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A college student stands by a classroom window wearing a leather jacket holding a Google Cardboard to their face.

The Potential of Extended Reality: Teaching and Learning in Virtual Spaces

The irony of writing about extended reality (XR) at this time when so many of us have been thrust into the virtual is not lost on us. The situation is reminiscent of the world depicted in Cline’s Ready Player One (2011), in which the entire population uses virtual reality (VR) to escape the increasingly precarious environment outside their doors. Works such as “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster (1909), or He, She, and It by Marge Piercy (1991), provide a dystopic vision of a virtual future, but now, we need—perhaps even crave—optimism. The virtual offers us a way to connect; the possibility of engaging with each other even from a distance. We also need to find ethical and sustainable ways going forward to employ a medium poised for mass adoption. This issue demonstrates the power of XR in pedagogical applications, community partnerships, and future gatherings.

This special issue focused on XR—most often referring to virtual and augmented reality (AR)—emerged from our shared excitement about the potential of immersive media to support innovative pedagogy at all levels of education, but also from our healthy skepticism about the limited circles of people actually empowered to shape this process. The full reality–virtuality continuum, a concept first introduced by Paul Milgram and his colleagues in 1994, encompasses everything from virtual reality theaters and mixed reality headsets to augmented reality experiences on mobile devices. Until very recently, the higher end of XR was limited to specialized labs and researchers. As both the technology itself and the means of creating content have become more accessible, the field has expanded and diversified.

Some researchers include 360º imaging and 3D video in the XR mix, especially if experienced immersively; others might also extend the concept to include ambient technologies in “smart city” and “smart home” applications. At its core, the XR we are exploring in this issue is about designing an immersive and interactive experience in the service of teaching and learning. While XR in the future may boast the seamless interfaces of science-fiction fantasy, today’s implementations mostly remain awkward, partial, and experimental. This is not a bad thing. As scholars, we still have room to maneuver and to change the terms of use before the technology is naturalized into an invisible, yet costly, necessity for twenty-first–century learning.

Working in the field at this critical moment, we noticed the lack of scholarship engaged with humanistic concerns regarding XR technologies in pedagogical applications. The literature is dominated by rigorous publications on the technical side describing developments in the field of computer science, and by informative case-study examples from museums, journalistic applications, and popular entertainment. Pedagogical experiments in K–12 education, industry, building technologies, city planning, and medicine, meanwhile, have clearly demonstrated the potential of XR applications for teaching and training. Yet the critical conversations around the medium itself, its affordances, challenges, and opportunities for educational use, still take place within small, often isolated pockets of discipline-specific practitioners. We meet up in local working groups, at conferences and workshops, on Twitter—and now in the pages of JITP. One of our objectives in putting together this issue is to bring these different groups into deeper conversation with one another, promoting critical knowledge construction in the field while building out a body of citable literature in humanistic XR studies. We hope this issue helps expand the field to include a greater diversity of voices and experiences.

In the future, the pressing questions of our current circumstances may find answers in XR. Take for instance the growing number of virtual conferences, virtual tours, and virtual open houses already happening in response to the shift to remote learning and working conditions. Although made more urgent by COVID-19, the creation of virtual labs, virtual workspaces, virtual archives, and virtual art studios has long been the dream of XR researchers. Now is the time for scholars to envision and build this future with or without the collaboration of the big tech companies (most recently Apple and Verizon) that have been quietly buying up XR platforms and start-ups in anticipation of a pivotal moment like this. How will we ensure our values are embedded in the XR systems that emerge, or that the resulting models of pedagogy are immersive, interactive, accessible, and collaborative? Even as we go online with our teaching, we realize how much we’re missing from lived experience in physical proximity. How can we leverage the affordances of the real in pursuit of the digital? How does the digital expand access, opportunity, vision, and community? How might XR facilitate lifelong learning applications and the global communities these interventions make possible? The articles in this issue begin to explore these questions in greater depth, and offer potential avenues for further development, especially in terms of community engagement and social justice. This special issue also makes clear that diversity, in all its many forms, is an essential component for XR-based teaching and research, especially as we consider ways of applying intersectional analysis to applied learning.

Several of the articles in this issue focus on using XR for social justice. In “Immersive Pedagogy: Developing a Decolonial and Collaborative Framework for Teaching and Learning in 3D/VR/AR,” Lorena Gauthereau, Jessica Linker, Emma Slayton, and Alex Wermer-Colan draw from a symposium held at Carnegie Mellon University and conversations held with librarians, technologists, developers, and faculty in attendance there. The authors advocate for continued conversations regarding integration, use, and review of 3D/VR/AR teaching and learning technologies. In “Developing Virtual Reality Modules Aimed to Enhance Social Work Students’ Skills and Reinforce Knowledge,” Nicholas Lanzieri, Henry S. Samelson, and Jonathan Bowen describe how multiple approaches to the use of VR in therapist training—360º video and avatar-based game environments—can be embedded into a social work curriculum. Their work demonstrates how prior exposure to environments and potential conversations can enhance live engagement with a diverse set of clients. One of the more revelatory examples of XR technology applications is evidenced in the essay, “‘Relational Presence’: Designing VR-Based Virtual Learning Environments for Oral History–Based Restorative Pedagogy,” by Jennifer Roberts-Smith, et al. This article describes an approach to designing VR that intentionally makes users aware of their virtual environments in order to situate themselves apart from the oral histories they experience in simulations. In this piece, Roberts-Smith et al. introduce the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) project (dohr.ca), which worked in partnership with the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry (restorativeinquiry.ca) to create a VR experience intended to expose the truth of institutionalized racism and to empower the survivors to “build more just relationships for the future.”

Several of our articles also engage with the potential for partnership building and community engagement through historic sites, landscapes, and the university/college campus. In their article “Representing Indigenous Histories Using XR Technologies in the Classroom,” Amy J. Lueck and Lee M. Panich argue for the wider adoption of XR technologies such as annotated 360º video tours at key locations on campus to help undergraduate students understand and intervene in the continued erasure of Indigenous histories from existing commemorative landscapes there. This emphasis on community partnerships is echoed in the issue’s fifth article. In “Blending Disciplines for a Blended Reality: Virtual Guides for a Living History Museum,” Juilee Decker, Amanda Doherty, Joel Geigel, and Gary D. Jacobs demonstrate how an interdisciplinary partnership between a university and a local museum offered the opportunity for students to develop digital storytelling skills and multimodal literacy. In “Barriers to Supporting Accessible VR in Academic Libraries,” Jasmine Clark and Zach Lischer-Katz address both accessibility and the important role of libraries in VR creation, implementation, and support as we scale up from experimentation to broad-based implementation strategies.

Especially exciting and filled with generative possibilities are the kinds of lessons learned from case studies arising out of various pedagogical contexts and disciplines. A diverse team of David Neville, Vanessa Preast, Sarah Purcell, Damian Kelty-Stephen, Timothy D. Arner, Justin Thomas, and Christopher French, describes a whole-college approach in “Using Virtual Reality to Expand Teaching and Research in the Liberal Arts.” Their approach to infrastructure development highlights how a smaller institution can make XR happen at a thoughtful, systemic scale—in harmony with existing pedagogical values and practices—in a highly selective teaching-focused undergraduate setting. “Truly Immersive Worlds? The Pedagogical Implications of Extended Reality” by Tamara O’Callaghan and Andrea Harbin provides specific examples of the kind of VR and AR applications an instructor might use in a liberal arts context. Specifically, they investigate how 3D models of historic sites and AR overlays on historic documents can serve as virtual tools to enhance the physical space. Another example, from Alison Burke, Elana Blinder, Leah Potter, and David Langendoen in their article, “Mission US TimeSnap: Developing Historical Thinking Skills through Virtual Reality,” shows that VR is a promising and useful tool for K–12 history education. Their TimeSnap game has helped to increase students’ engagement with historical documents, narratives, and terminology. Thinking critically about such XR engagement is not limited to the humanities classroom. In the sciences, there have been several applications supporting laboratory work and surgery, but in “Virtual Chirality: A Constructivist Approach to a Chemical Education Concept in Virtual Reality,” authors Samuel R. Putnam, Michelle M. Nolan, and Ernie Williams-Roby demonstrate how it is important not only to use XR in teaching, but also to bring students into the process of building applications. Together, these articles provide an interdisciplinary view of how XR technologies are shaping education at all levels through a critical engagement with interdisciplinary applications.

This issue celebrates pedagogical innovation and forward thinking, but we would be remiss not to acknowledge that it will be released at a time of profound loss, reflection, and fear. The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy was founded and remains housed at the Graduate Center, CUNY, in New York City, a city losing multitudes of souls, including brilliant academics, each day. All of us have felt this loss, and it is only because of the incredible dedication and hard work of everyone involved that this issue was published at this time. The greatest thanks go to our managing editor, Patrick DeDauw, who not only ensured that the process of publishing this issue was streamlined and efficient; he also made it enjoyable despite the most incredible of obstacles. Patrick, you are our hero. We would also like to acknowledge the willingness of our authors to work through revisions and copyedits with grace and professionalism amidst a global crisis. And to our reviewers, please know your service is very deeply appreciated.

One final personal note: this issue is dedicated in memory of Dr. David Greetham, a founding member of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Without his foresight and inspiration, many digital innovations cited in this issue would not have been possible.

Bibliography

Cline, Ernest. 2011. Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers.

Forster, E. M. 1909. “The Machine Stops.” Oxford and Cambridge Review (November).

Milgram, Paul, Haruo Takemura, Akira Utsumi, and Fumio Kishino. 1994. “Augmented Reality: A Class of Displays on the Reality–Virtuality Continuum.” Proceedings of Telemanipulator and Telepresence Technologies 2351: 282–92.

Piercy, Marge. 1991. He, She, and It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

About the Editors

Amanda Licastro is the Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric at Stevenson University in Maryland, as well serving on the editorial collective of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. Her research explores the intersection of technology and writing, including book history, dystopian literature, and digital humanities. Publications include articles in Kairos, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, Hybrid Pedagogy, and Communication Design Quarterly, as well as a recent chapter on social annotation in Digital Reading and Writing in Composition Studies, published by Routledge. Her grant-funded project on virtual reality was awarded the Paul Fortier Prize at the 2017 Digital Humanities conference, and has been featured in the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Magazine.

Angel David Nieves, BArch, MA, PhD, is Professor of History and Digital Humanities at San Diego State University in the Area of Excellence in Digital Humanities and Global Diversity. He is the author of An Architecture of Education: African American Women Design the New South (University of Rochester Press, 2018). Nieves’s scholarly work and community-based activism critically engage with issues of race and the built environment in cities across the Global South.

Victoria Szabo is a Research Professor of Visual and Media Studies at Duke University. Her teaching and research focus on critical and creative approaches to interactive and computational media in the arts and humanities. She was the founding director of the interdisciplinary PhD program in Computational Media, Arts & Cultures, and currently heads the Digital Humanities Initiative at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke. She is also Chair of the ACM SIGGRAPH Digital Arts Community.




'The Potential of Extended Reality: Teaching and Learning in Virtual Spaces' has 2 comments

  1. December 10, 2020 @ 10:29 am Introduction /

    […] their introduction to the previous issue of The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, the editors wrote of the profound and […]

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  2. May 21, 2020 @ 7:58 am Table of Contents: Issue Seventeen /

    […] The Potential of Extended Reality: Teaching and Learning in Virtual Spaces Amanda Licastro, Angel David Nieves, and Victoria Szabo […]

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