team met with chemistry faculty and teaching assistants and developed a corresponding experience in virtual reality using the Unreal Engine, a game engine used in VR development. The VR learning object was designed for the section of the course related to chirality, an important chemistry concept that requires spatial awareness to understand. This article will explore VR as an approach to constructivist pedagogy and its application in chemistry education, specifically as a tool to positively impact spatial awareness. The results of the pilot implementation of the VR learning object was successful as chemistry faculty anecdotally noted increased student engagement and understanding of the course material. After a successful pilot, the learning object was also deployed in two organic chemistry courses. A survey was used to collect information from the students’ perspectives and demonstrated that the experience was beneficial for users developing spatial awareness of molecules for chemistry education.


Extended reality (XR) and its subsets, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), have expanded their roles in academia as researchers continue to seek out emerging technologies to solve modern problems. In the realm of teaching and learning, instructors are turning to XR learning objects as potential improvements on traditional learning objects. In response to this interest, universities have grappled with deploying VR learning objects in spite of associated costs and complicated logistics (Kavanagh et al. 2017). At the University of Florida (UF), Marston Science Library (hereafter Library) created MADE@UF, a virtual reality development space run by library staff, with the vision of providing VR technology to all of campus. The Library’s mission for MADE@UF is two-fold: supporting student learning and development of virtual reality, and aiding faculty in identifying, developing, and implementing VR experiences in curriculum.

In maintaining and coordinating a VR development space, the Library collaborates with faculty across campus from various disciplines including English, medieval studies, astronomy, psychology, and tourism, to name a few. These collaborations can involve identifying existing VR experiences to deploy as well as creating VR experiences for specific courses. In summer 2019, faculty from the Department of Chemistry approached the Library with an idea for VR experience to be designed for an Accelerated General Chemistry course in fall 2019. The Library assembled its team of experts, consisting of the Engineering Education Librarian, who is also the director of MADE@UF, the Chemical Sciences Librarian, and the 3D and Emerging Technologies Manager. Each Library team member brought their individual expertise in learning theories and pedagogies, chemistry education, and virtual reality development, respectively, to consider how creating a virtual simulation would benefit teaching and learning in this Accelerated General Chemistry course.

Constructivist Pedagogy in Virtual Reality

Constructivism as a learning theory involves the learner constructing their knowledge based out of their experiences in which the learner is an active participant (Glasersfeld 2003). Most VR experiences discussed in scholarly literature are not built on constructivist pedagogy; rather, most practitioners focus on and research intrinsic factors, such as immersion, motivation, and enjoyment, as essential to using virtual reality applications in teaching and learning (Kavanagh et al. 2017). This initial oversight is understandable, as before establishing the pedagogy of a virtual reality experience, the most fundamental aspects of virtual reality must be established. However, early VR researchers reference the importance of presence, accommodation, and collaboration while advocating for VR as a framework for constructivism (Bricken 1990). Immersion, another intrinsic factor, is fundamental in creating a virtual reality experience that is compatible with constructivism, specifically that “immersion in a virtual world allows us to construct knowledge from direct experience, not from descriptions of experience” (Winn 1993). These fundamental aspects of a VR framework must emphasize the importance of establishing identity, presence, and collaboration within a virtual space, all of which would be self-evident in physical spaces; this would then allow the learner to experience conceptualization, construction, and dialogue, which are staples of constructivist pedagogy (Fowler 2015). These intrinsic factors guide the creation and implementation of VR learning environments as frameworks for pedagogies to build upon (O’Connor and Domingo 2017).

In addition to focusing on intrinsic factors, researchers are also attempting to categorize VR learning objects retroactively under various pedagogies and learning theories such as experiential learning, situated cognition, or constructivism (Johnston et al. 2018). Of all the pedagogies and learning theories used in VR, constructivism is the most referenced pedagogy to accompany virtual reality experiences in education (Kavanagh et al. 2017). Constructivism is not inherent to all virtual reality experiences as it requires more than VR can independently provide. Rather, constructivist VR experiences should aim to provide feedback that results in revision and restructuring of previous knowledge constructs (Aiello et al. 2012). The VR experience also needs to include active learning, a component of constructivism in which learners derive meaning from their sensory inputs, so learners can freely explore and manipulate their environment while receiving sensory feedback (Chen 2009). VR experiences using a constructivist approach can facilitate knowledge construction and reflection as well as social collaboration (Neale et al. 1999). A benefit of a constructivist approach in virtual reality is improving the learners’ perceived usefulness of the learning material, which is the most significant contributor to positive learner attitude (Huang and Liaw 2018). A constructivist approach to VR has also led to gains in knowledge, skills, and personal development in a VR learning environment (Bair 2013). Spatial visualization, an important factor in chemistry education, has proven malleable and positively impacted by VR designed with constructivism pedagogy (Samsudin et al. 2014).

Chemistry Education Background

The molecular properties and chemical reactivity of compounds rely heavily on the way molecules are arranged and oriented in three-dimensional space, which is referred to as the stereochemistry of a molecule (Brown et al. 2018). A fundamental skill for chemistry students is the development of spatial awareness at the molecular level: understanding the structural geometries and relative sizes of molecules, as well as how to mentally translate between different visual representations of molecules, is a prerequisite to understanding and predicting chemical phenomena (Oliver-Hoyo and Babilonia-Rosa 2017). Teaching students how to visualize molecules in space is one of the quintessential challenges in chemistry education, particularly because the nebulous nature of chemistry concepts can be difficult to make tangible. Because there is no way to directly observe a molecule or molecular interactions at the sub-nanometer scale, models are used to represent chemistry concepts in both chemistry education and practice. A particular stereochemistry concept introduced at the undergraduate level is the chirality, or handedness, of organic molecules. Chirality refers to the relationship between objects that are mirror images of one another but cannot be perfectly aligned (or “superimposed”) on top of each other (Brown et al. 2018). This property is visible in all everyday objects that aren’t perfectly symmetric, such as a person’s left and right hands, threaded screws, and headphone earbuds. At the molecular level, organic compounds have a chiral center at any carbon atom with four different groups attached to it. Recognizing chirality and systematically naming chiral molecules are particularly troublesome tasks for undergraduate students due in large part to the difficulty of mental 3D visualization required to “see” these properties (Ayorinde 1983; Beauchamp 1984).

Research has indicated that handling concrete and pseudo-concrete representations of molecules (tactile models and computer-generated graphics) improves students’ spatial understanding of molecular structures in comparison to abstract 2D representations (Ferk et al. 2003). Educators have deployed a variety of visualization tools to help students translate the 2D representations of compounds in the pages of their textbooks into visualized 3D objects, including handheld “ball-and-stick” modeling kits and computer-based modeling programs. Ball-and-stick models were first employed in the mid-nineteenth century (Matthew F. Schlecht 1998) and are still the most widely used method for 3D visualization in undergraduate chemistry curricula. However, these model kits make a number of assumptions about molecular structures that are not accurate, including that bond lengths and atom sizes are all uniform. Commercially available modeling kits vary widely and leave more advanced visualization nuances to the imagination of the students. Computer modeling programs have the ability to represent individual molecules more accurately in terms of bond lengths, bond angles, and atom sizes because they do not rely on fixed physical pieces that the user assembles. Most of these programs are streamlined for ease of use and there are many free and open source software options for students to access (Pirhadi, Sunseri, and Koes 2016), including the popular programs Avogadro, JMol, MolView, and Visual Molecular Dynamics. The largest drawback of computer graphic representations for student learning is that they are not tactile and are typically viewed on a computer screen. A comparison of the 2D structural drawings common in chemistry materials, 3D models built with ball-and-stick model kits, and pseudo-3D digital images generated by computer software are shown in Figure 1.

The chiral molecule bromochlorofluoromethane as represented by the typical 2D line-angle formula created in Chem Draw, two different commercial ball-and-stick model kits, and computer modeling generated in Mol View.
Figure 1. The chiral molecule bromochlorofluoromethane (CHBrClF) as represented by (a) the typical 2D line-angle formula created in ChemDraw; (b) two different commercial ball-and-stick model kits; and (c) computer modeling generated in MolView.

Now that the costs of developing XR learning objects and obtaining the equipment necessary for students to experience them are becoming more obtainable, chemistry educators are exploring the use of AR, MR, and VR in the classroom. A review on the use of XR in education highlighted that course content being presented in a novel and exciting way, the ability to physically interact with the media, and the direction of students’ attention to the important learning objectives were all positive factors in the success of XR lessons (Radu 2014). Some examples specific to the chemistry domain include laboratory experiments designed in game engines like Second Life (Pence, Williams, and Belford 2015), AR smartphone applications that allow molecules to jump off the pages of lecture notes as 3D structures (Borrel and Fourches 2017), molecule building and structure interactions with AR (Singhal et al. 2012), environmental chemistry fieldwork simulated through VR (Fung et al. 2019), and VR experiences involving interactive computational chemistry (Ferrell et al. 2019). For teaching students about stereochemistry and chirality, the power of VR to bridge the divide between the structural accuracy of computer modeling and the tactile advantage of ball-and-stick model kits seems promising.

Many chemistry-education protocols have proposed that using multiple model types is the most beneficial approach for teaching students who may learn in different ways (Dori and Barak 2001). While there is evidence that viewing instructors manipulate computer models on a screen does improve student understanding in large chemistry lecture courses (Springer 2014), allowing for students to directly manipulate the model themselves has been suggested as the ideal approach to implementing computer modeling whenever feasible (Wu and Shah 2004). Encouraging students to translate between 2D and 3D representations during a facilitated interaction with 3D models has also been suggested to improve students’ ability to reason with chemical formulae, as opposed to students using models on their own with no instructor intervention (Abraham, Varghese, and Tang 2010). Combining these constructivist and chemistry education pedagogical insights, we chose to design and implement a lesson on visualizing, handling, and naming chiral organic molecules using an in-house built VR experience. During this lesson, the following strategies were employed:

  1. Undergraduate chemistry students in the class were previously instructed on the concept of chirality in their lecture course and had been exposed to 2D representations of chiral molecules.
  2. Each student had the opportunity to individually participate in the VR experience.
  3. Students were able to freely handle, rotate, and superimpose the molecules in the 3D virtual space.
  4. Students in groups were asked to make observations and explain the chemical phenomena in the virtual experience.

Design and Implementation of the VR Learning Object

The VR chirality experience was designed for CHM 2047, a one-semester, accelerated undergraduate General Chemistry course designed for students with a strong high school chemistry background who are interested in moving into upper-level chemistry courses. The course met three times a week with two lecture periods and one discussion period. The faculty member led the weekly lectures and split the students into five groups for the weekly discussion periods; each of the discussion groups was led by a peer mentor, an undergraduate student who had recently completed CHM 2047 and finished at the top of the class. Chemistry doctoral students were also involved in the course as teaching assistants (TAs) and participated in some supervised instruction as well as oversaw the undergraduate peer mentors. For the discussion period related to chirality, the faculty member for CHM 2047 solicited the expertise of the Library team to incorporate a virtual reality learning object. The Library team created a virtual reality template for classes to use in an assignment that allows learners to interact with 3D molecular models using virtual tactility and physics. During this interaction, the Library team devised a constructivist approach for the learning object.

Learners would recall knowledge learned in prior and current chemistry courses, specifically knowledge related to chirality and systematically describing chiral geometries. Drawing on this knowledge, students in groups would hypothesize and discuss their observations of the virtual environment and the molecules within it. Students would interact with other group members, testing their ideas about the virtual experience, and constructing an understanding of the learning object. Ultimately the objective for the students is to locate the chiral center of a molecule, describe the geometry of this chiral center, and realize the non-superimposable nature of chiral pairs. Additionally, students may be able to create a mental visualization of the molecules and improve their spatial awareness.

In order to prepare the VR template for use in the course, the instructing professors were asked to compile a list of relevant chiral molecule examples, generate computer models of these molecules using the software of their choice, and provide the models to the Library team in .PBD file type form. Although this activity was focused on small organic molecules, the Library team proposed this workflow because .PBD file types can accommodate small molecules as well as large macromolecules, such as proteins and polymers. This practice would allow for the use of protein structures from the Protein Data Bank (PDB), a global archive of 3D structure data of biological macromolecules (wwPDB consortium 2019), in future VR activities with ease. It is also possible to allow students to directly generate structures and provide them to the Library team, rather than the course instructors, as a part of the chirality lesson. The Library team was then able to import these 3D models into the game engine while retaining all color information provided in the original software. The Library team used an in-browser file converter designed by chemists to rapidly generate XR files from chemical structure files called RealityConvert (Borrel and Fourches 2017) to process the models from their original filetype (.PDB) to .OBJ 3D models with associated .PNG and .MTL files for mapping color to the model’s topography.

The team chose Unreal Engine V 4.20 because it is free to use for educational purposes and boasts pre-built VR interactive tools. Aside from its practicality, Unreal Engine can reproduce a project for Windows, Mac, mobile, HTML5, and other platforms. Once the VR template is set, it is relatively easy to drag and drop a new molecule model into the program and view it in immersive VR. The template was designed to show every loaded model in a museum-style room on a pedestal with the name of the molecule displayed above. The learner can approach each model, walk around it, and see from every angle. They can pick it up using motion controls and rotate the model in their hands. They can also grab a model in each hand to freely move the models around and compare. Once released, the model snaps back to its original position. For increased usability, the team felt it was necessary to design a physics object that had a natural feel when the viewer grabbed the model and rotated it using their own wrist and controller movement; this is notable as the team removed any physics interaction created by overlapping objects as well as the game engine’s own preset “gravity.”

The team chose a very plain room to model, using rectangular topography so as not to distract the learner from the molecules placed throughout the space; ample lighting was generated to create a well-lit space to explore. Additional lights were added below each of the models to highlight the topography and heighten the sense of three-dimensionality. The experience allowed the learner to move around the room by two separate methods depending upon the configuration of the VR experience. Either the learner could physically move through the space if using a VR setup that allows for full-range motion tracking; or the learner could use a trigger on the hand controller to point to a specific point in the virtual space and “jump” to it when releasing the trigger. A simple text document was provided to explain the controls.

The pedestals in the room were arranged according to a grid with three pedestals in each row. The learning objective of the VR experience was for students to compare the two versions of chiral arrangement for each molecule selected by the instructor. Chiral molecules are systematically classified as either R (“Rectus,” right-handed) or S (“Sinister,” left-handed) configurations. In each row of three pedestals, the R and S versions of the molecule were placed on the far left and right sides of the row. On the center pedestal of each row, a side-by-side display of both R and S versions was shown for the students to view. Because students were expected to determine and assign R or S configuration to the molecules they viewed, the R and S structures were intentionally randomized in regard to their positions on the “left” or “right” side of the room so as not to indicate chiral configuration. For example, one molecule might be arranged as R, R and S, S in its row in the room, while another might be arranged as S, R and S, R.

It is worthy of note that because the 3D models were placed in the VR space as non-rigid bodies—meaning that the objects can clip through one another and occupy the same virtual space—students were able to experience the non-superimposability of chiral molecules in a unique way. The defining feature of chiral molecules is that they cannot be perfectly aligned on top of one another, and typically ball-and-stick models of the two versions are held side-by-side as closely as possible to demonstrate this property. However, in this VR environment, students were able to hold one version in the same space as the other version for each chiral pair and see that no matter how they manipulated the models, they could not align all atoms in a way that matched.

Screenshot of the Chirality VR experience displaying two 3D models being manipulated by virtual hands.
Figure 2. Screenshot of the Chirality VR experience displaying two 3D models being manipulated by virtual hands.

Once the template was updated to include the student-created models, the VR learning object was installed on VR-ready computers in the MADE@UF space at Marston Science Library. Library workers set up three Oculus Rifts on VR-ready computers in MADE@UF for five consecutive class periods on the day of a discussion period. Groups of two to four students moved to the VR stations, each with an Oculus Rift headset for the student and a monitor for the supervisor, a role filled by the peer mentor, teaching assistant, faculty member, or chemistry librarian. The role of the supervisor was to explain logistical questions with minimal input about the content of the experience, although supervisors would intervene if the students’ conclusions about the virtual experience were incorrect. The students interacted with the five sets of molecules, each set increasing in complexity as the student progressed through the virtual space. The students were able to manipulate, compare, and superimpose the two models in order to assign R/S configuration.

Further Use and Assessment

The CHM 2047 course instructor was looking to expose students to more advanced chemical concepts beyond the typical first-year general chemistry curricula in an innovative way. Chirality is a concept that may sometimes be introduced at the general chemistry level but is universally taught during the subsequent organic chemistry sequence. After the VR program was created and implemented in CHM 2047 during the fall of 2019, the same program was used for facilitated VR experiences in Fundamentals of Organic Chemistry (CHM 2200) and Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry 1 (CHM 3217) during the spring 2020 semester.

After these VR sessions were completed, a brief survey instrument (see Appendixes) was deployed in order to assess the student’s perceptions of the VR experience’s effectiveness in improving their understanding of chirality, including in comparison with other chemistry model types, and whether the students experienced any accessibility barriers during the process. Responses were collected from twenty-one students in total from the three chemistry courses.

Students were asked which molecular visualization methods they have used while studying chemistry and which they found most valuable to their understanding of chemical concepts. The four methods were VR (used by nineteen), ball-and-stick models (used by sixteen), drawings (used by nineteen), or a non-VR computer model (used by nine).

Bar graph depicting student use of visualization methods in chemistry.
Figure 3. Student use of visualization methods in chemistry.

In terms of ranking how valuable each visualization method was, VR was ranked as the top choice with ten of twenty-one students, followed by drawings (seven students) and ball-and-stick models (four students). Two students ranked VR as their lowest choice method. Although nine students answered that they have used non-VR computer modeling before, none of the respondents ranked computer modeling as their top preferred visualization tool, which may be related to the intangible nature of computer modeling for novice chemistry learners.

Bar graph depicting student ranking of preferred visualization method while studying chemistry.
Figure 4. Student ranking of preferred visualization method while studying chemistry.

The majority of students believed that virtual reality was a benefit to their spatial awareness of molecules. Eighteen of twenty-one students believed that manipulating the molecules in the virtual reality experience improved their ability to make R/S assignments. Sixteen of twenty-one students believed that manipulating the molecules in the virtual reality experience improved their understanding of the non-superimposibility of enantiomers. Lastly, seventeen of twenty-one students believed that manipulating the molecules in the virtual reality experience improved their ability to mentally visualize molecules. Students who answered in the affirmative to these questions often referenced that being able to see, visualize, move, hold, and touch the molecules was a benefit. One student described the experience as “incredibly helpful experience for someone like me that isn’t the best at spatial configurations,” while another mentioned that they “can still visualize how the molecules looked in the virtual reality experience and it has helped me to visualize molecules in my head.” A small group of students did not believe the VR experience was helpful. These students indicated that they already had an understanding of the concepts or that ball-and-stick models were superior. One student noted that “ball and stick models do the same without all the fancy equipment.”

The student responses to the survey highlight a need for improved methods for teaching content that requires spatial reasoning. While some students already have the requisite spatial reasoning skills, other students struggle with converting 2D, non-tangible drawings to a 3D mental construction. VR in chemistry can then serve as a tool to create more accessible content for a subset of students who historically have struggled with spatial reasoning. VR could then be used in conjunction with the traditional 2D drawings and ball-and-stick models.

One area of improvement for the VR experience was related to the visual accessibility of the program. Survey responses recorded that one out of the twenty-one respondents experienced “barriers” during the lesson, but this respondent did not disclose specific details of the accessibility issue. However, during one of the sessions hosted in the library, a library facilitator was needed to dictate the colors of specific atoms and indicate their identities to a user with color blindness. This accessibility concern is widespread in chemistry and chemistry education because periodic table elements are typically designated by a common color scheme and visualized molecules usually do not contain textures or patterns in addition to color coding. In future iterations of this VR experience, finding ways to depict atom identities that do not rely on color perception will increase user accessibility.

Reflection and Conclusion

Overall, the VR experience was successful. Chemistry faculty and TAs conducted informal debriefing sessions with the students following the Library VR session. Students provided positive feedback, with several noting an increased understanding of chirality following the VR experience. The faculty and instructors noticed the students were more engaged during the VR session than during other discussion or lecture periods, a feat that was observed to be uncommon for undergraduate chemistry courses. The course instructor mentioned that in previous years, the typical assignment on chirality involved students drawing 2D representations of 3D structures on paper; after the VR experience this semester, students commented on the ease of model manipulation the experience granted and said that they “truly understood” what the concept of chirality meant. The professor also noted that the undergraduate peer mentors (who had previously been students in the course before the VR lesson was implemented) “were particularly content on the new way to look at molecules, describing it as a more direct way to understand the role of 3D in chemistry.” The chemistry faculty are already interested in using the experience again for their Fall 2020 coursework, and several other chemistry faculty have also contacted the Library about deploying a similar VR learning object for their classes. The CHM 2047 professor commented that “it is clear from the success of this assignment that teaming up chemistry instructors with experienced librarians is the best combination to implement new technologies within the chemistry curricula.”


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Appendix A: Survey Instrument

Appendix A

Appendix B: Survey Results

Appendix B

About the Authors

Samuel R. Putnam is the Engineering Education Librarian at the University of Florida, where he is the mechanical and aerospace engineering and engineering education liaison and directs the MADE@UF virtual reality development space. He received his MLIS from Florida State University in 2009, focusing on library management and leadership. Samuel’s current research focuses on multimodal and multimedia instruction as a means to promote information literacy and active learning.

Michelle Nolan is the Chemical Sciences Librarian at the Marston Science Library in the University of Florida, where she serves as the reference and instruction specialist for users pursuing chemical research. She received her PhD in chemistry from the University of Florida in 2018, where her doctoral studies focused on organometallic synthesis and materials deposition, and she transitioned from bench scientist to library employee later that year. Michelle’s current interests include student-centered learning related to chemical information and the promotion of social justice in STEM disciplines.​

Ernie Williams-Roby is a visual artist and designer based in Gainesville, Florida. He holds an MFA in Art + Technology from the University of Florida. He has contributed internationally to digital media artmaking and invention in the academic and public spheres for over a decade.

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