Tagged oral history

Two rural buildings dimly photographed in sepia tone.

“Relational Presence”: Designing VR-Based Virtual Learning Environments for Oral History-Based Restorative Pedagogy



Relational presence is the core principle of a new approach to designing virtual learning environments (VLEs), which has been developed by the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) project (dohr.ca). Presence, normally understood as the sense of being in a virtual environment to the extent that one forgets the environment is virtual, is thought to have significant pedagogical benefits in K–12 experiential learning projects aiming to develop spatial and social competencies that learners can translate into actual-world contexts. DOHR, by contrast, aims to build the understanding needed for learners to address systemic racism in Nova Scotia, through an oral history and restorative justice–based curriculum. To serve this alternative learning goal, relational presence replaces presence. The usual emphasis in VLE design on simulation, interactivity, identity construction, agency, and satisfaction is replaced with new values of impression, witnessing, self-awareness and awareness of difference, interpretation and inquiry, and affective dissonance. This paper introduces relational presence in order to help establish, in the field of VLE design, a productive discourse around issues of justice, representation of marginalized communities, and pedagogy-led design.


This article introduces relational presence, the core principle of a new approach to designing virtual learning environments (VLEs) that has been developed by the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) project (dohr.ca). DOHR has worked in partnership with the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry (restorativeinquiry.ca). The Restorative Inquiry was a four-year, provincially-mandated public inquiry into the history and legacy of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (NSHCC), including the lived experiences of its residents. The Home was a segregated care institution for African Nova Scotian children that operated in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia from 1921 until the early 2000s. Established to meet the care needs of African Nova Scotian children, the Home was a site of significant abuse and harm for many of its residents. Over the decades of its operations, former residents experienced neglect and abuse (Province of Nova Scotia 2019, 153–172). The Restorative Inquiry was established to examine the experience of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in relation to systemic and institutionalized racism, both historic and current, in Nova Scotia. In order to “contribute to the goal of social change to end the harmful legacy of abuse and ensure the conditions, context and causes that contributed to it are not repeated” (Province of Nova Scotia 2015, 4–5), among its goals the Inquiry aimed to:

    (a) Empower those involved in, and affected by, the history and legacy of the NSHCC to learn about what happened and the contexts, causes, circumstances and ongoing legacy of the harms related to the NSHCC.

    (b) Educate the public about the history and legacy of the NSHCC.

    (c) Publicly share the truth and understanding established through the RI and the actions taken, planned, and recommended to address systemic and institutionalized racism and build more just relationships for the future (Province of Nova Scotia 2019, 23).

The DOHR project was an important mechanism through which the Inquiry pursued this part of its mandate (Province of Nova Scotia 2019, 504–505). The DOHR project has brought former residents of the Home, representatives of the Nova Scotia education system, and members of the Inquiry’s Council of Parties together with artists and researchers from seven universities across Canada (Waterloo, Dalhousie, New Brunswick, McGill, Ottawa, Alberta, and British Columbia) to develop a two-week grade eleven Canadian History curriculum unit that supports students in learning about the historical harms experienced by former residents of the Home. In this way, it has served to support the mandate of education and the broader goal of moving toward reconciliation by building the understanding needed to address systemic racism in Nova Scotia.

DOHR is thus a community-driven project. It arises from a need articulated by a community and works to co-create the project with community members. This community mandate is central to the need for designing relational presence in the virtual reality (VR) experience. The Restorative Inquiry, from which the DOHR project was created, pursued a restorative vision of justice that was reflective of a relational worldview focused on connectedness. It sought justice in the form of just relations between individuals, groups, communities, and at the level of institutions and systems (Llewellyn 2011). As a restorative process, the Inquiry was “future focused, yet concerned with getting a comprehensive understanding of the past in order to know how to move forward toward a just future” (Province of Nova Scotia 2019, 26). It focused on learning about past harms in order to build more just relations going forward. This is, in simplistic terms, the impetus for a restorative approach to learning in the DOHR curriculum. A restorative approach, as DOHR members Jennifer Llewellyn and Kristina Llewellyn have articulated, is grounded in relational theory. Relational theory holds that human beings exist in and through relationship with one another (Llewellyn, J. 2011; Llewellyn and Llewellyn 2015). The DOHR project reflects the premise that relationality is at the core of learning about such difficult knowledge as systemic racism in the Home and its legacy. Learning requires attention to the fact that we exist in and through relations, and this fact has implications for justice. Recognizing the relational nature of the historical harms of the Home, requires that learners listen to the lived experiences of former residents.

The DOHR project therefore co-created, as part of its curriculum, a placed-based oral history experience in virtual reality, with three former residents—Gerry Morrison, Tony Smith, and Tracy Dorrington-Skinner—who are recognized leaders and activists in the community.[1] Scholars have demonstrated the many ways that oral history in education, both in conducting interviews and in listening to pre-recorded interviews, builds relational connections that are intergenerational and support reconciliation across divides (Llewellyn and Ng-A-Fook 2017; 2019). Unlike other oral history projects in schools, however, the DOHR project required that learners listen to stories in a contextual way that would connect them to a sense of place and the human experience of it—specifically, to the Home. Yet the DOHR team knew that former residents could not, nor should they be expected to, share their stories in-person with all students. The DOHR team also knew that not all students could visit the site of the Home and, even if it were possible, the site of the Home itself has changed significantly over the decades. While part of the Home’s building still stands, its present structure is considerably different from the structures in which the former residents lived (Morrison from 1954–60, Smith from 1965–68, and Dorrington-Skinner, who lived in the original Home building from 1972–78, and in the newer building now known as the Akoma Family Centre from 1978–84). Indeed, since early 2019, the site of the Old Home has been undergoing yet another phase of major renovations (see Figure 1). Since students cannot interact with the former residents or the site of the Home directly, the DOHR curriculum exemplifies the kind of experiential learning that is consistently identified in the VLE literature as likely to benefit from a virtual learning environment (VLE), and ideally one that is VR-based. DOHR wants to deliver experiential “learning tasks which are expensive” (Dalgarno and Lee 2010, 19) or even “impossible” (Bulu 2012, 153; Kwon 2019, 105) in real life. In order to provoke new, relational understandings of the Home and of systemic racism, which are further supported in the fuller DOHR curriculum, the former residents’ oral histories are shared in DOHR’s VR-based VLE.

Figure 1: Photographs of the buildings of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in 1961, 1921, 1978, and 2019.

Figure 1. At top left, the original Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (the “Old Home”) on the occasion of its official opening in June 1921. Top right, a large brick extension was added in 1961. Bottom left, the “New Home” building built in 1978 (now the site of the Akoma Family Centre). At bottom right, the Old Home as it appeared during the DOHR research team’s site visit in April 2019. (For further details see Chapter 3 of the Restorative Inquiry Report [Province of Nova Scotia 2019].)

However, DOHR has taken an unusual approach to the design of its VR-based VLE, because the learning outcomes that the DOHR project fosters—grounded in the commitment to restorative justice which seeks to foster just relations (Llewellyn 2011; Llewellyn and Llewellyn 2015)—are unusual in the context of VR-based VLE design. Specifically, we have developed a different approach to presence, which is broadly understood to be the element of VR design that contributes most to student learning in VLEs, and is hence the principal design aim of most VLE projects. Presence is the sense of “being there” (Slater and Wilbur 1997) in a virtual experience or “the psychological state where virtual experiences feel authentic” (McCreery, Schrader, Krach, and Boone 2013, 1635). Outside of the context of VLE design for experiential education, virtual environments have been designed with quite different aims. The digital humanities, for example, has emphasized the use of virtual reconstruction in research contexts as “not a neutral representation of ‘the past,’ but the scholar’s interpretation of specific aspects of a place at a certain time—an interpretation that can be challenged, revised, or rejected” (Sullivan, Nieves, and Snyder 2017, 301; emphasis original). Since the goal of creating a virtual environment in the digital humanities has been to make an argument and provide the locus for future argumentation (Sullivan, Nieves, and Snyder 2017, 301; see Roberts-Smith et al. 2016; Roberts-Smith 2017), attention has been paid to VLE design that encourages critical creativity rather than presence (Roberts-Smith et al. 2013). There is also some very recent, parallel work in VR design for K–12 education exploring the ways students productively fill in the gaps in imperfect historical simulations without compromising their sense of historicity (Papanastasiou et al. 2019). By contrast, in what has come to be known as “immersive journalism” (de la Peña et al. 2010; Reis and Coelho 2018), the use of 360º video to place the viewer in the “center” of a documented event is designed not to help participants learn to do anything specific, but to encourage them to empathize with victims of injustices (see for example Torsei and Philippe 2019). To date, however, neither these alternative approaches to virtual environment design nor their critiques (e.g. Reis and Coelho 2018; Mabrook and Singer 2019) are well integrated into the discourse around VLE design for experiential education. Similarly, 3D graphical approaches to the representation of marginalized communities remain under-interrogated in the VLE design literature, despite some robust work in this area emerging from game studies (e.g. Reis and Coelho 2018; Malkowski, Russwork, and Trea 2017; Taylor and Voorhees 2018).

Our aim for the DOHR project and this paper is to broaden the conversation about VLE design—which has largely followed technology- and psychology-driven lines of thought originating in the early 1990s[2]—to accommodate issues that have arisen more recently in fields outside of VLE design, through a discussion of the DOHR VLE. Since perspectives on how to achieve presence in VLEs, and why such presence is effective, are quite dispersed even in the VLE literature, we begin our discussion here with a synthesis of the most influential concepts. We then provide a description of the DOHR VR experience, and a discussion of how it approaches presence differently, consistent with the relational principles of a restorative approach. In conclusion, we offer some preliminary reflections on the DOHR VR experience’s effectiveness as a learning tool and suggest next steps for future development.

Presence and Learner Engagement in VLE Design for Experiential Learning

VR-based VLEs are most commonly designed to help learners (whether in school contexts or in public education contexts) to develop either spatial or social competencies that are impractical and/or dangerous to teach, especially at introductory levels, in the actual world. Widely-publicized examples include VR-based small motor-skill training for surgeons, in which learners use physical surgical instruments as controllers of avatars of the same instruments, to perform virtual surgeries on digitally-simulated bodies; such systems are increasingly used not just to train new surgeons but also to refresh the skills of practicing surgeons before performing actual-world surgeries (as in Surgical Science’s VR training system for laproscopy and endoscopy). In socially oriented VLEs, students typically learn how to avoid or respond positively to harmful behaviors, such as racial stereotyping, by rehearsing actions in virtually simulated scenarios (as in Kaplana’s 2015 Injustice); or how to develop empathy for the suffering of others by experiencing a simulation of their hardships (as in Kors et al.’s 2016 A Breathtaking Journey). Since the expectation in both kinds of VLE is that students will be able to transfer competencies developed in virtual reality into actual-world situations, these VLEs strive to simulate real-world experiences as vividly and accurately as possible, often incorporating actual-world material objects as well as virtual simulations, such as the surgical instruments used by Surgical Science. Kwon (2019) argues that immersive VLEs are especially relevant to the first stage of Kolb’s (1984) model of the four circulative processes of experiential learning, “concrete experience,” which could be followed by “reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation” in the classroom.[3]

There is general agreement in the literature on VLE design for experiential learning that the closer a simulated experience is to an actual-world experience, the better it functions as a replacement for real-world experience. When a simulation is effective, it produces in the participant the feeling referred to as “telepresence,” which is usually abbreviated to “presence”: “the psychological state where virtual experiences feel authentic” (McCreery, Schrader, Krach, and Boone 2013, 1635). If a technologically mediated experience is effective in generating the sense of presence, the perception of the person experiencing it “fails to accurately acknowledge the role of the technology in the experience” (International Society of Presence Research). In other words: it is generally accepted in the field that if a VR experience is effective in generating presence, the participant forgets they have a VR headset on, and instead feels like they are “there” in the illusion the headset is creating. In education, this experience of forgetting you are in a VLE has been seen as an advantage for experiential learning. Since experiential learning is thought to have been achieved when virtual experience is recognized as similar to an actual experience, “enhanced presence” is an ambition of VR-based VLE design (Kwon 2019, 105).

The sense of presence in VR-based VLE design is often understood to arise from immersive hardware systems (Fowler 2015, 416). Immersion here is understood as the “degree to which a virtual environment submerges the perceptual system of the user in computer-generated stimuli” (Biocca and Delaney 1995). In this understanding, the perceptual system is submerged physically, by the technical hardware employed to create the illusion of the virtual environment. For example, we might think of a VR headset as more immersive than a desktop computer screen, because it excludes the perception of visual stimuli that are not part of the virtual illusion (Dalgarno and Lee 2010, 11). However, as the examples of Surgical Science and Injustice demonstrate, hardware alone is not the greatest determiner of perceptual submersion in immersive systems (Archer and Finger 2018); rather, perceptual submersion is achieved by the degree to which a virtual illusion explicitly mimics the actual world. Although there is no consensus in the literature on the most effective design practices for achieving presence in VR-based VLEs, three design factors are regularly identified as having a significant ability to increase perceptual submersion: representational fidelity (the degree to which a virtual illusion looks or sounds like reality), interactivity (the degree to which the virtual illusion responds realistically to the embodied actions of a spectator), and identity construction (the degree to which spectators can associate themselves with characters represented in the virtual environment).[4] These factors are normally differentiated from one another in the literature, but are also understood to be interdependent in ways that are not yet consistently articulated.

Representational fidelity, for example, is often understood to be achieved by one or more of the following four factors:

    (a) The vividness, or “abundance of reenactment … providing information to the senses” (Kwon 2019, 102; see Steuer 1992). On a sliding scale, at the low end of what VR systems can deliver, only the sense of sight is engaged; in more sophisticated systems, hearing is engaged; then at the cutting edge of what is currently possible, touch is manipulated. Taste and smell remain beyond the capacity of existing virtual systems, available only in “actual reality” (see Figure 3).

    (b) The realism of the virtual illusion (Bessa, Melo, Sousa, and Vasconcelos-Raposo 2018, 35; Bulu 2012, 156), including its three-dimensionality (Bulu 2012, 154; Dalgarno and Lee 2010, 11); the ways in which it represents users (Fowler 2015, 413); and “the consistency of object behaviour” (Fowler 2015, 413; see Dalgarno and Lee 2010).

    (c) The plausibility and dynamics of the virtual environment, including such technical effects as reflecting mirrors or shadows (Sanchez-Vives and Slater 2005).

    (d) The “quality of the display, with high-fidelity displays being most realistic or photorealistic” (Fowler 2015, 413; see Dalgarno and Lee 2010). In other words, the sophistication of the equipment used to deliver a VR experience.

Similarly, interactivity is often understood to be achieved by one or more of the following:

    (a) The range of embodied actions available to the VR participant (Dalgarno and Lee 2010; Kwon 2019); in other words: the degree to which a participant can use their body in the ways they would in actual reality, by touching, speaking, or moving around, for example.

    (b) The degree to which the virtual illusion responds to the participant’s actions (Murray 1997; Dalgarno and Lee 2010; Kwon 2019), when, for example, objects move or other avatars engage in conversation.

    (c) The degree to which the participant can create new elements of the virtual illusion (Dalgarno and Lee 2010; Kwon 2019).

    (d) The technical ability of the system to respond to action through, for example, head-tracking (Sanches-Vives and Slater 2005) or update rate (Barfield and Hendrix 1995, 3).

However, the first of the four principles thought to contribute to representational fidelity is also sometimes treated independently as a factor that interacts with interactivity to increase a virtual illusion’s ability to simulate reality. Kwon, for example, sees VR-based VLEs that leverage the sense of touch and enable a wide range of bodily gestures as more “authentic” in the sense that they provide a more vivid experience closer to actual reality (see Figure 2). VR that is “authentic” in this way is particularly good at generating a sense of “place illusion” or “place presence” (Bulu 2012), the sensation of being and operating at a remote or virtual place (Slater 2009), or “being there” in the place depicted by the virtual display (Slater and Wilbur 1997). Hence “place presence” is often a design goal of VLEs whose intended learning outcomes include spatial competencies that can be translated to actual-world scenarios (such as, for example, Surgical Science).

Figure 2. Flow chart showing that interactivity and vividness enhance presence.

Figure 2. “Relationship between virtual reality and actual reality based on the degree of presence” (Kwon 2019, Figure 2).[5]

The third major design factor, identity construction, by comparison, is often understood to be an outcome of the first two, representational fidelity and interactivity (see Figure 3). Identity construction normally refers to the sense of personal “body ownership” (Slater 2009) that learners develop by associating themselves with a manipulable avatar in a virtual environment (Bulu 2012, 154; Fowler 2015, 414). It can also refer to a learner’s ability to construct identities for other player-participants through their respective avatars (Fowler 2015, 414; Bulu 2012, 155; Biocca et al. 2003; Schroeder 2002). Identity construction is often leveraged in educational contexts to help generate a sense of “co-presence”, or “being there together” (Fowler 2015, 414) in a virtual environment. Co-presence has two dimensions: “perceiving others and having a sense or feeling that others [are] actively perceiving us and being part of a group” (Goffman 1963; Slater, Sadagic, Usoh, and Schroeder 2000). Co-presence is normally understood to involve a sense that there is “psychological interaction” among individuals (Nowak 2001; Schroeder 2002; Bulu 2012, 155). As a result, identity construction is often a design goal of VLEs whose intended learning outcomes include social competencies that can be translated to actual-world scenarios (such as Injustice).

Figure 3. Flow chart showing representational fidelity and learner interaction lead to identity construction, presence, and learning benefits.

Figure 3. Dalgarno and Lee’s elaborated model of learning in a 3D VLE (Dalgarno and Lee 2010, Figure 1).

In general, however, whether designed for spatial or social learning tasks, presence is thought to have three major pedagogical benefits for learners. First, presence helps students focus on the learning tasks they are encountering in a VLE, developing a task-oriented “flow.” When students experience “flow”—the term used in the literature to describe “the state of being absorbed by an activity” (Scoresby and Shelton 2011, 227), which “mediates the relationship between presence and enjoyment” (Weibel, Wissmath, et al. 2008, 2274)—they learn better (Kwon 2019; see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Flow chart showing vividness, tactile interactivity, locomotive interactivity, and simulator sickness influence presence, flow, and learning effect.

Figure 4. Influence relations among vividness, tactile interactivity, locomotive interactivity, simulator sickness, presence, flow, and learning effect (Kwon 2019, Figure 8). Note that simulator sickness is a counter-indicator of flow here.

Second, presence helps create the sense of agency that learners need to have in order for learning to be experiential. Triberti and Riva, for example, describe presence as “a core neuropsychological phenomenon whose goal is to produce a sense of agency and control: I am present in a real or virtual space if I manage to put my intentions into action (enacting them)” (2016, 2). As Janet Murray puts it, agency is “the satisfying power to take meaningful action” (1997). The third benefit, which arises from the first and second, is that presence is also frequently associated with students’ satisfaction with their own learning (e.g. Bulu 2012). Student satisfaction is a measure frequently used to determine the effectiveness of a virtual learning activity (see Kwon 2019, for example).

If we were to extract the best practices for VR-based VLE design from the literature survey above, we might end up with something like: Make a high-fidelity simulation of the relevant actual-world environment; give learners a way of affecting the virtual learning environment and make the environment respond; and provide representations of learners themselves in the world. Thanks to the resulting sense of agency they will then feel, learners will forget they are in a virtual environment, getting into a flow where they are totally focused on their learning tasks. The outcome will be that they learn effectively and feel satisfied with their learning experience. According to the current state of the VLE literature, then, in an effective VR-based VLE a learner perceives themselves acting in a simulation and perceives the simulation responding; the resulting agency, presence, and flow lead to learning and satisfaction. While the literature describes best practices for VLE design to support the kinds of spatial and social learning outcomes commonly intended in experiential learning curricula, it does not support the DOHR curriculum’s intended learning outcomes.

Designing Presence in the DOHR VR Experience

The DOHR VR experience is a thirteen- to fifteen-minute individual learning activity that is embedded early in a five-lesson curriculum designed to run, typically, over the course of ten history classes. The VR experience was designed to support learning activities outside of the VLE that are constructed based on the principles of historical thinking and oral history education, and on a restorative approach to learning (Llewellyn and Llewellyn 2015; Llewellyn and Ng-A-Fook 2017; 2019; see also Gibson and Case 2019; Epstein and Peck 2019; and the Historical Thinking Project). The first two lessons invite students to join the former residents in their decades-long journey to bring their stories of the Home to light in order to build a better future. Students are introduced to a brief history of the Home and then asked to actively inquire about the historical significance, causes, and consequences of the Home. Their engagement in this inquiry is centered on an examination of oral history as a primary source in itself and in relation to other primary historical evidence (such as social worker reports, newspaper articles, and photographs). The lessons culminate with students developing a “restorative plan” that asks them, among other aims, to share what they have learned in a way that will do justice to the historical experiences of the former residents and contribute to the future-focused goal of reconciliation.

In the third lesson, learners are on-boarded in small groups to the DOHR VR experience in person, by a trained facilitator, at individual stations. The facilitator advises students how to end the experience if they find its content distressing. The facilitator leads a short “sharing circle” (a key activity in a restorative approach to learning) to debrief about the experience afterwards. The VR experience itself begins with a short, documentary-like 360º video segment in which learners see the storytellers, Smith, Morrison, and Dorrington-Skinner, and hear their voices in voiceover. The introduction of the storytellers is followed by a set of oral histories rendered in a multi-modal blend of 3D graphics, 360º and 2D video, 2D images, environmental and spatially-located sound, voiceover narrative, and text. There are 12 stories in total, but each learner can only choose to witness three, one from each storyteller. Following those three stories, all learners witness a short sequence in which the three storytellers reflect together about their memories of one common room in the Home. Finally, learners witness another 360º, documentary-like video for a concluding sequence in which the storytellers describe directly (that is, without the use of voiceover) how they came to be the activists they are today.

From its inception, then, the challenge for the DOHR team in developing the VR experience has been that it is intended for a different kind of use-case than other VR-based VLE projects. DOHR is a project that seeks for students to build a relational understanding of the historical harm of the Home by hearing the oral histories of former residents. The intent of the curriculum is for students to ask: What relationship do they have to, and thus what responsibility do they have to address, the history of harm, based on systemic racism, that is the legacy of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children? The aim of the curriculum, including the VR experience, is for students to build a sense of relationship to the lived experience of a place, even though they will never likely be in the actual Home nor meet the former residents in person. This means, in part, that a traditional sense of place presence in the VR experience is not important, since spatial awareness and spatial skills are not primary learning outcomes. Similarly, traditional social presence is not useful, since our aim is not to help students practice social behaviors in a virtual environment so that they can adopt them more confidently or consistently in the real world. What we need students to do is to consider their stance in relation to the stories of the former residents in order to inform their understanding and efforts toward just relations with those whose lived experiences are different from their own. In other words, instead of generating a sense of presence as it is traditionally understood, where a virtual experience feels like an experience that could be replicated in the real world, we need students to remember that they are witnessing a story being told through the perspective of another person, which they could never experience themselves in the real world. The term we are using to describe this form of presence is relational presence.

Relational presence has had several concrete implications for the design of the DOHR VR experience. Since we need to help foster an understanding of what it was like to live in the Home, for different people at different times, we are not invested in representational fidelity in the way that other projects are. Although we have worked extensively with architectural drawings, photographs, and other archival and archaeological evidence of the past structure of its site and buildings, in our renderings, we express the Home in a multi-modal, impressionist aesthetic that reinforces the former residents’ oral histories. Most stories, for example, begin in a line-drawn, white-on-blue rendering of the site of the Home that is intended to evoke a three-dimensional version of the architectural drawings used to structure 3D space at each point in the narrative. The invocation of the documentary record only becomes substantial—opaque 3D graphics, 360º video, light, and environmental sounds helping to establish a more specific impression of place, time, mood, and activities—as the voice of the storyteller (the sound that appears closest to a participant’s ear) begins to recount the story. The representational media are in turn combined in ways that neither attempt to mask the differences among them, nor their individual differences from the actual-world phenomena they evoke. Our aim is to privilege lived experience over the fragmentary documentary record, making it clear that the world learners are encountering is not an attempt to reconstruct the past through simulation. Instead, it is an attempt to construct a present encounter with oral histories about past experiences in the Home and the long-term impacts of those experiences. In contrast to the traditionally sought sense of “place presence”, then, the DOHR VR experience seeks to foster a sense of what we are calling “relational place.” Relational place is an invocation of what a place means—in the case of the DOHR VR experience, what it means for storytellers and learners—rather than a simulation of how a place looked or was configured at any given point time (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Morrison’s story, “Swamp Water” (top left) shows 3D graphics blended with 2D video and 360-degree video in a bathroom interior. Dorrington-Skinner’s story, “Mrs. Johnson’s Helper” shows a kitchen with partially transparent walls. Smith’s story, “The Switch” (bottom) shows different video sequences layered over one another.

Figure 5. Screen captures showing three different approaches to multi-modal impressionist rendering in excerpts from Morrison’s story, “Swamp Water” (top left); Dorrington-Skinner’s story, “Mrs. Johnson’s Helper” (top right); and Smith’s story, “The Switch” (bottom). See Roberts-Smith et al. 2019.

Since learners need to maintain a sense of the difference between their own perspectives and the perspectives they are learning about, we are, similarly, not invested in identity construction in the sense of the identification of self or others with avatars to enhance social presence as it is understood in the VLE literature. Rather, we seek to support in students the development of a sense of relation to the stories rendered in our VR experiences and the storytellers from their own position and perspective. The VR experience does not create the illusion that the storytellers are really “there” with learners in the virtual environment. This means there are no anthropomorphic avatars in our VLE, and we make no attempt to create roles or characters for the storytellers or for learners to “play.” Learners are characterized by means of an avatar that is a literal representation of the story-selection controller held in the learner’s hand—the only avatar in the entire build—only as the force that uses the controller to select a story. Instead of creating virtual representations of either storyteller or student, we make space for each to occupy their own, actual-world perspectives. For storytellers, that means that their oral histories are told in recordings of the adult storytellers themselves, and for learners, it means witnessing those stories as grade eleven Canadian History students themselves, and not in the kind of role-play scenario that is common in social competency VLEs.

The emphasis on witnessing oral histories of the Home, then, means that there is also very little traditional interactivity in the DOHR VR experience. Since the world of our VLE represents the lived experiences of the storytellers, students do not need agency in the sense of being able to take action that initiates a response from objects or characters in the virtual world. If they were able to do that, the world would no longer represent the storytellers’ perspectives, and would not help learners understand the difference between their own perspectives and those of the storytellers. It would also give students the illusion of having power to change the stories, which, since justice in the DOHR project depends on hearing stories that have not been heard before, would subvert the project’s aim of encouraging an active listening that may provoke new understandings of the past. It would undermine the students’ ability to consider how lessons from the past can contribute to future just relations, as required of them in the restorative plan they develop as part of the curriculum. In the DOHR VLE, interactivity is hence extremely limited in traditional VLE design terms. To the extent that it is available at all, it is designed to characterize learners as witnesses to the stories. Students are able to choose one story from each of the three former residents whose stories are represented, and then listen to it. However, learners are not inactive, because listening to the stories is itself an important cognitive activity that has been recognized, for example, in Indigenous studies as an active “inhabiting” of representational worlds (Ridington 1998), and in performance studies as an active self-reflection on one’s “role and experience as a spectator” (Rokem 2002). Bronwen Low, a member of the DOHR research team, has written about “the pedagogy of listening” in similar terms (Low 2015). Drawing upon the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, Low describes listening as a learning process that extends the ear towards the other. This is not a silent nor passive process, but rather, one that builds relations of deep listening between storyteller and listener (Low 2015, 270–75; Llewellyn and Cook 2017). We differentiate this form of “witnessing” from “co-presence” as it is understood in the field of VLE design: namely, as the perception of others in a virtual environment, and the perception that others perceive us, giving us the sense that we are “part of a group” (Bulu 2012, 155; see Goffman 1963; Slater, Sadagic, Usoh, and Schroeder 2000). In VLE design, “co-presence” normally refers to the presence of other users in the virtual environment, and it is achieved through synchronous user-manipulated avatar interactions. By contrast, we are interested in giving students a sense of relation not to other VR participants, but to the lived experience of the non-player characters of the storytellers, Gerry, Tony, and Tracy, who are not simultaneously present, but represented through pre-recorded media and pre-fabricated digital assets. Relational interactivity, then—the invitation to witness—places agency in the context of relationship. The learner’s power is to relate across differences in perspective.

In these different approaches to representational fidelity, identity construction, and interactivity, DOHR takes an approach that is also different from precedents in fields outside VLE design. For example, despite a shared lack of interest in in-world interactivity, our conception of “witnessing” also differs significantly from the concept of non-interactive “immersive witness” (Nash 2018) that has been taken up in 360º video-based journalism inspired by the work of Nonny de la Peña (2010). In this context, 360º video is understood as a means of simulating a distant event, and consequently as offering the experience, rather than a representation, of that event; this experience is “immersive witnessing” (Nash 2018). While immersive witnessing has been critiqued for its relative lack of interest in the distance or disinterestedness normally expected in journalistic reporting (Nash 2018; Reis and Coelho 2018), it has been taken up by activist and humanitarian organizations because it was thought to instill a sense of responsibility for others. However, immersive witness makes different assumptions than the DOHR project does about the nature and aims of witnessing. Immersive witness is interested in “providing the audience with something of an experience that is linked in various ways to the experiences of others” (Nash 2018) through passive reception of a photo-realistic simulation. DOHR, by contrast, avoids simulation to encourage the active exploration of differences of perspective arising from differences in lived experience.

Finally, another important difference between the DOHR VLE and other VLEs is that witnessing the different perspectives of former residents of the Home can be an uncomfortable experience. The stories are about the harms that former residents suffered there, and the resilience that they and other children drew upon to survive those harms. So, another difference between relational presence and traditional presence is that, although relational presence can be absorbing and lead to the kind of “flow” where students are fully engaged in their learning task, it does not necessarily offer the pleasant kind of self-satisfaction related to taking action within the VLE intended by Janet Horowitz Murray (1997) and others. Instead, relational presence can lead to affective dissonance, which is the discomfort we feel when we experience difficult knowledge (Zembylas 2015; Zembylas and Bekerman 2008; Simon 2015). That discomfort prompts thought-provoking questions for learners, providing a different opportunity and experience of agency, which learners explore in the fuller classroom curriculum. These questions include: How could this have happened? Why didn’t I know about this before? What is my responsibility now that I know these stories? That kind of questioning is a learning agency—the agency to inquire and to reconsider how we act in and through relationship with others in the world.

Designing the DOHR VR experience has suggested to us that presence need not necessarily be understood as a simulation-based forgetting that we are witnessing an illusion, nor as an erasure of our awareness of the technology that delivers it. The project does not use a model of presence that requires the reconstruction of spaces for us to “be” in, identifying with representations of ourselves or others, and feeling satisfying agency by interacting with place and social context. Instead, we think of presence as the unsettling agency to witness a different perspective on meaning, which offers an opportunity to consider, and possibly change, our actual-world understanding and behavior as a result. If presence is thought of relationally, an alternative model of effective VLE design emerges. Instead of acting in a simulation, a learner occupies a relational place to witness a story. The resulting sense of relational presence fosters forms of agency and affect that are critical for learners to inquire further and seek restorative actions for justice in their actual-world contexts. For DOHR to achieve relational presence, our VLE needed to offer the opportunity to witness a past world described by those who lived it and provoke questions, based on the opportunity to witness, that would otherwise be impossible to formulate. In the case of the DOHR project, relational presence was achieved by means of a mixed-mode, impressionistic representation of the lived experience of a real-world environment, which avoided avatars, and limited interactivity to opportunities to witness (see Table 1).

Traditional Presence Relational Presence
simulation (representational fidelity) impression (representation of meaning)
interactivity witnessing
identity construction (recognizing self) self-awareness, awareness of difference
agency interpretation, inquiry
satisfaction affective dissonance
Table 1. A comparison of traditional and relational approaches to presence in VR-based VLE design.


In the DOHR VR experience, we have developed a theory of relational presence, and one approach to achieving it, which have yet to be validated through empirical study of student learning, or in other VR-based VLE design projects. At the time of this publication, the DOHR team has conducted a study of the DOHR curriculum, including the VR experience, and is analyzing the data. Preliminary results from the data indicate positive learning outcomes. Students reported sensations that indicated they did experience a strong sense of flow, and acquired important new knowledge, despite our unconventional approach to designing the VLE. Future study of the delivery of the curriculum will help the team to understand how diverse social and geographical factors affect learning outcomes, and the need to address the accessibility limitations of our current design, beyond physical and auditory enhancements. An analysis of the data from classroom implementation will provide us with the evidence required to determine how the VR experience with a focus on relational presence, embedded within the curriculum as a whole, may lead to learners’ increased relational competency; that is, to an increase in students’ ability to engage in the work of building more just relations in their worlds.

Two avenues for further research have already suggested themselves to the DOHR team. First, there may be productive research to be done on the role of aesthetics as a support for learning in VLEs. The concept of representational fidelity has so far been limited to a very narrow subsection of what might be more fully understood as the representational aesthetics of a virtual learning experience (by which we mean the intentional manipulations of the media of expression to both represent and generate experiential phenomena). This may be a result of the strong influence, to date, of STEM disciplines on the development of existing VLEs; STEM-based work typically thinks of aesthetics as a means of enhancing user experience and usability (e.g. Tuch et al. 2012). In the DOHR VR experience, we found that a significant investment in representational aesthetics was essential to the pedagogical goals of the project—both in terms of the theatre-based design experts gathered to work with former residents of the Home and other members of the DOHR steering committee on the VR development team, and also in terms of financial and material resources. What the DOHR build lacks in traditional presence-inducing features, it perhaps makes up for in aesthetic features. This may also explain why the DOHR team found some preliminary precedents for some components of relational presence in Indigenous studies and performance studies, two fields that are deeply invested in what we might think of as a twenty-first century development of what Nicholas Bourriaud first termed “relational aesthetics.” For Bourriaud, “the possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by [its predecessor] modern art” (2002, 14; emphases original). The DOHR VR experience’s stylistic gesture of intermedial, impressionist representation to achieve relational presence may be one way VLEs can begin to explore social systems (or “formations,” as Bourriaud calls them) in much richer ways than the field of VLE design has yet done. Similarly, DOHR’s engagement of a relational approach may encourage others to explore the ways in which Bourriaud’s articulation of “relational aesthetics” might be altered or expanded to better serve the aims of projects fostering restorative justice.

In addition, there is certainly more work to be done on the contextualization of VR-based VLEs within classroom-based curricula and with reference to in-class teaching strategies. Work in this area currently consists of a decade or more of advocacy in pedagogical game studies (see, most recently, Hébert and Jenson 2019 for both context and evidence of best practices). Although VLE designers have devoted a great deal of energy to the technical design of stand-alone VLEs, the field has not yet taken full advantage of the opportunity to apply best practices in pedagogical design to VLEs (Fowler 2015). This could be done in stand-alone VLEs but could also be approached by situating a VLE as one in a series of classroom learning activities, as the DOHR project has done. A significant advantage of considering VLEs in the context of an overall blended (in-person and virtual) curriculum design is that it avoids “technological determinism” (Reis and Coelho 2018, 1093) whereby virtual experiences are “considered both a product and an outcome of technology” (Reis and Coelho 2018, 1093), rather than an outcome of the ways designers have manipulated the technologies in question. Understanding a VLE as one learning activity in the context of a larger curriculum necessarily makes its technology secondary and emphasizes the agency of educators to design and use the VLE in the ways that best serve their students. Relational presence is one offering that DOHR can make to the larger project of reconsidering the role of VLEs in K–12 and public education, with a view to addressing issues of pedagogy, representation, and justice that are not yet well accounted-for in the field.


[1] The DOHR VR experience was designed using a process that aligns generally with the principles of “co-design” articulated in the seminal work of Steen (2013), whereby parties characterized as “stakeholders” are actively involved throughout the design process and afterwards (Steen 2013); as distinct from “participatory design,” in which stakeholders are consulted only at key points (Schuler and Namoika 1993; Björgvinsson, Pelle, and Hillgren 2010). However, DOHR’s process differs from this and other activist, participatory artistic practices leveraging digital media (e.g. Gubraim, Harper, and Otañez 2015) in its centering of a relational approach to all project activities. The full citation for the DOHR VR experience, acknowledging specific roles of individual co-design participants, can be found in our reference list under Roberts-Smith et al. 2019.

[2] See Steuer 1992 (also cited below) for an example of an influential early technology-focused work; Chittaro 2013 for an example of work using psychological concepts to better understand human-computer action; and Riva 2018 for a compelling example of the integration of philosophy, human-computer interaction, and psychology in current work. Lombard and Ditton 1997 offer a survey of early 1990s trends; Fowler 2015 and Reis and Coelho 2018 critique the outcomes of the emphasis on technology in particular.

[3] We note, however, that the classical conditions under which virtual experience is advantageous (i.e. where embodied experience is “expensive, dangerous, or impossible” [Dalgarno and Lee 2010]) may be as likely to occur at the active experimentation stage as at the concrete experience stage.

[4] An important additional factor, beyond the scope of our discussion here, is immersive tendency, which operates outside of the context of the VLE itself. Immersive tendency refers both to the pre-disposition of some participants “to involve and focus on the [sic] common activities in real life” (Bulu 2012, 159), and also to participants’ desire to immerse because they “have specific expectations about what the outcome should be” (Shin 2017, 71; citing Weibel et al. 2010; Burns & Fairclough 2015; Hou, Nam, Peng, and Lee 2012).

[5] Kwon’s scale addresses only the five most familiar senses. There is also a great deal of work being done on proprioception in research related to motion sickness in VR, which Kwon acknowledges as a counter-indication of presence. For a substantial review of the relevant literature, see Weech, Kenny, and Barnett-Cowan 2019.


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About the Authors

Jennifer Roberts-Smith (Associate Professor, Theatre Performance, University of Waterloo) is an award-winning artist-researcher, whose transdisciplinary work in performance, digital media, design, education, and social justice has appeared in theatres, exhibitions, and scholarly publications internationally. She is currently director of the qCollaborative (the intersectional feminist design research lab housed in the University of Waterloo’s Games Institute), and of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded Theatre for Relationality and Design for Peace projects. Since 2017, JRS has served as creative director and virtual reality cluster lead for the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation project.

Justin Carpenter is a PhD Candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. His current research traces the use of the term “generative” from literary to computational contexts, arguing that an understanding of this term opens up a variety of arguments around concepts such as authorship, agency, and emergence. He argues that such a genealogy can help situate game studies scholarship in dialogue with modernist and postmodernist literary studies, as well as cinema and other media. His other research interests include poetry, philosophy of technology, and aesthetics.

Kristina R. Llewellyn is Associate Professor of Social Development Studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. She is an expert in oral history, history education, history of education, and women’s history. Llewellyn has numerous award-winning publications, including The Canadian Oral History Reader (MQUP, 2015), Oral History and Education: Theories, Dilemmas, and Practices (Palgrave, 2017), and Oral History, Education, and Justice: Possibilities and Limitations for Redress and Reconciliation (Routledge, 2019). Llewellyn is a co-investigator on the SSHRC-funded project Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future, which is working to revise history education across Canada. She is the Principal Investigator and Director for Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation: The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children History Education Initiative project.

Jennifer J. Llewellyn is a Professor of Law and the Yogis and Keddy Chair in Human Rights Law at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University. She is an expert in relational theory and a restorative approach. She served as a Commissioner on the Restorative Inquiry for the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. She directs the Restorative Approach International Learning Community and the Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab at Dalhousie University. She is a member of the Steering Committee for the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation project.

Tracy Dorrington-Skinner is a member and former co-chair of Victims of Institutional Childhood Exploitation Society (VOICES). She was a resident of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. A member of the DOHR Team she was one of the three storytellers. Tracy was a member of the UJIMA Design Team for the Restorative Inquiry and a member of the Advisor Group for the Restorative Inquiry.

Gerald “Gerry” Morrison is a co-chair of Victims of Institutional Childhood Exploitation Society (VOICES). He was a resident of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. A member of the DOHR Team, he was one of the three storytellers. Gerry was also a member of the UJIMA Design Team for the Restorative Inquiry and a Commissioner on the Restorative Inquiry.

Tony Smith is a co-chair of Victims of Institutional Childhood Exploitation Society (VOICES). He was a resident of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. A member of the DOHR Team, he was one of the three storytellers. Tony was also a member of the UJIMA Design Team for the Restorative Inquiry and a Commissioner on the Restorative Inquiry. He served as the co-chair of the Council of Parties (Commissioners) for the Restorative Inquiry.

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