Teaching in virtual learning environments

In this article our guest writer, Cita Nørgård, Consultant for Teaching and Learning at the University of Southern Denmark, will share her experiences with developing apps and teaching designs for Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).

The University has run different projects bringing VR and AR into both synchronous and asynchronous teaching. With her breadth of experience and expertise, we are really thrilled to be able to share Cita’s perspective with you. Cita hasn’t worked with Labster simulations, and we know you will appreciate the important value of her objective and informed viewpoint as much as we do!

Cita Nørgård is specialized in the development and improvement of teaching with HoloLens and VR apps in a variety of disciplines at the University of Southern Denmark, including learning design, skill training and teaching with AR. She has established a network that brings together experts, users and researchers in the field, which has enabled knowledge sharing and collaboration that has positioned the University strongly in the field.
Read on to learn how to get started with teaching using VR/AR and learn from Cita Nørgård’s own reflections on this matter, both from an ‘on-scene’ perspective during the interaction with students, as well as from ‘behind the scenes’.


The possibilities and variety for teaching with VR and AR are expanding day by day due to technological developments.
New scenarios for learning content and skills in VR are added continuously. The drivers for this development are often considerations of risk, practical circumstances, such as geography, and the aim for companies and educational institutions to save instructor time and money.
The implicit rationales behind this are that students can learn skills without even having touched the matter in question and that VR is only the first phase of practicing (saving time and money for the first introduction). The skills students acquire in VR enable them to achieve the correct procedure and haptic cognition, allowing them to make fewer mistakes at the next stages, due to the virtual training.
Regardless of the very interesting discussions connected to this rationale, I shall leave it here, as it is not the theme for this article.
This article aims to offer advice on successful teaching of general content, and basic knowledge on lab procedures and skills with VR or head mounted AR. If you expect students to reach deeper learning and methodological creativity during lab exercises, or to apply knowledge to new setups and scenarios, you will certainly need further considerations for your teaching setup with VR/AR.

Teacher’s awareness of technological possibilities and limitations

Teachers should be very precise about communicating the learning objectives to their students. This includes clear communication regarding what VR can and cannot do for them.
What VR can do for students is contained in learning objectives like “gaining knowledge of lab procedures”, “gaining insights in the reactions between invisible agents”, “knowledge on lab procedures”, “performing actions in simulated environments”, “decision-making in simulated environments” etc.
What the simulations do not offer students are competences for feeling the real handling of systems. This challenge can be overcome if the VR-system includes dummies or if students use highly developed controllers. These systems exist but are very expensive.
Other competences such as realized self-control in stressed real-life lab situations can only be reached in certain, very complicated, VR apps designed for the purpose.
Therefore, let’s be clear about training of knowledge about content, skills and procedures taught in VR and the ability to perform in real laboratories. These are different learning objectives that you need to make students aware of through discussions of the learning outcomes in the different learning scenes you build up for your teaching (face2face lab vs. VR labs).

Outline of the teaching scenario

For the above reasons, VR is often used for preparations, for looking things up during face2face lab exercises, and for studying processes after the exercises.
The role of the teacher will be different in each scenario and the problems will likewise be different. Each category contains some major challenges and pitfalls for teachers that you should pay attention to.
There is of course a broad resemblance with teacher roles in general, especially in flipped classroom settings, but some teachers tend to lose focus on their usual actions as they introduce modern technologies, because the focus shifts to technological practicalities.
Make sure that you also pay attention to the details in classroom organisation, when and how students should receive feedback, the tracking of students’ progress, and evaluation of students’ achievements. Outline this as early as possible as part of planning the course.


The most complicated challenge for teachers to solve when students are in a VR environment is that you are not able to see what the student sees.
Discussions about content with students during face2face sessions with VR can therefore be quite difficult for both student and teacher (I will return to this later). When students use VR in asynchronous sessions you could build up a Q&A forum in the LMS and invite both students and instructors to discuss content with each other there.
Often, more than one student struggles with the same understandings, and a forum like this will enable them to help their peers.

Choosing the app

Before you choose an app, be aware of which learning goals the app can apply to and include that in the organisational setting. The course objectives need to be covered in total.
In our experience, using a VR app is not enough – even when we design apps for a specific course ourselves, all objectives are not covered. You will often need a face2face scenario as well to cover all levels and dimensions of knowledge, skills, procedures and competences. So be sure to align your choice with the learning objectives.

Learning how to use the technology

Regardless of where and when VR/AR is included, it is essential that the students are familiar with the technology.
If you skip the introduction to the technology, students will feel uncomfortable in the new learning environment and cognitive focus will shifted towards mastering the technology instead of subject content.
Therefore, when you choose an AR or a VR app for your teaching, be aware of easy mastering of both the VR technology and the app to prevent cognitive overload. Even the simplest things like navigating can be challenging for new users, so remember to plan for this extra time you will have to spend with the students to get them accustomed to the new technology.
Also, never forget to help instructors or professors teaching the course to learn how to use the technology. If teachers are not confident in using the technology, they risk appearing unprofessional to students who ask for advice.

Aligning with students

To make sure everything is learned during the lab exercises, you must always be a step ahead of your students.
Even before students start preparing for lab work you will have to explain the complete scenario. This includes laying out expectations for preparation, transfer of preparations to the real lab situation, the way you expect students to study during online and face2face sessions, demands for post-learning, and potential tests or reports.
Normally, students will have a focus on ‘not failing’, meaning that students will need specifications on objectives for knowledge, performing skills, metacognition on skills, and for subject-related content.
Another important scene to set right from the beginning is the need for formative and summative evaluations. This will bring the students’ attention to important steps since you specify early on which illustrations, recordings, schemes, documentations etc. will be required. So even when students prepare in VR, such information will keep them focused on content and help them select the relevant screen dumps, relevant focus of interest, etc.

VR for preparations

VR can reduce time needed in the lab and the frequency of failure during exercises. It is helpful for students to have some kind of feedback or peer feedback opportunity to accompany them during their preparations.
If the app system allows a multiple user facility, you can try building in personal feedback directly in the virtual room. If the system does not allow that, you can try to set up a proper online feedback facility for Q&A and a peer feedback system.
It might also be relevant to set up a small test for students to take after preparations in VR. If the curriculum allows, you could consider making it a formative assessment. However, make sure that the test applies to the current unfolding of the learning objectives and corresponds with the actual step in the learning path. This test can take any shape or form, from describing a flow chart to a multiple-choice test or handing in an early suggestion for a paragraph on methods for a final report.

Using VR in face2face teaching

Presence of a teacher while students use VR offers explicit challenges. Reasons for bringing students and teachers together could be a need for quick rotations due to limited VR glasses, that software or hardware is unfamiliar to students, the need for instant feedback, or rotations between stands due to scarce lab facilities.
The problems in this organisational format is that students and teachers lack a common frame to refer to: Students are present in the virtual room while teachers are present in the physical room.
In our primary use of HoloLens, teachers could follow the students’ view on an adjacent computer, but the communication was still problematic, since nothing could be shown or pointed at in common. Of course, technological solutions can be found to overcome this obstacle, but development is expensive and demands a lot of power from the VR equipment. We found that the possibility of meeting in the same virtual room is quite crucial for the organization of face2face teaching.

Seeking answers in VR during lab exercises

If students could use information from the VR app to clarify frequently asked questions during lab exercises, a lot of waiting time for teacher assistance could be avoided. In that case you should pay attention to possible contaminations of the gear. Finding a VR solution that is easy to clean, water resistant, or disposable, can have substantial influence on which apps are compatible with the set of glasses you can access for lab use. Therefore, this goes hand in hand with app selection in the early planning. Many teaching labs already require the use of tablets/laptops by students, and will have addressed this issue already.

Helping students’ reflect on practice after the exercises

Repetition is quite important to students’ learning and you should arrange a format where students can go back and study VR content again. This could be an informal hub, a social online forum, a multiple player app, or something similar. This part has similarities with using VR for preparations, but often differs by not being mandatory.

How could we imagine a student report or lab exam in the future?

Online virtual tests, reports including screenshots from the virtual room, or pictures or videos recorded during exercises are all possibilities to consider.
At our university we have tried to open up students’ opportunities to evaluate exercises in other formats by bringing sets of iPads into the laboratory. Students use these for e.g. video recording and documenting important procedures. With technological developments, it is also increasingly possible to use new exam formats such as tracking students’ progress in the online VR learning environment.

Last recommendation

When you start teaching with VR or AR, make sure to bring your teacher-heart into it.
Feel free to contact Cita Nørgård, Consultant, Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Southern Denmark: cnorgaard@sdu.dk

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