Using Virtual Reality to Engage Students in Sustainability – Experiences from the Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Around the world curriculums are going online. But it isn’t just curriculum. Technology is providing opportunities to bring field trips and some experiential learning experiences online as well. Virtual reality, for example, can allow students the chance to learn about distant places together without having to travel anywhere. Christian Schott, along with an interdisciplinary team at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand has been developing a number of virtual worlds aimed at deepening student’s understanding of sustainable tourism development and the SDGs through the use of virtual reality. The learning tools are based on the concept of virtual reality situated experiential learning and the first of these tools, designed as a virtual fieldtrip to a Fijian island to learn about the complexities of sustainable development, was featured here in 2016. Christian has recently launched a new tool designed to support sustainability education in secondary schools by virtually visiting Machu Picchu Pueblo in Peru. I spoke with Christian about this new tool and how it is being used.

What is Virtual Reality and where did your interest in it come from? Is this a tool often used in education?

Current teaching methods generally don’t allow students to experience the crucial social and cultural contexts of a place in a meaningful way. Virtual reality technology, which allows for full visual and auditory immersion in a replicated place, gives us the opportunity to both immerse learners in meaningful social, cultural and geographical contexts and also to cater to a wider range of learning preferences by fostering experiential learning.  Although there is increasing interest in virtual reality in education most of the learning tools are still experimental as we don’t know enough about the effectiveness of different virtual worlds.  Our learning tool was trialled in New Zealand schools in full virtual reality last year and we conducted extensive research with teachers and students to refine the learning tool based on this experience.  The learning tool recently deployed to New Zealand schools uses 3D gaming software but is accessed with regular desktop or laptop computers instead of VR headsets.

What is the Machu Picchu programme and how did it come about?

The tool uses virtual reality gaming software to enable students to ‘visit’ Machu Picchu Pueblo in Peru. While there they learn about Peruvian culture, people, sustainability and the costs and benefits of tourism with a view of linking sustainable development theory to practice. The project was funded by the Latin America Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence and developed by a multidisciplinary team here at the University.

Why Machu Picchu?

Tourists started visiting Machu Picchu in 1911 soon after a book was published detailing the discovery of this citadel. Today, visitors to Machu Picchu contribute approximately a third of the overall tourism income of Peru. It receives about 9.6 million visitors a year and the jobs associated with this area employ 43,000 people, mostly from Cusco where poverty is high. The region has many social, economic and environment issues that we bring up in the tool including infrastructure, the trade-offs between the desire for higher visitor numbers while protecting the site from degradation and the dangerous erosion being caused to the site by environmental factors but also tourists’ feet. The Ministry of Tourism in Peru has identified the need to balance between the desire to grow economically while minimising or eliminating impacts on the attraction, culture and local community as a strategic objective moving forwards.  All of this makes it an interesting case study to explore a number of issues relating to the SDGs.

Walk us through the tool.

Students visit a digital replication of the main square of Machu Picchu Pueblo (also known as Aguas Calientes) at the base of the world-famous Machu Picchu archaeological site. Students are then able to explore the town’s square, alleys and the view of Machu Picchu Citadel from a mountain top through an avatar (virtual presence in the digital world), either as individual learners or as a group of learners in ‘multiplayer mode’.  The tool was designed with emphasis on the pedagogy of active learning and students need to find video interviews with ten stakeholders who represent different views about sustainability challenges and management opportunities. Wherever possible the videos were embedded in the same place where they were recorded in the real town to make the learning experience as authentic as possible. The video interviews provide rich insights into the views and aspirations of diverse stakeholders ranging from the Mayor to a tour guide and a market seller. The interviews talk about the costs and benefits of tourism in terms of economic, environmental, social and, importantly cultural impacts on the indigenous Quechua culture and language as well as about peoples’ aspirations for the year 2030.

Who is using the tool and how do they use it?

We trialled the tool with more than 160 secondary school students and made improvements based on that research. We are now set to roll this standalone learning tool out to secondary and intermediate schools across New Zealand (all 1700 of them!) We have had to adapt it because secondary schools generally do not have access to VR equipment and as a result we have developed a version that is usable on computers without the need for Virtual reality headsets. It is freely available to New Zealand schools and runs on most Windows PC and laptop computers. We also designed a range of accompanying learning and teaching resources to be used for social studies education in Years 7-10.

What are some of the benefits, including perhaps some of the unexpected benefits, of using virtual reality to engage students in these topics?

This is not clear yet, but we are hoping that the outcomes are a better understanding of sustainability and its complexities as well as a stronger emotional connection with people in Peru. I feel that there is a need for critical and creative thinking to address the pressing challenges that the world is facing and to find ways to engage students with these challenges in meaningful ways. VR offers an interesting opportunity to foster experiential learning as a key pedagogy to cultivate critical and creative thinking..

Has anything changed in the tool and related discussions given COVID-19?

When we started developing the concept and learning tools we could not foresee how relevant these learning tools would become.  As passionate educators and sustainability advocates we are excited that these learning tools allow students to engage in meaningful learning about sustainability and distant cultures despite the pandemic-induced lockdowns and travel restrictions.

How as the tool been received?

We are still in the process of rolling this out so it is still too early to tell. However, the concept behind the learning tool was recognised in 2018 with AACSB’s Innovations that Inspire and more recently awarded the Bronze Award Oceania at the 2019 QS Reimagining Education Awards in London. These awards celebrate innovative approaches that enhance student learning outcomes and employability, so they are very important recognition for us.

Any advice for schools looking to use virtual reality?

It is important to align how and what you teach with broader dynamics in contemporary society, in particular with the digital technologies that are pervasive in our students lives. There is a place for virtual reality experiential education in many different disciplines. In my experience the most important ‘asset’ to realise these types of innovations are passionate people that care about sustainability and innovation. This needs to be supported by solid commitment for funding of software development and technical expertise.

What’s next?

We have been working on advancing SDG4 for a while now, but it is the first time we are developing a learning tool for all secondary and intermediate schools in New Zealand – all 1700 of them! Our research, which drives this project, is currently focusing on the user experience (UX) perspective of VR learning tools and we are now turning our attention to examining the learning tools logistical as well as education implications for schools and universities. In terms of learning tools, the next one will shed light on a different cultural perspective on sustainability challenges and the SDGs. But before then, we are starting a new PRME seminar series at the Wellington School of Business and Government which celebrates students’ entrepreneurial innovations for the SDGs.

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