Institute of Art Design + Technology
Dún Laoghaire

Andrea Farrelly 

BSc [Hons] Applied Psychology

I am a graduate of the B.Sc. in Applied Psychology (Tech Path), and next year I am hoping to pursue a Masters in UX/Interactive/Digital Design. I am interested in the relationship between psychology and technology, and how we can incorporate our knowledge of human behaviour with the design of both digital and physical products. I have a strong passion for photography, visuals and aesthetics. Having completed my final year dissertation, I explored the difference in Presence and Engagement levels between Desktop-based and VR learning environments, in the hopes of identifying potential adjustments that could be made to improve the remote academic experience for students.

Presence and Engagement in Online Learning: Comparing Desktop-based and Virtual Reality Environments

The following study explored whether Virtual Reality environments could improve the remote learning experience for students. The Covid-19 Pandemic forced schools and universities to pivot to online learning spaces, and it is expected they will be more commonly used in the future. Due to this, it is crucial to assess the benefits and limitations of these environments. VR offers a more immersive experience than synchronous and asynchronous desktop-based classes. To take a closer look at this, a comparative experiment was conducted that investigated the differences in presence and engagement between a VR class (using a head-mounted display) and a generic desktop-based class.


A spotlight has been placed on alternative learning environments, providing researchers with an opportunity to assess the limitations of these spaces. Applications like Blackboard and Microsoft Teams have satisfied scholastic advancements, however, the employment of these in replace of face-to-face teaching is only a temporary solution for learners, as it fails to be an effective substitute for in-person classes. Presence and Engagement are two of the necessary factors for an effective learner experience. The concept of ‘presence’ has been brought to the surface more recently due to the rise in popularity of 'technology-mediated' environments. Presence is a personal, psychological response to immersive situations, and can be defined as a sense of “being there” in a particular setting. Engagement is distinguished as an opportunity to collaborate with others by means of sharing ideas and emotions. It is an effortful commitment to learning that helps elicit this sense of presence. Maintaining equal involvement of all students is a challenging and integral aspect of an individual's self-improvement and learning. The immersivity of VR is worth investigating as a desirable method of teaching within the education sector. This research study addressed gaps in the literature that point towards unexplored regions of VR for academia, which could encourage the use of VR and therefore transform educational spaces. This study’s literature review is divided into three segments: (i) Engagement in Technology-Mediated Spaces, (ii) Advantages and Disadvantages of Desktop Learning, and (iii) Implementing VR into Education.


This study used numerical data from an online questionnaire in order to test the effect of the Environment (IV with 2 levels: OE and VE) on Presence (DV 1) and Engagement (DV 2).This study employed a ‘between-subjects’ design to conduct Hotelling's T² on the participants’ overall Presence and Engagement between the two environments. Group 1 (desktop-based) was asked to reflect on an online environment they had recently taken part in (i.e. Blackboard, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.), while Group 2 (VR) attended a class using a HMD. After reflecting or participating in either environments, two questionnaires were used to analyse the sense of Presence and Engagement in both: (a) Witmer and Singer’s Presence Questionnaire and (b) O’Brien et al.’s User Engagement Scale.

This research was conducted across an academic setting. 30 posters were displayed around the IADT campus to attract participants for Group 1. Participants for Group 2 were gathered using convenience sampling, the majority of these being undergraduate/postgraduate IADT students, and faculty members. The final sample consisted of 53 participants (N = 53; 45% male, 53% female, 2% non-binary; with an age range of 18-55 years). The treatment of all participants was under the ethical guidelines of the Psychological Society of Ireland and the Department of Technology and Psychology Ethics Committee (DTPEC). The study was conducted in the order of: Pilot study, Desktop-based Environment (Group 1), VE (Group 2).

Materials used: Information Sheet, Consent Form, Presence Questionnaire, User Engagement Scale, Debrief Sheet and Oculus Quest 2 Heasets.

Findings & Limitations

This study explored the inclusion of VR as a new, dimensional layer of education. Previous literature strongly relied on the early models of HMDs, and failed to highlight the true prospects VR has to offer for learning outcomes and success. The results convey a greater sense of both presence and engagement in VEs, reiterating the need for implementation of VR technology within educational settings. A potential influence was depicted on the application used on overall presence and engagement levels. A large volume of individuals complained about a discomfort regarding the heaviness of the HMD. Participants who remarked on the tightness of the straps also mentioned having a slight headache. Students referred to the transition of face-to-face classes towards online platforms as “poor”, and “lacked focus”, re-encapsulating the idea of VEs as a ‘happy-medium’ of ensuring individuals feel equally present and engaged during distance learning.

VR is severely time-intensive. Each individual required separate attention to put on their headset, and to set up their Play Area/Guardian. This proved tedious and time-consuming, costing an average of 20-40 minutes. Due to this, the number of participants who experienced the VE was low, leading to an unequal sample size between the groups. Substantial barriers existed in regards to motion-sickness, and because of this, a small percentage of individuals requested they experience the VR in stationary mode, as opposed to standing. The final limitation to mention was the novelty/distractor factor whilst using the VR technology, which potentially interfered with presence and engagement levels.