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Showing Students What's Possible

Ph.D. Marshal Eileen McGivney explores the impact virtual worlds can have on the classroom.
Eileen McGIvney
Photo: Jill Anderson

Ph.D. class marshal Eileen McGivney has spent the last six years of her life learning and teaching at Harvard, applying new technologies to the traditional problems students face. She acknowledges that technology is far from a cure-all for teachers. But the rapidly evolving world of virtual reality and immersive technology — and how it impacts the classroom — is exciting.

“I was visiting schools, interviewing school leaders and teachers but I realized that most people in the policy realm, myself included, didn’t really know how people learn,” McGivney says. “How do you actually use technologies to improve teaching and learning? What's going on in classrooms on a day-to-day basis? And how do we design solutions?”

That means much more than simply buying VR headsets to use in classrooms, says McGivney. New technology is good — especially technology that lets students feel like they’re scientists conducting research in remote places like Antarctica or the International Space Station — but there’s much more to learning than new tools and unique experiences.

“We’re going to see [these tools] integrated more in interesting ways,” says McGivney. “And so then it’s about what that gets us that we can’t do in a regular classroom. I think that’s a really healthy way to think about it.”

Here, McGivney discusses her time at HGSE, the gulf between technology innovation and implementation in classrooms, and what’s next for her research in virtual reality.

How have you seen educators adapt to technology trends that often move so quickly there isn’t time to develop best practices?
It’s very hard to innovate in the education system when you have a lot of legacy systems of practices. We’ve just done things for a long time and what people are used to. A lot of it comes down to basic things like what we define as learning. Over time policy has pushed us in the wrong direction in that sense and kind of made things worse.

As I get further into my research and really thinking more about some of these emerging technologies like virtual reality – or the little that I know about the AI tools that are coming out – I actually think it’s OK to take a slower approach in education. I think that some of our tech failures in the past have been from going too full-force into getting new technologies into schools without spending the time to figure out how they’re integrated into instruction in a really meaningful way. And how they can actually help teachers or how we prepare teachers to use them in ways that we think are most powerful.

With VR, I see the potential for similar policies to what we saw with laptops and tablets at one point where the focus was to just get this hardware into schools. Or smart whiteboards: just get it into schools, we’ll worry about the content and the teacher training later. And so actually they don’t have a transformative impact. People use them, but they don't necessarily use them in the best way.

I’m not really sure what the right approach is, but I don’t want to just sit back and wait for education to change. I think that’s especially not good from an equity perspective. We need to be really thinking about the teachers and students who don’t typically have access to these things and how we support them.

Tell me about your dissertation research. Where do you see that focus moving forward in the future?
I worked with a high school engineering team and two of his classes and we designed a series of lessons that used VR field trips. Part of it is a research-practice partnership model where we’re really thinking about what challenges he’s facing. What are things that he wants to get from using these technologies? And then also what are the research questions that I have about learning in these environments and how do we design lessons that meet his needs and a research study that meets my needs.

It was a really great process. I was so fortunate to work with a teacher who’s incredibly flexible and super passionate. One of the things he struggles with with his students: he teaches engineering for students over three years. So it’s kind of unusual for high schools to have that much engineering programming. But even with continued instruction over three years students still struggled with the first step in the engineering design process, which is problem finding and problem articulation. Especially in more open-ended environments.

How did VR help with that teaching?
We felt it was a good use of the technology because the experiences that I was looking at using for these lessons allowed students to observe STEM professionals in Antarctica and the International Space Station. It let students think about problems that engineering could solve for people working there. I was also interested in how students learn with different types of VR media. There are two dominant forms of media, one is 360-degree videos. Immersive, filmed, real environments. And the other is graphical environments, more like a video game. In a graphical environment you can usually pick up objects and interact more, versus in a video you’re observing and there’s usually a narrative story as well.

I wanted to see how students learned with those two different mediums differently, and more specifically their sense of agency and control over their learning and their STEM identity. If you’re interacting with the environment in the shoes of an explorer in Antarctica, are you more motivated or have a higher STEM identity than if you’re observing people working in their environment?

Those learning outcomes came from both types of media, they were both really rich environments but it did seem like students who used videos before they used interactive graphical environments were able to make more sense of that learning process. So that was an interesting finding in terms of instructional design. In addition to the small group discussions and giving students more time to process their learning we also found that videos can be scaffolds for learning in more open-ended environments. So that’s something really interesting that I’m planning to explore more in-depth in the future.

I also found that it had a really strong impact on their emotions. And they expressed things like a sense of awe. They expressed a lot of enjoyment and having fun, curiosity, fear – those things all came up from the analysis. So I’m starting to think a lot more about the emotional component of VR. Because I think that’s a really powerful use where those kinds of emotions are important for learning and cognition. But they’re hard to engender in a classroom activity where you strip down as much of the context as possible. So that can be really hard to kind of engage students in the emotions that people actually feel in the process of scientific work.

How will you continue this work post graduation? You’ve recently accepted an assistant professor position at Northeastern, will you bring this research there moving forward?
Yes, I’ll be at the College of Art, Media and Design. Specifically working on a program about extended reality (XR) in education innovation. So continuing to do this kind of research and school partnerships in the area, but also broadening out to work with more schools and programs.

So far, all the VR that I’ve used in my research is something other people created and I created lessons around it. Or I partnered with programs who are piloting their implementation of a program. But I’m excited to be at a design school where people are going to actually be creating new VR applications and working as a learning designer in that role as well, to create some new applications that we can try out with schools too. I hope to use XR in my own teaching and work with others at the university.

What does it mean for you to be named a Ph.D. marshal and represent your cohort?
This is a moment of reflection for me for sure. I feel like the last year has been wild, being on the job market, finishing my dissertation. It’s been really crazy. It’s nice now to have a little bit of breathing room to actually reflect on that and what I’m taking with me from the six years that I’ve been here.

It means a lot to me because it’s something that my peers nominated me for. I think it’s really meaningful because in my time at Harvard, I’ve tried to be really involved in our program and helping other students as much as I possibly could. I’ve been part of the Research Doctoral Advisory Committee, basically since I started in the program and was co-chair of that for a while. Advocating for the needs of Ph.D. students while at HGSE has been a highlight for me, and it’s been a way to meet people across the program and learn more about them.

Since I’ve been here we formed the graduate student worker’s union, and I tried to be as involved as I could in picketing and advocating and getting that union started. And for my cohort, I’ve been kind of the unofficial social chair since the beginning, less in recent years. But I organized a lot of gatherings for everybody and kind of helped bring us together. I have a ton of lifelong friends that I’ve met in the program.

So to have them recognize me as someone who contributed to the program and their experience means a lot to me. Because I’ve tried to put as much effort as I could in improving the student experience while I’ve been here. And I hope to continue to do that as an alum, especially Ph.D. students who are interested in the kind of research that I do or navigating the job market.


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