Research: Why Interaction in VR Matters – Part 2

If you have not already, you can read part one of this article here

Learning through interaction in virtual reality requires careful pedagogical planning, not magic.

Nergiz Kern

In the previous blog post, we looked at why adding interaction to a learning experience in virtual reality helps learning. Let’s dig a bit deeper to understand how best to do this in order to bring about a positive learning outcome. 

Learning in virtual reality doesn’t happen magically. Just as simply bringing technology into the classroom won’t lead to better learning, simply taking students into virtual reality won’t either. We need to carefully consider how to integrate virtual reality into the existing learning environment. And likewise, to benefit from the affordance of interaction in VR, interactions need to be carefully planned and integrated into the learning experience we want to take our learners through (Gomez, 2020; Lan, 2016 in Lan, 2020. p. 3). For VR technology to become an immersive, interactive learning environment, sound pedagogy and curriculum-based content is essential and needs to be integrated with the hardware and software (Cai, Tay and Ngo., 2013). The figure below shows how each component contributes to the overall learning experience.

(Source: Cai, Tay and Ngo, 2013, p. 10, Fig. 1.11 3D Immersive and Interactive Learning Environments)

The model above is similar to the TPACK model that is frequently used in teacher education, according to which teachers need to have technological, pedagogical  and content knowledge when integrating technology into lessons. All three elements need to be present for successful learning to take place (Koehler & Mishra, 2005). 

Considerations when creating interactive VR learning experiences

Let’s see how some of these elements contribute to interactive learning experiences in VR, and what we need to consider to improve learning and avoid pitfalls.


New, light-weight, standalone (and mobile) and affordable VR headsets have two main advantages that contribute to adding new types of interactivity: 1) They are not tethered to a computer, so learners can move more freely in the physical environment 2) These new headsets have 6DoF (six degrees of Freedom), which means that body movements, gestures, including movement of hands and fingers are translated into the movements of the avatar in the physical world. For example, if the learner wants to grab an object in the virtual environment, they make a grabbing movement with their physical hand on the controller. This allows for a much more real and embodied virtual experience and provides us with more real-life like interaction in VR.

One previous issue with VR is that some users may have experienced dizziness or nausea when they were seated in the physical world but moved their avatar in the virtual world. However, using a standalone/un-tethered headset means that the user can make the move in the physical world in parallel to the virtual world, significantly reducing or eliminating such negative physical reactions.


360-degree videos can be a great entry point into immersive virtual experiences. However, the learner is alone in the environment, so there is no interaction with others within the virtual space. Often the learner is mainly an observer, or interaction with the environment is very limited to some clickable hot spots or multiple choice questions. Similarly, if the teacher uses a virtual space to just present information, the learners don’t need to do much more than listen or watch, which means they miss out on some of the main learning enhancing affordances that virtual reality offers, one of which is interaction. The moment an avatar – a 3D representation of the learner in the virtual environment – is introduced, the sense of being in that space increases because the learners can interact with the space and objects within that space, with other learners and their teacher via their avatar rather than just passively observing the space (Childs and Peachey, 2013). 

The level and complexity of the interactions depend on the app used. In some fully immersive virtual environments, the avatar can move around and communicate with others freely, but object interaction is limited; in others, it might be possible to grab, throw, resize objects, or even create or import new objects. This impacts directly on what kind of collaborative tasks learners can do in the virtual environment. Even if there is not much human-object interactivity, students can collaboratively plan a virtual trip or other events. On the other hand, in a highly interactive remote island scene, learners who ‘got stranded’ there can find and gather food, build a shelter, make a fire, cook, etc. Consequently, when choosing an app for specific learning objectives, it is important to consider the level of interactivity it offers. Ideally, the software would allow teachers to choose the level of interactivity they need for each lesson, by perhaps offering different scenes/rooms or allowing teachers to remove objects in a scene that are not needed. 


Virtual reality lends itself to active, experiential learning due to the sense of embodiment or presence and possibilities of interaction as mentioned above. To make this happen, lessons need to be planned in a way that makes the most of interactivity which the app affords. Ask the learners to move within the environment rather than stay in one place, manipulate the environment or objects within it, to collaborate with each other, plan and participate in events, go on trips, making the most of  being in a place rather than just looking at it. One of the situated cognition principles related to learning environments is that ‘Learning is seen as a dialectical process of interaction with other people, tools, and the physical world’ (Wilson and Meyers, 2000, p69). 

It is, however, important that the interactions are related to the task and the lesson aims, otherwise they can  be distracting. For example, the teacher wants the students to listen to peer presentations or watch a role-play, but there are many objects in the scene that can be grabbed, thrown, collected, or otherwise manipulated, it might be difficult to get and keep the students attention. It will be wiser to take them to a different, less interactive scene for that part of the lesson, and one that is associated with the task – a meeting room for the business presentations, or a newsroom for an interview role-play. Alternatively, the app might allow the teacher to switch off or remove some interactive elements that are not needed for an activity or lesson.


Content in a VR environment should have ideally been designed for learning and teaching and be suitable for use in this environment, and learning experiences need to be integrated into the curriculum throughout. Occasionally hopping into VR or a VR experience that is unrelated to the curriculum will not bring about the desired engagement, motivation and learning impact, no matter how good the hardware, software or even the pedagogy is (Cai, Tay and Ngo, 2013). 

How much interaction is good?

For high immersiveness or feelings of presence or ’embodiment’ in virtual reality, a high level interactivity is important, and immersion is  important for language learning, so one could easily conclude that the more interactive an environment is, the better the learning outcome. Several studies examined by Legault et al. (2019) indeed support this idea. However too much interactivity can lead to cognitive overload (Zhang, Bowman and Jones, 2019), particularly if it isn’t relevant to the learning task and become a source of distraction (Parong and Mayer, 2018). ‘For language learners this may be further compounded, as language processing is added to the already lengthy list of factors that use mental resources’ (Frazier et al., 2021, p. 132). 

Similarly, a virtual environment in which a group of learners can be together and interact with each other and perhaps even with other people, can enhance language learning because they can use language to communicate and collaborate with each other Legault et al., 2019). However the unpredictability of person-to-person interactions can also lead to cognitive load. Virtual reality applications that are more passive and used by one learner at a time put less pressure on the learner and thus reduce cognitive load, but they are also less immersive (Frazier et al., 2021). So, a balance needs to be struck between the level of interactivity and immersiveness on the one hand, and cognitive load on the other.

Concluding remarks

VR has huge potential for language learning, which amongst other things is due to the fact that it provides an interactive environment. To harness this potential, though, choosing the right hardware, software, pedagogy, and content and integrating them carefully are important for creating meaningful, enjoyable, engaging and effective language learning experiences. 


Cai, Y., Tay, Ch. T. and Ngo B.K. (2013). Introduction to 3D Immersive and Interactive Learning. In Cai (Ed) 3D Immersive and Interactive Learning. Springer Singapore.

Childs, M., & Peachey, A. Editors’ Introduction: Understanding Learning in Virtual Worlds. In Childs, M., & Peachey, A.(Eds.). (2013). Understanding Learning in Virtual Worlds. Springer London.


Gomez L.I. (2020) Immersive Virtual Reality for Learning Experiences. In: Burgos D. (eds) Radical Solutions and eLearning. Lecture Notes in Educational Technology. Springer, Singapore.

Koehler M.J.&Mishra P. (2005) What happens when teachers design educational technology? The development of technological pedagogical content knowledge. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 32, 131–152.

Lan, Y. J. (2020). Immersion, interaction and experience-oriented learning: Bringing virtual reality into FL learning. Language Learning & Technology24(1), 1–15. 

Legault, J., Zhao, J., Chi, Y.-A., Chen, W., Klippel, A., & Li, P. (2019). Immersive Virtual Reality as an Effective Tool for Second Language Vocabulary Learning. 34.

Parong, J., & Mayer, R. E. (2018). Learning science in immersive virtual reality. Journal of Educational Psychology110(6), 785–797.

Wilson, B. G., & Myers, K. M. (2000). Situated cognition in theoretical and practical context. In D. H. Jonassen & S. M. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments (pp. 57-88). Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum. 

Zhang, L., Bowman, D. A., & Jones, C. N. (2019). Exploring Effects of Interactivity on Learning with Interactive Storytelling in Immersive Virtual Reality. 2019 11th International Conference on Virtual Worlds and Games for Serious Applications (VS-Games), 1–8.

(Originally published on the Immerse blog.)