The Research Field of Reality Environments in Education

The Research Field of Reality Environments in Education

Anita Norlund (University of Borås, Borås, Sweden)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 10
DOI: 10.4018/IJMBL.2019040105
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Reality technologies are being introduced in schools due to high anticipated or claimed educational benefits. This article explores the reliability of foundations of such claims for use of three kinds of technology-based ‘environments': virtual, augmented and mixed reality. It is a follow-up of a previous stage in a research review and includes 35 articles. A variety of problematic issues appear, among which can be found ‘false dichotomies,' ‘lack of precision' and ‘neuromyths.' Examples are also given of fruitful approaches.
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Reality technologies are being introduced in schools, due to high anticipated or claimed educational benefits. The technologies and their applications originate from ‘military, aviation, and medical fields’ (Annetta et al., 2009, p. 1093), and have been researched particularly intensively since the 1960s (Cai et al., 2006). Previous research seems to emphasize affordances of the technologies, while the aim here is to examine the underlying claims of the affordances critically. Few authors have critically reviewed the research field apart from Selwyn (2007).

First, clarification of some central concepts is required. Reality environments are placed on a continuum from physical to virtual according to Milgram and Kishino’s (1994, p. 3) classical figure, allowing a variety of combinations.

Figure 1.

Reality - virtuality continuum (from Milgram & Kishino, 1994)


As shown in Figure 1, mixed reality (or sometimes hybrid reality) is the overarching denomination and represents a continuum of combinations of virtual and real worlds. Virtual reality is an environment “in which the participant - observer is totally immersed in, and able to interact with, a completely synthetic world” (Milgram & Kishino, 1994, p. 2). Quest Atlantis (see below) provides an example where students travel in virtual places. Key elements include ‘interaction’ and activation of several senses, like sight and hearing, supporting the experience of the real world. Augmented reality ‘allows the user to see a real world that is supplemented with virtual worlds’ according to Kerawalla et al. (2006, p. 164). On account of this review, the authors contribute a study of a technology they call ‘the virtual mirror interface’ including a web camera that “relays a mirror-image of the children (and their surroundings) onto the whiteboard” (p. 165). Various collocations appear in the work of scholars, including ‘virtual societies’, ‘virtual environments’, ‘virtual space’, ‘virtual information environments’ and ‘virtual worlds’. This indicates that the focal research field encompasses both conceptual and semantic clusters. However, irrespective of the individual technologies scholars to great extent seem to apply similar approaches.



This paper presents an extension of previous research aiming to provide knowledge of how (if at all) virtual, augmented, and mixed reality environments enhance learning practices at school (see Curcio, Dipace & Norlund, 2016; Norlund 2017). The review was conducted in two steps; one exploratory and one more systematic. During these processes a need also emerged for a critical examination of the field: the main objective here. The exploratory phase focused on publications by key authors in the field (members of editorial boards of relevant journals or speakers engaged in relevant conferences1) and subsequently publications identified by a snowball approach. Only research on elementary and secondary school (formal school) were included. Research on reality environments has not primarily focused on their use in these stages, although these stages are mandatory for most children and young people.

Most previous studies focused on applications of the technologies in science education, according to early indications in the review. Thus, the initial, exploratory phase in the two-step process allowed for a compensating eye, and consequently particular attention was paid to studies including other school subject areas. Studies focused on school subjects that had previously received little attention were intentionally included. The final material deals with diverse school subjects, inter alia: Biology, History, Science, Mathematics, Art, Geography, Social Science, Languages and Chemistry. The reviewed studies were conducted in Asia, Europe, New Zealand and the United States, and included students with ages ranging from 7 to 16 years.

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