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Learning in Digital Worlds

A doctoral student studies the benefits of immersive technology in the classroom
Virtual Reality Zoom
Students from Eileen McGivney's T510 course try out their virtual reality head sets.
Photo courtesy of Eileen McGivney

Eileen McGivney has spent her career studying education systems around the world. Now, her research isn’t taking her to a new country or continent, but into an entirely new reality.  

As a Ph.D. candidate in Human Development, Teaching, and Learning, McGivney is working to better understand how students and adults learn in immersive technology-enabled environments, like virtual reality (VR).

Eileen McGivney

McGivney first encountered VR at HGSE as a researcher on the EcoXPT project at Project Zero, an ecosystem science curriculum set in an immersive virtual world, under Principal Research Scientist Tina Grotzer.

“I remember visiting a classroom of English-language learners and they were using their native language to solve problems in the EcoXPT simulation, and they were so excited and engaged,” McGivney says. “Seeing it used as a way to give students agency, which is so hard in a regular classroom, that’s when I got interested in it as a learning tool.”

The first time she entered the virtual space herself, McGivney called the experience “awe-inspiring.” Since then, she’s witnessed that same excitement in students of all ages experiencing the thrill of conducting missions in space and feeling the effects of zero gravity or kayaking in the Arctic to observe wildlife. But while these can be powerful, emotional experiences for students, they also have real educational benefits, instilling an increased sense of competence and motivation.  

For her latest project, McGivney has partnered with a Greater Boston-area public charter high school to study how immersive experiences can impact how students see themselves as scientists. In one project, students in a civil engineering course observed different structures around the world, visiting the pyramids in Egypt and soaring over skyscrapers in New York City.

McGivney says that not only have the students reported better ability to focus while using the headsets, but also a greater connection to the material. Many of the students she’s working with are English-language learners and first-generation Americans, who have appreciated the ability to visit and share locations that held personal meaning.  

Representation and questions of identity and diversity in immersive technology is an important aspect of McGivney’s research. Her adviser, Professor Chris Dede, who has long been at the forefront of studying learning environments based in virtual worlds, says her work is helping to advance the field’s understanding of these important aspects of the emerging technology.

“Eileen has knowledge and experience in implementing learning technologies in a wide range of educational settings, and her research has the important capacity to infuse culture and context into educational innovations, which the National Academy of Sciences has highlighted as a crucial next step,” Dede says.

This past semester, McGivney shared this knowledge with HGSE students through her module, The Virtual Self, in which students explored VR technology firsthand, and learned about the realities of the technology, its limitations, and how it can be most used most effectively.

“People got a sense of what it is all about, and when the novelty wears off, what are the valuable learning experiences,” McGivney says. For several students, the experience was one of the most impactful of this virtual school year at the Ed School. Not only did the VR experience help create community at a time when that was needed more than ever, but several students discovered a new passion, and a few mentioned even making a career out of the work.  

As Jessica O’Donnell, Ed.M. (TIE), said in Harvard Ed. Magazine, the virtual class had a real impact on her. “Although I was unable to physically meet my classmates on the Harvard campus this year, these interactions in virtual reality and the advancements in avatar design provided me with the opportunity to connect with my peers in an innovative and remarkable way.”

McGivney will continue to explore VR applications with a new project led by Grotzer with doctoral student Tessa Forshaw, and involving Dede, called Next Level Lab, looking at how immersive technology can help new members of the workforce, like veterans and recent college graduates, use simulations to prepare for job interviews and roleplay on-the-job scenarios they might encounter.

“A lot of Next Level Lab is about learning sciences and my piece is using immersive technology as a tool as one part of the training program to help folks practice these skills and gain competence,” McGivney says.

Despite its promises and the fact that we’re living in a time when students around the world are learning remotely, McGivney says that VR should not be looked at as a replacement for the classroom, but instead continue to learn how the technology can best fit within the current educational system.

“VR is a powerful tool and I hope through the work that a lot of people are doing on its role in education it will become clearer what it’s good for.”


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