Peril and Promise: Student Experiences of Virtual Reality and Implications for Inclusive Social Justice Pedagogy

Michelle VanNatta
Dominican University
River Forest, Illinois, United States


Virtual reality (VR) is a fast-evolving technology rapidly being integrated into education and training in multiple sectors of society. As the use of VR spreads, it is important to critically analyze both its role in effective pedagogies and how students experience it. Virtual reality has extraordinary promise for deeply engaging students, and it also poses particular challenges for equitable and effective teaching of diverse students. This paper discusses students’ responses to a VR exercise and examines some of the complexities VR presents around racial justice, gender equity, and economic fairness. Virtual reality technology may be less effective and less comfortable for some types of bodies compared to others. In addition, the content of VR videos and the use of the technology to experience entering spaces that one could not otherwise access must be handled with sensitivity to power differences and social hierarchies. Finally, the potential anonymity and shifts in norms in moving into virtual interactions must be carefully addressed by instructors in order to create productive learning spaces and reduce potentially harmful or toxic interactions. This analysis focuses on teaching in the field of criminology and draws from experience exploring VR with several criminology classes, but is applicable across disciplines. Best practices involve first assessing if virtual reality is truly the best way to teach specific material and if so, using backwards design and effective teaching strategies, considering the accessibility and risks of the technology for students of different genders, races, abilities, and experiences, and carefully reviewing technology set-ups and content in order to use the technology safely and to the best advantage of students. 

Keywords: virtual reality, educational technology, diversity, social justice pedagogy, inclusive teaching 

Author Bio

Michelle VanNatta is an Associate Professor and the coordinator of the Criminology Program at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. She is interested in prison abolition, pedagogy, and preparing students to be trauma-informed professionals. Her previous published work addresses racism in immigration court, systemic responses to sexual violence in women’s prisons, heterosexism in battered women’s shelters, and deployment of emotion narratives in the prosecution of battered women who fight back against abusers. In her spare time, she tries to cheer herself up with novels, films, television, and podcasts that imagine other worlds. 

Suggested Citation


VanNatta, M. (2022). Peril and promise: Student experiences of virtual reality and implications for inclusive social justice pedagogy. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 9(3).


VanNatta, Michelle. “Peril and Promise: Student Experiences of Virtual Reality and Implications for Inclusive Social Justice Pedagogy.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 9 , no. 3, 2022,

Download as PDF

Tags: , , , ,