Exploring Virtual Reality-based Situated Experiential Education

By Christian Schott (Associate Professor in Tourism Management, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

The world is facing many wicked and pressing challenges. These challenges are manifested in many aspects of our lives, including when we go on holiday. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a global road map for dealing with these challenges, which includes SDG4 Quality Education as a vehicle for both improving education for all in all parts of the world, as well as improving the quality of education for sustainability.

One of the core pedagogies for fostering meaningful learning about social, cultural and environmental issues is Dewey’s experiential education, which has been effectively used to bridge theory and practice by generations of learners at primary, secondary and tertiary level over the last 100 years. However, experiential education for sustainability often entails learning from and about people in distant places that are facing particular challenges which our students need to understand and develop responses to. For instance in my area, which is Sustainable Tourism Management education and research, these challenges can include a feeling of ‘over-tourism’ and alienation by residents of Venice, or the rising seas level and profound cultural impacts on traditional communities living on low-lying Fijan islands, or the environmental and cultural impacts of hordes of tourists on remote destinations such as Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. Unfortunately, the long tradition of field trips to foster learning about these challenges at the destination is no longer a viable option for two reasons. One is the obvious, but likely short-term, negative impact of Covid-19 on travel, while the longer-term reasons for these field trips being increasingly questionable are their negative environmental impacts, particularly in the context of Greenhouse Gas emissions.

As we say in NZ, ‘it’s not a good look’ to take a carbon-emitting flight to a low-lying Pacific island in order to learn about the devastating impacts of climate change.

Although different pedagogical solutions can be developed, we favour the fostering of situated experiential education by harnessing virtual reality technology. We have explored the link between the experiential learning process on a real field trip and the learning environment offered by using gaming software and virtual reality headsets. Based on this work we developed a conceptualisation of a situated experiential education environment (SEEE) – Virtual reality and situated experiential education: A conceptualization and exploratory trial – and identified that gaming software and virtual reality can provide many of the features of a (real) situated experiential education environment. This means that situated experiential learning in the form of a Virtual Reality-based field trip to, for instance Peru, is worth exploring.

With funding from the Latin America Centre for Asia Pacific Excellence (LatAm Cape) we developed a virtual reality learning tool based on the concept developed in the above JCAL paper to allow NZ secondary school students to virtually visit and learn about a community in an iconic tourist destination in South America. The community of Machu Picchu Pueblo, also known as Aguas Calientes, agreed to participate in this project. We developed the learning tool by digitally recreating a section of agreed to participate in this project. We developed the learning tool by digitally recreating the central area of the town and populating it with 180 degree videos interviews of ten diverse stakeholders talking about life in the town, their aspirations for the year 2030 and the wide reaching benefits and costs triggered by tourism at the foothills of the world famous UNESCO World Heritage site.

In 2019 the learning tool was offered as a cutting edge trial to three NZ secondary schools. It was run in full-immersion virtual reality with HTC Vive Pro headsets and motion tracking and used in a variety of learning contexts spanning value exploration, comparing the community’s challenges to those faced by NZ communities, through to the development of proposals to mitigate negative tourism impacts.

The 2019 trial was successful and served to understand what worked and what didn’t work from both the students and teachers perspective. In addition to observational research about effectiveness we conducted interviews with teachers and focus groups with students in order to understand the logistical implications for teachers and how the learning tool and learning experience could be refined. The refined version was completed in September and we have just made it available to all NZ intermediate and secondary schools – https://www.virtualmpplearningtool.org/ – as a desktop/laptop version to make learning about Machu Picchu as accessible as possible to a wide cross-section of school students which was highly limited with the VR headsets.

This democratisation of innovative learning tools is in keeping with the spirit of the SDGs, “leave no one behind”. Our current focus is on exploring the nuances of the user experience (UX) in virtual reality-based situated experiential education environments. The first exploration of this perspective has been published in AJET; Full-immersion virtual reality for experiential education: An exploratory user experience analysis. Deep understanding of UX, including across cultures, is the crucial next step in making VR situated experiential education (VRSEE) a valuable and effective tool in the educators contemporary toolbox.


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