Metacognition and/in virtual reality: Some observations

Educators have become increasingly interested in the idea of metacognition. Metacognition is often simply defined as ‘thinking about thinking’ but to understand its implications for learning we need to look closely at a specific set of thinking processes and behaviours.

These include: how a learner plans how they will go about a task and the goals they set in relation to it; how they assess their understanding of what they’ve learnt; and how they go about evaluating their performance for future improvement.

Metacognitive processes are part of self-regulated learning. This is where learner takes control of their own learning. Self-regulated learners have a deeper understanding of content knowledge, the ability to transfer knowledge and skills, and more powerful higher order thinking strategies for problem solving, logical thought and critical thinking.

In research, there are a number of methods used to identify metacognition in learners including questionnaires, interviews and ‘think-aloud’ protocols. Observational methods can also be used and this is a key component of the VR School Project.

In our project we are collecting information through audio and video recordings of student learning in the VR room at the high schools and by using screen capture to record what is happening in the virtual environment. We then triangulate this (or look at each source of information systematically in relation to the other) and code it for metacognitive and self-regulated behaviours, and pedagogical and collaborative interaction. This is supplemented by post VR experience interviews with students and teachers. One benefit of systematic observation is that it pays attention to both verbal and non-verbal action and this is ideal for exploring metacognition and self regulation in the natural setting of the school.

Observations from the VR School Project indicate the social nature of learning in the virtual environment and the VR room. We have observed five way conversations/interactions across these two realities. These are:

  1. Self-talk as students verbalise their experience in real time.
  2. Talking to the game’s non-player character (robot, horse).
  3. Dialogue with student teammates who are in the same virtual environment and working cooperatively on the learning task.
  4. Conversations between students in VR and classmates who are watching on about the VR experience and the learning task.
  5. Dialogue between the student in VR with the teacher or researcher about the experience and seeking feedback on learning task.

The permeable, social nature of cognition and learning in VR illuminates three types of metacognitive regulation: (1) Self-regulation where students regulate their own behaviours through self-talk and talk to non-player characters; (2) Other-regulation where students working together in VR steer each other back (through talk or action) to aspects of the learning task or to features of the game; and, (3) Shared-regulation where students in VR have conversations with others, both in the virtual environment and outside of it, to process the VR experience, learn new skills  and to progress the task through co-operative learning.

Understanding how virtual reality might be used to develop and enhance metacognitive skills and self-regulation is important if we are to advance beyond a ‘digital toys for classroom’ approach when introducing new technologies into schools.


This post bought to you by Associate Professor Erica Southgate and Dr Jill Scevak – We love learning!

DATA – A safe and respectful approach for assisting students in VR

Child protection is a serious issue in today’s society. There are laws, policies and procedures to ensure the welfare of children and young people. Schools are required to provide a protective and caring environment where student safety and well-being are paramount. In Australia, working with children checks are required by law before people can work or volunteer in settings with children and young people. School education systems have clear guidelines for teachers on what constitutes acceptable practice and respectful behaviour towards students.

When you first use VR headsets and hand controllers they can be awkward to put on, take off and adjust. Students often ask teachers, researchers or other students to help them with this. Even with a virtual guardian or chaperone system which indicates safe boundaries, people can move around in VR and come too close to objects putting them at potential risk. It is sometimes necessarily to help students to re-orientate back to a safe space in the real world so that they can avoid hitting objects (as part of the VR School project we always have a ‘spotter’ who looks out for the safety of students). When using a headset a person is either in darkness while they are waiting for an application to load or in the virtual world; basically, they cannot see what is going on outside or who is near them. It can be a bit of a shock to be in a virtual world and have someone in the real world start talking to you or putting a hand on your shoulder! Importantly, we need to be particularly mindful of students who have special needs, life circumstances or cultural norms which have made them touch-adverse.

So how can teachers, researchers and student-helpers interact with a person in VR in a safe and respectful way?

As part of the VR School project we have developed the DATA protocol. This involves involves 3 actions outlined in this poster:

DATA poster_Final

Training teachers, researchers and student-helpers in the DATA method of interaction will go a long way in ensuring VR experiences are safe and respectful for all involved

Questions for teachers to ask about computer games for learning

Globally, an estimated 1.4 billion people play computer games, with growth in popularity driven by mobile device uptake, app proliferation and social media engagement. In Australia, around 98% of households with children have video games, 90% of gamer parents play games with their children, and 35% of children have played games as part of the school curriculum.

There are two types of games used for learning. The first type are ‘serious games’. These are designed to harness the popularity of recreational gaming for specific educative or training purposes. The second type are commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games.  These are recreational games that can be adopted/adapted for learning (the original versions of Minecraft are an example of this).

There is growing evidence that serious and COTS games can be highly motivating and produce positive effects on learning.

However, teachers do face decisions about the selection of games, their alignment to curriculum, suitability for learners, and their place in the pedagogical repertoire. In this networked world, there are also ethical and technical issues to resolve.

Serious Games Framework Poster

To assist teachers in choosing and using computer games effectively in classrooms, we have produced a paper on evidence related to this and we have developed a practical framework in poster form (above). This framework is designed to scaffold teachers to ask critical questions about gaming for learning. We hope that it can be used to increase the effective integration of games into classrooms to benefit both teachers and learners.


Dr Shamus Smith and Associate Professor Erica Southgate, developers of the serious games for literacy, Apostrophe Power and Sentence Hero (link to game apps here), available for free download from the App Store and Google Play.


References are in the paper (link above).

What can virtual reality do for learning?

In 1962, Morton Heilig, a cinematographer and inventor, produced a prototype machine called the Sensorama Simulator (pictured above). It was a machine that played 3D films enhanced by stereo sound and effects such as a fan-generated breeze and a series of chemical scents emitted from vents.  In the Sensorama you could feel like you were really riding a motorcycle! While the Sensorama did not make it past the prototype stage, it laid the foundations for some important thinking on what simulating reality (and creating new realities) might involve. This included the potential for technology to transport a person into another realm, elicit powerful feelings of ‘being there’ in that virtual environment, and allowing people to experience things that they might not be able to do in real life. These are some of the affordances of virtual environments.

Affordance is a tricky term because it can mean both how people use the properties of a technology for a particular purpose and how the actual properties of a technology allow for a range of uses (Hammond, 2010). So what are some of the affordances  of 3D virtual environments that can make it a valuable learning tool?  These include:

  • Allowing learners to enhance their knowledge of an environment or object through spatial interaction or manipulation in a fully-realised 3D way (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). An example of this would be rotating a virtual human cell and resizing it to get a better or more detailed view of its specific structures and how these relate to each other. You might also put a simulation of a human cell beside a plant cell and interact and manipulate with these for comparative purposes.
  • Facilitating experiential learning for tasks or activities that are impractical, impossible or unsafe in the real world (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). For example, it would not be safe or practical to experience an active volcanic eruption. A simulated virtual experience could allow you a close-up view of the event, provide a deeper understanding of the phenomena and explore its aftermath. Virtual reality, using head mounted displays (HMDS), has provided field trips through the human body to educate on health, been used to gauge the behaviours of children in road safety scenarios, and train astronauts in repairing equipment. At its best, the skills learnt in the virtual environment can be readily transferred to real world situations.
  • Increasing motivation and engagement in learning tasks through a ‘flow’ state that results from intense feeling of presence or ‘being there’  (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). Using the plant and human cell example cited above, learners may become drawn into the immediacy and intrinsic interest of the task in cognitive and embodied ways. Indeed, there is increasing interest in immersive virtual reality as a tool to explore embodied cognition (Jang et al., 2017). Furthermore, if it is possible to interact with others to do the task in a virtual environment then the educational and social benefits of cooperative learning can become apparent.
  • Allowing profound flights of the imagination. Leaving aside the magic of virtual field trips on and off the planet and back in time, there are a growing number of tools that allow users to create in and customise virtual environments with extraordinary results (eg Tilt Brush). And, there are current explorations of immersive virtual reality as an ‘empathy machine’ that allow people to step into someone else’s shoes and perhaps even change their belief system (Maister et al., 2015). Another immersive technology, 360° video, has been used to provide a window into the lives of people living with autism.

The affordances of virtual environments have enormous potential to enhance learning but require more research on specific applications, groups of learners and in diverse educational settings. This is especially true of highly immersive virtual reality mediated though head mounted displays (HMDs). Some key questions are:

How do the affordances of highly immersive VR, mediated through HMDs, enhance, alter or add to learning experiences especially when compared to desktop virtual environments?

What are the pedagogical implications of these affordances and what should teachers know and do in relation to this?

These questions are central to the VR School project.


Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3‐D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology41(1), 10-32.

Hammond, M. (2010). What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education? Education and Information Technologies15(3), 205-217.

Jang, S., Vitale, J. M., Jyung, R. W., & Black, J. B. (2017). Direct manipulation is better than passive viewing for learning anatomy in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment. Computers & Education106, 150-165.

Maister, L., Slater, M., Sanchez-Vives, M. V., & Tsakiris, M. (2015). Changing bodies changes minds: owning another body affects social cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences19(1), 6-12.


Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Education and someone who wishes she could have tried the Sensorama!

What do we know about highly immersive technology and kids?

What is highly immersive technology and what does the research say about using it with children and young people?

The increasing availability of highly immersive virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology that often uses head-mounted displays (or headsets) has raised questions about its safety and ethical implications in educational settings,  workplaces and for leisure. However, little is known about the impact of highly immersive experiences on children and young people.

While there is no accepted definition of ‘highly immersive’, it is reasonable to say that there are some new technologies that can create very intense feeling of presence or ‘being there’ in virtual and augmented spaces. These technologies allow for a high degree of interaction and autonomy. Different types of technologies and software applications produce different levels of feeling immersed and there is still much work to be done on categorising levels of immersion and their effects on different groups of people. As part of the VR School project we are using the Oculus Rift. This technology does offer high levels of immersion particularly in virtual environments that allow navigation, manipulation, interaction and free play.

The other day I was flying in Minecraft VR, soaring high above the landscape. I was enjoying the wonder and freedom of virtual flying, until I needed to land! As I double clicked the controller and began to descend, my stomach rose to my mouth, I gasped, closed my eyes and braced to hit the ground. When I took the headset off, I was in a crouching position, knees still bent to absorb the ‘impact’.

Highly immersive technologies create cognitive, affective and sensory experiences that can often feel very ‘real’. The reactions of people using this type of technology can range from joy to terror depending on what they are experiencing and their past history. This is why we need to think carefully and ethically about the use of such technology. This is especially true when using immersive technology with children and young people because they are at different developmental stages compared to adults and this can affect how they feel, understand and react to immersive experiences.

The problem at this relatively early stage is that there is very little research conducted with children and young people using these technologies. What research there is indicates a need to explicitly bring together evidence from the child development literature with established ethical principles and our knowledge of the affordances or features of technologies.

While there are a number of ethical principles to consider, beneficence is a key one. Beneficence focuses on the welfare of people and a commitment to ‘do no harm’, especially in relation to children and youth. So let’s consider beneficence in relation to what we do know from research on immersive technology and children.

We do know that virtual reality has been used to good effect for paediatric acute pain distraction in clinical settings although there is poorer evidence on chronic pain distraction (Shahrbanian et al., 2012).  So in this instance, VR is certainly not doing harm.

There is also a documented experiment using a virtual roller coaster ride which compared the prefrontal brain arousal of adults & children (mean age 8.7 years). This experiment found that children were much more susceptible to the arousing impact of audio/visual stimuli and appeared unable to critically evaluate and monitor their experience or inhibit their sense of presence in the virtual environment. In other words, because of their developmental stage, children were more strongly drawn into the experience of the roller coaster ride. Because children were unable to regulate the intensity of the experience in the same way adults could, the authors concluded that there should be more reluctance to ‘expose children to emotional virtual reality stimuli as currently practiced’ (Baumgartner et al., 2008). Given this evidence, it is fair to say that some immersive experiences may cause distress because the developmental stage of a child’s brain does not allow it to regulate the intensity of the experience in the same way an adult brain can.

Between the ages of 3-12 years children gradually develop the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality (Sharon & Woolley, 2004).  Ask any group of children between these ages if they believe in Santa and you will find that there will be an age variation between those who believe versus those that don’t – I admit I still believed in Santa until I was 11. The ability to distinguish fantasy and reality reflects individual social and cognitive development. It is important to consider this in relation to the use of highly immersive technology.

For example, Segovia et al. (2009) found that some primary (elementary) school aged children exposed to the virtual reality environment of swimming with Orcas developed a ‘false memory’ of the experience:  ‘The media richness of the mental imagery…was high enough to be confused with the richness of an event in the physical world’. Similarly in another experiment, 50% of primary school aged children believed that an experience in immersive VR was real one week after being put in the virtual environment (Stanford VHIL, 2015).

And its not just young children that we need to be concerned about. In the outdoor augmented reality game, Alien Contact, older students (aged 11-16 years) asked researchers if aliens had actually crashed at their school and if the researchers were FBI agents (Dunleavy et al., 2009).

Just because a technology can afford certain immersive experiences doesn’t mean they will be psychologically appropriate or safe for all children and young people. There are a number of aspects to consider before using immersive technologies with children and youth as the diagram below indicates:

Diagram VR

Diagram: Conceptual framework for considering aspects of immersive environments in a developmental context (Southgate, Smith & Scevak, 2017).

It’s important that as new immersive technologies become widely adopted that educators engage with questions about their safe and ethical use in the context of what we know about the cognitive, social, moral and affective development of the child and long-held ethical principles such as beneficence. A careful, evidence-led approach is required to the use of highly immersive technologies in schools. This is part of our duty of care towards students.

If you would like to know more about ethical principles, child development and immersive technologies you can read a paper we have written on the topic. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you would like to discuss.

Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Education and VR flying aficionado.



  • Baumgartner, T. et al. (2008). Feeling present in arousing virtual reality worlds: prefrontal brain regions differentially orchestrate presence experience in adults and children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2, 8
  • Dunleavy, M. et al. (2009). Affordances and limitations of immersive participatory augmented reality simulations for teaching and learning. Journal of Science Education and Technology18(1), 7-22.
  • Segovia, K. & Bailenson, J. (2009). Virtually true: Children’s acquisition of false memories in virtual reality. Media Psychology, 12(4), 371-393.
  • Shahrbanian, S. et al. (2012). Use of virtual reality (immersive vs. non immersive) for pain management in children and adults: A systematic review of evidence from randomized controlled trials. European Journal of Experimental Biology2(5), 1408-1422.
  • Sharon, T. & Woolley, J.D. (2004). Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22(2), 293-310.
  • Southgate, E., Smith, S.P. & Scevak, J. (2017). Asking ethical questions in research using immersive virtual and augmented reality technologies with children and youth. In Virtual Reality (VR), 2017 IEEE Proceedings (pp. 12-18). IEEE. (E1)
  • Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab (2015). – accessed 19 Sept 2016.




Information for parents, carers and students on the VR School project

To take part in the VR School project, parents, carers and their child must give their written permission (this is also called consent). Details on the project can be found in the video Information Statement and the written Information Statement. A Parent/Carer and Student Consent (permission) Form is also available. The consent form has a section for students to give their agreement to take part in the project. The Information Statement and Consent Form are also available online through the College’s Canvas learning system.

Associate Professor Erica Southgate

Feature image from Tom Magliery-  ‘i’ – – original image cropped.

Setting up the Oculus Rift in the classroom

Today we set up the Oculus Rifts with their controller tracking system at Callaghan College (Wallsend Campus).  The three Rifts were set up in a small room attached to the main classroom. Chris (pictured below) took the lead in setting up the equipment with two Rifts set up with the trackers on desks, and the other having its trackers mounted on the wall. Chris is a Future Learning Coordinator at Callaghan College, a geography teacher and a co-researcher on the VR School project. Some students and staff tried out the equipment with great success.


VR School wins Callaghan College a Top Innovative Schools award

Callaghan College  has been named by The Educator magazine as one of the ‘Top 40 innovative schools in Australia’ for the VR School project. VR School is a partnership between the College and the University of Newcastle’s Digital Identity, Curation and Education (DICE) research network. The project uses the Oculus Rift to provide immersive learning experiences for Year 9 students in science and is producing world-first ethical, health and safety, and pedagogical resources for the use of immersive virtual reality in real classrooms. Impacts on student learning are also being evaluated.

Callaghan College has previously been recognised as a top innovative school by The Educator for its whole of College professional learning in 21st Century pedagogy (2015), and the design, development and implementation of a National first program in Certificate III Aviation – Remote Drone Pilot (Line of Sight) (2016).

Mr Graham Eather, College Principal, & Associate Professor Erica Southgate, DICE Research Network.

Teachers talking VR safety

Teachers have an important duty of care towards their students. To support this, we developed a script for teachers to use in their classrooms to teach students about staying safe in immersive VR.

The script is part of a suite of health and safety resources we developed as part of the VR School Project. It covers things such using hair nets for hygiene, what students should do if they feel cybersick, not staying in immersive VR for too long, and looking out for each other, particular when using VR in ‘moving around mode’ with the controllers.

The script reinforces and elaborates on the advice given on the ‘Be VR Aware’ classroom posters.  It can be found in Resources.

Erica Southgate, VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia

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