“The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.”

-Ivan Sutherland, “The Ultimate Display,” 1965

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have not yet reached the summit of their potential as described in “The Ultimate Display,” by Dr. Ivan Sutherland.1 Though clearly Star Trek was paying attention! However, educators are increasingly turning to virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), and the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened this trend following a necessary shift towards digitally mediated learning since 2020.

What are Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?

Broadly, VR and AR can be considered to exist on a continuum of virtuality, which spans everything from the real, physical world to computer generated, virtual worlds.2 Within the field of environmental education, virtual media are primarily divided by a user-centered approach that focusses on levels of interaction and immersion; these media are then further delineated by the type of hardware used.

VR is defined as a media through which a human may interact with a real or imagined environment that is wholly computer-generated. There are three primary types used in the context of environmental education:

    • Fully Immersive VR: The user has the illusion of being “in” the computer-generated environment. This illusion is facilitated using a head mounted display (HMD), a set of controls, such as a haptic interface or hand controls, and may include a tracking system so that the user’s movements can be mirrored within the virtual environment.
    • Video and Photo Spheres: The user has the illusion of being placed at a single location within the computer-generated environment that has been constructed by panoramic or360º photos or videos. An HMD, a haptic interface or hand controls are used to look around this environment, although interaction may be limited. Linked video and photo spheres provide a higher sense of immersion.
    • Desktop VR: The user interacts with the computer-generated environment using a desktop monitor. The level of immersion is extremely low, and interaction is generally facilitated by using a controller, joystick, or keyboard and mouse.


Conversely, AR is defined as media through which a human has a direct or indirect view of the real-world environment that is then supplemented by computer-generated sounds and images or a graphical interface/heads-up-display (HUD). AR developers predominantly use smartphones or tablets as the primary way to deliver this supplemental material to the user. There are two primary types of AR used in education, which are divided by the way in which augmentation of the real environment is triggered:

    • Location-based AR: Computer-generated, supplemental material is triggered by the user entering a certain location, and this is facilitated by the use of a global positioning system(GPS), wireless data, or both.
    • Image-based AR: Computer-generated, supplemental material is triggered when the user interacts with a marker, such as a barcode or quick response (QR) code. Certain posters or landmarks may also be used as markers, after being identified by the AR application.


Why are Educators Using VR and AR?

Perhaps the first question I am asked when I discuss my research with people is why I would want to set a child down in front of a computer or have there nose burried in a smart phone when they could be “out in nature.” My response is usually unexpected: VR and AR are not a replacement for outdoor education, they should be used to support and enhance it.

#1 VR is redefining place-based educational paradigms by providing ways for students to explore places that are inaccessible or dangerous.

Tudor et al. used Google Expeditions to take students on a 360º photo field trip in the Borneo rain forest.3 Students were able to explore places where land clearance and deforestation had resulted in significant environmental degradation and compare it to a natural area close to their classroom that was being adversely affected by highspeed railway construction. Results indicated that children were able to connect their understandings of local place to environmental issues in areas outside of their own community. These findings support recent developments in place-based educational theory by researchers like Klaniecki et al. who are beginning to explore how the connection between a sense of place and pro-environmental behavior can be extended to regional, continental, and global scales.4

#2 VR and AR can be used to generate new environments or augment existing ones that allow students to experience processes, creatures, plants, or objects that would otherwise be invisible to them due to scale or the timeframe over which they occur.

Fan et al. designed a fully immersive VR application that depicted a lake where educators could influence the level of salts coming from nearby agricultural settlements so that students could explore the process of eutrophication.5 Eutrophication is an excess of nutrients in a lake that can cause excessive growth of plant life, deoxygenation of the water, and the death of local fauna. Similarly, in a trip to a local pond where students were expected to take water quality measurements, Kamarainen et al. used augmented reality to allow children to observe molecules and chemical equations that helped them to understand the sorts of interactions and processes that they were exploring.6

#3 VR and AR can allow students to more seamlessly interact with broader knowledge networks through their mobile devices and personal computers, which would not normally be possible in the field.

In my own research I have used VR and AR to connect students to multiple community groups to facilitate their learning and broaden their understanding of Camosun Bog. Similarly, Land and Zimmerman used an AR application called Tree Investigators that supported students and their families as they explored an arboretum and nature center using tablets.7 This AR media served three main purposes: (1) it connected students with digital resources, such as images of plants at various stages of their life-cycle, to provide a foundation of disciplinary knowledge; (2) it provided learners images to help visualize non-visible elements of their environment, such as seasonal changes to plants; and (3) it connected learners to an online, professional naturalist who helped to mediate their field trip, guide them through different areas of the garden, and engage them and their families in conversation.

#4 VR and AR can provide a bridge to subjects like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

VR and AR improve digital-age literacy, creative thinking, communication, collaboration, and problem solving, which are key twenty-first century skills.8 Twenty-first century skills refer to those abilities that are vital to students succeeding in life and their future careers. Thus, by engaging with environmental issues at a holistic level, across subjects, children may be more likely to gain the necessary skills to participate in finding resolutions to wicked environmental problems during their professional life.

Where Are Educators Headed With VR?

While AR and VR offer many opportunities for educators and their students, there are also some difficulties associated with these technolgoies:

    • The technology sometimes just doesn’t work. More specifically, issues with internet connectivity and GPS sensitivity when using cell phones in the field are widely reported. Additionally, while high end virtual reality headsets and mobile devices can provide seamless experiences, most educators and students due not have access to these. Slow response times and clouded viewers can dramatically impact how effective these technologies are for environmental education.
    • A lack of familiarity with deisgn software and devices can make VR and AR difficult to implement in classrooms without proper training.
    • Safety and health concerns are an important barrier to adoption. Some students may experience vertigo when using virtual reality, and when devices are shared, lice have been a concern discussed by some users.


Future research will no doubt respond to the technical problems that participants reported. Though responsiveness and general user experience issues will be improved through the iterative design process, location sensitivity and the need for ever larger file upload rates are two issues that are sure to attract a great deal of attention in a field dominated by smartphone technology. Current research on 5G cellular communication technology is one topic to follow closely. Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) will incorporate much higher frequencies that transport data at faster speeds, and the reorienting of telecommunications infrastructure will result in a higher density of antennas allowing for better wireless assisted GPS navigation.9 In addition, multi-access edge computing is a synergistic technology that is still undergoing standardization to be deployed en masse. This provides an IT service environment and cloud-computing capabilities at the “edge of networks,” or within the Radio Access Network (RAN) close to smartphone users, which will reduce latency and increase data delivery.10 Using AR as an example, a class of students may soon be able to collaboratively interact with an augmented environment where high-definition, context-sensitive information can be applied second-by-second, using their camera view to overlay this information on the displayed environment.

Finally, researchers and communities are  begining to explore how VR and AR may be used to facilitate the many socio-cultural aspects of environmental education. Ensuring that social groups and individuals have an equal opportunity to be involved in, and work towards, the resolution of environmental problems is a primary learning objective of environmental education.11 This cannot be realized unless educators include topics like environmental justice, racism, settler-colonialism, and traditional knowledge in their programming. Winter and Boudreau’s study is a good example of this, and shows how Indigenous communities are not just passive consumers of virtual technology but active developers who can help to overcome much of the cultural misrepresentation and colonial bias that is present in VR and AR media.12 Future research should look at how we can marry the lessons learned from such work with the field of environmental education to provide more critical content for children.


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