Pedagogy before technology


Pedagogy before technology

Central Queensland University senior lecturer, Dr Michael Cowling, breaks down the factors schools should consider when incorporating mixed reality technology into the classroom. 

All the way back to the 80s, it’s easy to find articles promising that virtual reality (VR) will rapidly change classroom teaching. These discussions range from allowing students to disappear into a virtual world, to developing skills and practising with digital objects.

But the reality is that for most schools, a technology has to be consumer grade, which means private use of this technology becomes widespread before it is integrated into the classroom. While we often have thoughts about how our classrooms will have specialist technology straight out of the research lab, it’s often the case that a technology has to be commercialised before a school can adopt it.

It’s only over the last few years that VR technology has truly become available to the average consumer, and also available to our students. On top of this, newer related technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) have also begun to become available, providing different combinations of digital objects and the physical environment that students can interact with. According to US entrepreneur Keith Curtin (The Mixed Web, 2017), mixed reality will be most important technology of 2017.


Mixed Reality is a broad term first proposed by (Milgram & Kishino, 1994) to describe a continuum between the real world on the left hand side (real reality) and the virtual world on the right (virtual reality). In between these two extremes are two other possibilities – augmented reality, where the real world is augmented with digital objects, and augmented virtuality, where the virtual world is augmented with real world objects (or representations of them).


In this nascent space, it becomes quite difficult to work out which of these technologies are the best fit for the classroom. Through our work in the Mixed Reality Research Lab, Dr James Birt, of the Gold Coast’s Bond University, and I are often asked to recommend mixed reality hardware and software solutions for the secondary school classroom.

The Mixed Reality Research Lab has been set up in association with Queensland’s Bond University and Central Queensland University. It provides a space for researchers across the nation to perform work in the applied use of mixed reality.


With a plethora of mixed reality options from the major companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and others, teachers are often overwhelmed with choice. With some devices costing many thousands of dollars, the choice becomes even harder.

When asked to give advice about this space, Dr Birt and I often share several points. The first is that we should strive for technology-enabled pedagogy, not pedagogy-enabled technology. I often represent this with the mantra ‘pedagogy before technology’, which reminds teachers that their use of technology should always start with a pedagogical problem to solve. Based on the problem – the right technology can be selected.

A strength of AR is that it adds digital objects to the physical world within the context of the environment.

Any pedagogical problem that you are looking to solve should take this into account. Perhaps AR could be used to place digital objects in contextually relevant parts of the school for students to find. For example, this could include a lesson on nature that incorporates objects placed in trees and gardens, as this uses context and also the digital objects.

Conversely, if the AR system you are envisioning does not require context, such as putting dinosaurs on a table in the middle of the classroom, then perhaps VR would be a better solution.

If you start with the problem, then you can choose the technology that suits it best, but if you start with the technology, you’ll often find yourself searching for a problem, or even using the technology inappropriately.


Once you’ve determined the pedagogical problem and the right technology, you need to consider what hardware suits your problem best. Having determined what type of technology you wish to use will have narrowed the list, but there will still be several choices in each space.
For instance, in the current VR space, devices such as Oculus Rift from Facebook, HTC Vive from HTC, or headsets from Microsoft are all popular. In the AR space, Meta 2 from Meta, HoloLens from Microsoft and Apple’s recent foray into AR via their ARKit toolkit are all possibilities. And for each of these spaces, it’s also possible to use a mobile mixed reality solution, where a standard smartphone is put into a plastic or cardboard headset and used to allow a VR or AR experience.


When making this choice, consideration needs to be given to the features of each device. For instance, in the VR space, HTC Vive provides world-positioning functionality through wall sensors that are not currently provided by the Oculus Rift. Similarly, in the AR space, the Apple solution uses a non-immersive mobile phone view, whereas the Microsoft HoloLens uses an immersive view with holograms projected right in front of your eyes.
Cost is also a factor, with Mobile Mixed Reality solutions being the cheapest (around $20 for a plastic headset with an existing mobile phone), moving through more expensive options in the HTC Vive and Oculus (around $500-$1000), to the large cost of HoloLens (at around $4000). When considering the need for these devices to be used by an entire class, this means that often the cheaper solutions are the most useful.


When making recommendations, however, Dr Birt and I often find ourselves recommending that a variety of different technologies be bought by a school. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is often the case with MR hardware, and while devices like HoloLens are more expensive, they also provide a complete experience. It is, however, hard to go past a whole class set of MMR headsets for $600. This further strengthens the need to balance and also understand your problem before making a decision.

Finally, we are often also asked about what software is needed to make this all work. At this stage, the software question needs to be addressed after the hardware question, as software is often dependent on a particular hardware, especially given the different characteristics of mixed reality hardware. Within this limitation, many software solutions are available, with the important consideration being that the pedagogy be considered first when selecting software. Sometimes a simple piece of software best suits the pedagogical situation, and it’s worth thinking outside of the box when selecting software.

With this in mind, it’s also worth noting that, unlike finished software, development environments are much more flexible. In particular, Unity offers plugins for many mixed reality environments, and allows compilation across many different environments. This provides the opportunity for some more unique user-created content from students.

Rather than finding a pre-built app, students in secondary schools can propose a design to build their own app to solve a pedagogical problem. This also matches well with the Digital Technologies curriculum and the focus on development in later years.

Mixed reality is an emerging and exciting field that is only just starting to break into education. When you consider the variety of hardware and software available, and the ability of students to develop user-generated content, a focus on “pedagogy before technology” becomes important. When applied to the classroom appropriately, mixed reality solutions can make a positive difference to student learning.


Dr Michael Cowling is an information technologist with a keen interest in educational technology and technology ubiquity in the digital age, with respect to the use of mixed reality in skills training, the changing technology culture in education, and the specific needs of students from non-English speaking backgrounds.

He is currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Engineering & Technology at CQUniversity Australia.

Dr Cowling is a partner in an OLT Innovation and Development grant and is the recipient of three CQUniversity Learning and Teaching grants related to teaching technology.

He is a recipient of an Australian Government Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning, is a three-time recipient of a CQUniversity Learning & Teaching Award, and gained a CQUniversity Student Voice Commendation for his teaching practice in 2014. He is a regular contributor to the media outlet, The Conversation, and is also a regular contributor in Australian radio and print media on the topics of educational technology and technology ubiquity.
Dr Cowling has a passion for the practical application of technology in the classroom, with a focus specifically on not just bolting technology onto a classroom setting, but instead investigating how technology can be weaved into the pedagogy of a classroom setting.

Living by the mantra “pedagogy before technology”, Dr Cowling works to help teachers and academics innovate with technology, improving student motivation and learning outcomes, and leveraging technology as a tool to improve the overall education process.

The Next Web, 2017, Keith Curtin:
Milgram, P., & Kishino, F. (1994). A taxonomy of mixed reality visual displays. IEICE TRANSACTIONS on Information and Systems, 77(12), 1321-1329.

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