Whizzing past the cornea, careering around the iris and pupil, and flicking out via the optic nerve, the experience might stay with you long after you depart the virtual reality world. 

This was certainly the case for five classes at Callaghan College in NSW, who have just emerged from a two-year research study that took students deep into the virtual reality realm.

Led by Dr Erica Southgate from The University of Newcastle, the pioneering project joined teachers and researchers together as co-researchers – and it carried some big, bold aims.

“The future is about immersive learning,” Southgate begins. 

“The more we can offer students, no matter their background or where they live or what resources they have access to, the more we can offer them amazing experiences … like standing on the edge of an erupting volcano and then diving into that volcano, the deeper their learning will become.”

The researcher believes that when VR is successfully embedded into the curriculum, it can really level the ‘playing field of privilege’. 

For low-SES or rural and remote schools, immersive reality technology can be a real game changer. 

“I’m interested in using technology not as toys but as learning tools in schools where students might not get access to the latest and the best technology.

 “[So] in ways that those students can really explore what’s possible with learning, but also what’s possible in terms of career development…”

Armed with three Oculus Rift headsets, Southgate and her team developed a biology learning unit that tasked students with researching a particular body organ, before developing it into a VR model that could be ‘toured’ by their peers. 

The results were truly spectacular, she reports.

“So one group of girls developed a model of an eye and they were very clever in how they labelled it, they did very good research.

“And then they actually built a roller coaster, so you could take the roller coaster in and around and through the eyeball and out the other side of the optic nerve. 

“It was awesome experience to tour a creation like that, so not only were they thinking about their research, they were translating their research in VR models, so they were thinking about the learning experience for other learners.”

Another group of girls built a “really amazing” model of the heart that swept virtual tourists through its four chambers according to the trajectory of actual blood flow. 

Upon reflection, Southgate says the pilot trial really shows what is possible when educators and researchers band together to forge new ways of ‘doing’ education. 

“The VR School Project was the first of its kind in the world, and it only worked because researchers worked with teachers and teachers worked with researchers, so we each bring different things to the table.

“What it allows for is a really robust and critical conversation around the technology, and I think we always have to ask why we use this technology over any other; it allows for really good problem solving to occur…” 

According to Southgate, school leaders need to have virtual reality learning on their agenda. 

“They should certainly be investigating and exploring its options before they invest,” she cautions.

“They should be seeking out advice, they should be thinking about ‘well, how can I take small steps to integrate this type of technology into the curriculum – what have other schools done? What are the technical and infrastructure issues here?’”