Exploring the Learning Reality of Extended Reality

Every so often, a new type of technology presents the opportunity to transform the way people engage with learning spaces.

I believe this is one of those times.  

If you watch primetime television commercials or scroll through a social media feed, you most certainly see examples of how virtual reality technologies are positioned to re-shape our lives. From how we drive to how we shop for products, immersive technologies are opening up new ways for interaction and learning.  

Let's explore how extended reality technologies are opening new options for educators to design learning environments. and key design principles for optimizing learning using immersive learning technologies.  


What is Extended Reality (XR)? 

Extended Reality or XR, is a term used to describe the collective variations of immersive technologies. These technologies include virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality.   

  • Virtual reality uses technologies to completely immerse the user in another space or virtual world.  
  • Augmented reality layers new information or data over an existing physical space.  
  • Mixed reality is a combination of virtual and augmented reality where elements of both virtual spaces and interactions are anchored within a real-world environment.  

While forms of XR technologies have been in existence for decades, only recently have the technologies reached a level of sophistication and price points that make them a viable and scalable learning technology. In other words, they are reaching the “learning-business model fit” that combines the price, value, scale, and return on investment that make them useful learning technologies 


XR and Learning 

Aside from being an exciting type of technology, XR affords many interesting opportunities for educators and learning leaders to extend learning environments and experiences. Where the cost may have limited certain traditional learning experiences, XR can provide a viable option for learners to engage in simulated or enhanced experiences within a controlled environment. XR allows the “learning through doing” approach in new and more cost-effective ways. 

Given the capabilities XR affords for new learning environment design, this offers a particularly exciting area of innovation for facilitating transformative learning experiences. Transformative learning is, in part, catalyzed through experiences. Using XR to enable diverse scenarios to support learning presents a unique opportunities for both educators and learners.  

For example, the cost or risk associated with allowing learners to enter a dangerous workspace may limit opportunities for practice and skill mastery. XR can increase opportunities for people to engage in learning that was not otherwise possible due to cost, risk, and availability constraints. From this perspective, XR has the potential to provide both cost-effective and rich learning experiences at scale. 

For example, Google Arts & Culture has a library of 360 degree videos that allow people to engage and “visit” cultural experiences.  This type of virtual reality technology can enable an experience using technologies as fundamental as an Internet connection and a YouTube video player.  

The following graphic shows the wide flexibility of XR technologies to engage learners across different types of learning spaces. For example, XR can enable completely immersive experience such as simulations, or provide learners the opportunity to interact with a specific asset or component with the support of enhanced information or data. XR also provides unique capabilities for overall task support information to help people complete complex or rare tasks.  

 Extended Reality Learning Environment Plot

Designing XR Learning Environments 

While technology should not be a driver of design, there are unique considerations that XR technologies present for designers of learning environments. For instance, most common digital technologies rely on two dimensional presentation spaces to communicate. Not only does XR present options for three-dimensional spaces, it also affords designers the ability to leverage kinesthetic interactions that span cognitive, psychomotor, and affective dimensions of learning. This combination most closely replicates real-world interactions within the availability of today’s technologies.  

With these added capabilities, leveraging only basic information presentation capabilities in an immersive environment will likely feel cumbersome and inefficient from a learning standpoint.  

In contrast, immersive experiences that leverage the full capabilities of XR technology platforms will likely create more natural and engaged learning experiences. This is not only a shift in design and technology usable, but also a shift in the expectations of learners.  

The design of XR learning environments is central to the long-term viability and success of this technology as a learning tool. For example, educators looking to facilitate transformative learning may rely on XR as a way of expanding perspectives, experiences, and creating dissonance in a learning experience. The design of these environments will be central to creating positive learning outcomes and transformation.  

The following diagram highlights common innovation priorities for those seeking to create XR-based learning environments. These innovation priorities often include increasing awareness of new environments, growing new communities, encouraging applied learning experiences, and supporting experiences.  

Extended Reality Innovation Plot

These common drivers of innovation may indicate XR strategies are often driven by engagement goals; however, they may span needs for increasing awareness, creating new types of interactions, and supporting learning achievement. These priorities suggest XR technologies may be particularly well-suited for education and training situations that involve exposing people to new environments or situations; however, there may be natural challenges that come with scaling beyond small, controlled settings.  It is also important to note that XR technologies will likely need to be paired with other learning methods to support transfer and learning results. For example, it would likely not be sufficient to only leverage XR experiences without having some other forms of learning strategies in place to help people reflect, use, and react to XR-based environments.  


Design Patterns for Extended Reality Learning Environments  

This section highlights several examples of XR technologies and presents design models for explore how each of these technologies can be applied within a learning environment.  


Virtual Reality 360 Video National Geographic 

This example is a 360 degree video of Lions in their environment. This video is delivered using the YouTube player and would be accessible on desktop delivery systems or through portal VR viewers. This learning environment driven by the system; however, the learner has some ability to adjust the view of the video and perspective of the video. While this may seem like an interesting feature, it is also dependent upon the learner to know what content matters in the display. This is especially important within complex environments such as the one shown in the example.  

Virtual Reality Pattern

Augmented Reality Weather Channel 

The Augmented Reality example is taken from a broadcast weather report where the reporter discusses the topic of road safety in severe weather and the narration is augmented by an on-screen vehicle that is “driven” right on to the set. The anchor delivers the presentation and a vehicle is displayed across various steps and augmented with data within the context of the broadcast set. 

Augmented Reality Pattern

Mixed Reality Microsoft HoloLens   

The Mixed Reality example uses the Microsoft HoloLens to display information and other points of interactions fixed within an experiential environment. For example, this example allows the learner to interact with both physical objects and augmented objects as if they both have interactive and space constraints and qualities. This blueprint shows the dialogue interface that is present with mixed reality technologies and the various types of interaction points that are capable within an experiential context.   

 Mixed Reality Pattern


Challenges with XR for Learning 

Any emerging technology presents benefits; however, it also presents challenges. XR is no different. As XR technologies become more “lifelike” there are major ethical considerations involved with the design of these types of learning environments.  

For example, XR environments have the potential to prompt traumatic responses, which may be difficult to predict as the environment scales. The technology itself is also changing so rapidly it is difficult for research to keep up to provide evidence-based considerations for designing and deploying environments using the technology. Furthermore, we have little evidence to validate the potential long-term effects of XR on human social interactions, cognitive performance, and skill performance. 



While the potential challenges associated with designing and scaling XR experiences are numerous and important, the potential opportunities this type of technology affords educators and learners are nothing short of transformative. Educators and designers of XR learning environments are presented new tools, but also new responsibilities for expanding the spaces and places where people learn. It will be exciting to see and shape the future of this intriguing and powerful learning technology.