Ed-Tech · pedagogy · Philosophy of Education

On the Unreal: VR and embodied embedded social cognition

I wrote previously about disruptive technologies and their impact on education. In this blog, I consider how content delivery technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) and Gamification will transform the role of the classroom practitioner. vr and embedded embodied social cognition red

Aptly named game design companies like Unreal, the publisher of titles like Fortnite, ARK: Survival Evolved, Tekken 7 and Kingdom Hearts III now offer sophisticated VR development tools.

I have no doubt tools like these will eventually re-cast the role of the classroom practitioner. It is already beginning to happen and no doubt big corporate IT companies and education companies will have plans for the market.

Games, like Fortnite, are designed and developed by multi-disciplinary teams.  Developers write the code, artists create the graphics and designers add collisions, interactions and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Embedding these technologies into classroom practice will take a paradigm shift. Designing immersive learning experiences requires a collaborative approach and involves skills teachers do not currently have.

So, why bother?

The benefits of Virtual Reality in Education

Educators contest the merits of VR and other technological approaches like Gamification; conversely, advocates stress its immersive nature and impact on learner engagement and motivation. Currently, there is little research into impact and utility, but empirical studies are emerging all the time; consequently, there is increasing evidence that immersion leads to positive educational outcomes. This is explained by the sense of presence experienced by the student, which has a powerful emotional impact.

At the least, VR enables learners to experience and interact with knowledge in an authentic context. Imagine walking down a Tudor street or marching with a Roman legion. Teachers cannot match VR’s ability to deliver immersive and iterative learning content nor generate the same level of data for formative assessment and pedagogic interventions.

So, what is the future for teachers?

A new role for teachers?

What teachers can do is construct inter-personal embodied and embedded learning opportunities that technology cannot easily replicate. This perspective does not see learning as a transaction between a teacher and long term memory, but the ability of a learner to generate meaningful experiences embedded and embodied in social cognition.

Early social cognitive abilities are embodied because cognitive processes are highly integrated with sensory-motor information; later, social cognitive abilities are embedded in social and dialogical practices. Embodiment and embeddedness are two distinct approaches to cognition; neither conforms to a simple relationship between learning and long-term memory.

VR helps learners to interact with the visual and contextual aspects of learning but is less able to re-create the linguistic complexity, physical presence and inter-personal interaction achieved by a skilled classroom practitioner. Adopting both approaches is important to embed meaningfulness and create sustained long-term memorisation.


VR tools like Unreal engine are serious development environments requiring time and investment. Proponents of Virtual reality (VR) stress its immersive nature and the impact on learner engagement and motivation.

There is a new role here for educators, not just the sole curators of knowledge, but as co-designers of the creative interfaces in which learning happens; particularly embodied and embedded practices. These interfaces are more permeable than before. Learners, researchers and industry experts will co‐own, co‐produce and co‐create learning with teachers. Change is inevitable; the question is not will Virtual Reality change education but what will the future of teaching look like?

The opportunity is to transform teaching into a much more satisfying connected profession. In this envisaged future, teachers work in multidisciplinary teams designing and delivering learning interactions within a wider more holistic learning experience.

This approach anticipates future developments and has the emancipatory potential to resolve the issue of work-load reducing education’s reliance on a burned-out human resource perceived as both the cause of, and solution to, its perceived ills.


Dewey, J. (1913). Interest and effort in education. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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Kellner, D. (1997). Ernst Bloch, utopia and ideology critique. Not Yet: Reconsidering Ernst Bloch, 80-95.

Milk, C. (2015). How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine. How Virtual Reality can create the ultimate empathy machine”.

Sheridan, B. (2016). Creativity, Embodied and Extended. The Possibilities of Creativity, 135-50.

Singh, S., & Meyer, B. (2019, July). Using social annotations to augment the learning space and learner experience. In Proceedings of the 2019 ACM Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education (pp. 527-533). ACM.

Spector, J. M., Ifenthaler, D., Sampson, D., Yang, J. L., Mukama, E., Warusavitarana, A., & Bridges, S. (2016). Technology enhanced formative assessment for 21st century learning.

Tempelaar, D. T., Heck, A., Cuypers, H., van der Kooij, H., & van de Vrie, E. (2013, April). Formative assessment and learning analytics. In Proceedings of the third international conference on learning analytics and knowledge (pp. 205-209). ACM.

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