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The virtual classroom

The virtual classroom emerging technology VR School Study

In the age of big data, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate. Education Matters reports on what educational technology means for students, teachers, and the classroom of the future –and how these emerging technologies are changing the way we think about learning.

Advancement of modern technology has had a profound impact on the way society operates and changed the way that people access information and learn about the world around them. In many ways, the limits of what is possible for society have exceeded human capabilities and outpaced daily life, which has changed the way that people value their time, prioritise their experiences, and access services.

Above all else though, technology has changed the way that people communicate with each other. The rise of digitalisation and the rapid advancement of technology has introduced new modes of communication, from which more flexible, creative, collaborative ways of sharing and exchanging information have emerged. In the education sector, these emerging technologies have presented students and teachers with similarly new opportunities to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and make learning a more engaging, accessible, interactive, and personalised experience for pursuing academic interests.

Moreover, the advent of a diverse range of education-focussed technologies centred around the idea of ‘the virtual classroom,’ such as e-learning platforms that present learning materials in the form of smartboards, downloads, videos, virtual messaging and virtual reality, or online classroom environments have allowed students and teachers to streamline the exchange of ideas, course content, and assignments while working remotely, and facilitated more channels of communication between them.


According to Dr Erica Southgate, Professor of Emerging Tech for Education Research at the University of Newcastle, the best approach to digitalisation and technology in education is to embrace it as a tool for learning in the same way, one would embrace something in the natural world that has specific affordances and can promote deeper exploration and creative methods of engaging with the world in a more authentic way.

“In nature, a stick can be a learning tool that provides an individual with an opportunity to explore the world by themselves, and with others. And much like technology, it also has affordances, or rather specific properties,that can be leveraged to allow for new understandings to be developed,” says Dr Southgate.

By this line of thinking, any learning tool can provide properties to help students imaginatively tell a learning story beyond the self, she explains, and acceptance that learning tools are contextual and open to interpretation should seamlessly be a part of a shared learning culture as a society, whether it is applied in the classroom, or beyond.

“Children and young people understand the concept that learning tools in the digital world can be leveraged for individual fun and sharing content with a connection to something greater than themselves. Whether that be in the context of a multi-player game or the creation and sharing of a TikTok video. This sense of purposeful and positive connection with the world is truly what the best digital learning tools provide,” she says.

According to Dr Erica Southgate, educators need to honestly interrogate how student data is collected and used and the algorithmic processes that produce representations of individual students.


In addition to teaching at the tertiary level, Dr Southgate is also the Founder and Lead Researcher of the VR School Study, which is the first of its kind, and longest running investigation into the use of virtual reality in primary and secondary schools, internationally. In her research, Dr Southgate has investigated the ethical implications of artificial intelligence for schools and was the lead author on the Australian Government commissioned national report ‘Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies in Schools.’

“There are many ethical and governance challenges facing us right now with emerging technology. We are living in the era where the internet of things meets the internet of bodies to produce unprecedented harvesting of our very personal, often biometric, data through each device we use and all the devices in the community that track, profile, predict and nudge us,” says Dr Southgate.

The report produced the first ethical framework for the use of artificial intelligence in schools and presented a framework for understanding AI as an emerging technology and its implications for curriculum design, pedagogy, and learning, in addition to the ethical and governmental implications of it for education and academic institutions.

“If you take a moment to consider all the different types of data that has been collected about you from the time you got up in the morning. From wearables like smart watches; to GPS and signals from our devices; to the online content we consume and create – we are in a world right now where we have very little power over whether our data is harvested and stored,” says Dr Southgate.

“I think it’s important that we understand what data is being extracted from our schools, how it is used and shared, and what effects data hungry AI algorithms and profiling might have on the selfhood and our life opportunities of ourselves and our students.”

As profiling systems such as learning analytics dashboards begin to be embedded in applications and learning management systems, Dr Southgate says that educators need to honestly interrogate algorithmic processes that will produce representations of our students.

The virtual classroom emerging technology VR School Study
Emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality and AI-enabled learning tools have the potential to create purposeful and positive connections with the world for students.


“Teachers are particularly well-positioned to explore our understanding on the affordances of specific technologies to determine how they can be better used in the classroom because of their deep pedagogical knowledge,” she says. As an example, she explains that one of the affordances of virtual reality technology in a classroom setting is its ability to provide a first-person perspective and allow students to travel to a time and place and see the world as they otherwise might not experience it.

“This affordance is something that English, History, Geography and Language teachers can understand, as well as how VR is a powerful form of communicating course content to students,” she says. “Teachers can assign texts that provide a first- person character perspective in a VR format. This can effectively immerse the learner in simulations of times and places that are qualitatively different from paper or flat-screen technologies because the learner feels present there and, in many cases, can interact and explore the virtual environment by themselves and with the teacher or peers.”

She furthers that teachers can also provide students with easy-to-use tools to create their own virtual environments to allow them to demonstrate what they have learned in creative and fun ways that invite others to immerse themselves in these worlds, with the click of a URL or QR code.

“In this instance, teachers would be learning alongside their students about what the technology can do and how it can be used to demonstrate the depth of knowledge and understanding. This is what I’m most interested in – a new relationship between teacher, learner, and technology,” she says.

The introduction of AI-enabled learning tools and technology such as ChatGPT has further shifted the needle in the education landscape towards a world where educators start to lean more heavily on technology for foundational learning and information, and embrace new ways of thinking about how students can express their learnings and be assessed on their academic performance.

“If generative artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT are considered disruptive to the Western concept of education which assesses students on their demonstration of knowledge through production of original and authentic written artefacts, then we will be in for more shocks as all cultural forms become automatic, machine-made, or synthetic (music, video, games etc),” she says.

With the current trajectory of technology as it is, Dr Southgate posits that perhaps the future of education will need to rely more on assessing students for their application of concepts, critical thinking abilities and creativity in developing real- world solutions using emerging technologies, rather than having students demonstrate learning through traditional forms of assessment.

“The future is now. In a world of where EdTech products can harvest our data, profile and nudge us, we need to better understand and advocate for our digital human rights as educators, and situate the digital human rights of the child at the centre of education. We also need to productively and critically engage in the ‘teacher-learner-machine’ relationship because that is as central to education right now as it is core is to every day life,” she concludes.

Dr Southgate will be co-presenting at EduTECH 2023, taking place in 24-25 August in Melbourne, on a VR School Study, alongside three Adelaide-based secondary teachers: Ella Camporeale, Jess Simons, and Toni Maddock. The group will be reporting on research findings on VR integration across a range of subject areas such as science, geography, maths, and digital design, and in different junior secondary school settings.


Since 2016, the VR School Study has been exploring the use of immersive virtual reality (iVR) in real classrooms. The research is focused on how iVR can be used to enhance learning, its relationship to curriculum, and its implications for pedagogy. It further examines all the practical, ethical and safety issues that come with integrating emerging technology in classrooms.

The VR School Study is premised on the open sharing of research resources, infographics, guides and reports designed to facilitate the use of the technology in schools and build the evidence-base to enhance student engagement and learning outcomes. The research is conducted with real teachers and students in diverse primary (elementary) and secondary school communities.

The VR School Study team are dreamers as well as researchers and seek to bring about critical conversations on the potential of iVR in education.

Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published in ‘The Hot Topic’ column for the June & July print editions of Education Matters Magazine. To read the full digital magazines, please go here. 

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