Understanding VR with media literacy and unsettling media literacy with VR

by Julian McDougall, Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, Bournemouth University, UK.

This article shares some of the key themes and critical issues explored in a new book, Understanding Virtual Reality: Challenging Perspectives for Media Literacy and Education which I co-authored with Sarah Jones and Steve Dawkins and which is published in the Routledge Research in Media Literacy and Education book series, which I co-edit with Pete Bennett.

Knowing Sarah Jones for a good while now, in her capacity as Visiting Professor in the CEMP, the research centre I lead, as a keynote speaker at our Media Education Summit and from the media education ‘circuit’ in general, Pete and I were delighted when Sarah and Steve proposed a book on VR for our series. Where I came in was when we got into rich discussions in the editing process about how media literacy speaks to VR and what difference VR makes to media literacy, and it seemed like a good idea for me to collaborate with Sarah and Steve on that work, so I ended up wearing two hats as a result. This was a challenging experience but one from which I learned a great deal, both about VR and about the field I have been working in for a long time now, media literacy.

The book is co-authored by the three of us which other authors contributing chapters. It aims to offer a tour through a range of pertinent issues around media literacy education might respond to VR and its ever-increasing variants. Sarah interviewed Jaron Lanier, one of if not the most prominent theoretical voices on VR (see Lanier, 2017), and they use that discussion to revisit and reframe both hopes and fears for the virtual. We then set out the landscape in chapters on virtual archives and spaces, what we mean by ‘understanding’ VR and what challenges and opportunities it provides for media literacy and a curated set of first-hand experiences in immersion which we use to start to map out our conceptual framework. Verity Macintosh offers a critical assessment of the nature of VR audiences, and how being present at the heart of an experience with the ability to move within and influence a narrative shifts our thinking about representation and reception. Jenny Kidd and James Taylor ensure we avoid the easy option of ‘strategic ignorance’ in education about how learners’ experiences of immersive media are impacted by digital inequalities. We then turn to a case study from Finland, where Turo Uskali and colleagues argue that teacher education plays an essential role in the adoption of immersive technologies in schools and societies in general, speaking from their practice in the University of Jyväskylä’s extended reality campus. Andy Miah offers a rich and compelling argument for ‘the moral metaverse’ and an applied ethical framework to govern the design practices of XR developers. Vicky Williams speaks to the lack of a shared literacy for describing nuanced embodied and affective experiences in VR, which she calls ‘unruly encounters’. This contribution provides a bridge to the work of literacy scholars such as Lee, Bailey, Burnett, & Rowsell (2022); Pahl and Rowsell (2020) Potter (2020) and Yamada-Rice et al (2020) – to name a few prominent voices, from a much larger field – which Sarah, Steve and I explore in a set of linked chapters which move forward incrementally towards a framework for understanding VR with and also for media literacy, an important duality in our thinking, just as Richard Hoggart, back in 1957, understood the uses of literacy to be at once used by people for a vast range of personal and societal benefits and used ‘on them’ by others.

In these linked chapters which seek to find a critical route through this duality, we explore the  unique positionality VR seems to provide across socio-materiality, human / post-human, engagement and critique, the ‘messy stuff’ of the always-already ‘sticky field’ of dynamic literacies. We argue that it’s the way that VR lays all this bare – in trans-mediating literacy praxis – that presents the affordance VR gives to media literacy. Through this book, then, we use media literacy to try to understand virtual reality for education but we also see the need for media literacy to find new ways of ‘doing text’ with VR, to develop a pedagogy for the ‘border-crossing’ between immersive experience and critical praxis, along these lines:

Media LiteraciesThe Uses of Media LiteracyThe Uses of Media Literacy in VRThe Uses of VR for Media Literacy
AccessUsing access to media to challenge access barriers and inequities.Socio-material, pedagogic and social access points.Meaning making with and in media at the margins of knowing.
AwarenessCritical, meta reflexion on  everyday mediated practices. Reading presence and immersion.  Interpreting choice.Laminating media meaning in the composition of self.
EngagementDynamic Agency in Media Spaces.Perspective, degrees of empathy, adapting the text.Media literacy as unruly encounter. Media literacy as productively weird.
CreativityCurative and maker  literacies. Creative media practice in and of VR.Generative adaption: trans-mediating media literacy praxis.
ActionCounter-script media, capability for positive change.From virtual empathy to positive action in space and place.  Enacting the commons through media literacy:  media literacy as trespass.


  • Hoggart, R. (1957). The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto & Windus.
  • Lanier, J (2017) Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality. London: Bodley Head. 
  • Lee, C; Bailey, C; Burnett, C & Rowsell, J. (Eds.). Unsettling Literacies: Directions for Literacy Research in Precarious Times Singapore: Springer
  • Pahl, K and Rowsell, J, with Diane Collier, Steve Pool, Zanib Rasool and Terry Trzecak (2020) Living Literacies: Literacy for Social Change. Massachusetts: MIT press.
  • Potter, J. (2020). Digital literacy/’dynamic literacies’: Formal and informal learning now and in the emergent future. The Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children (pp. 256-264).
  • Yamada-Rice, D., Dare, E. Main, A., Potter, J., Ando, A. Miyoshi, K., Narumi, T., Beshani, S., Clark, A., Duszenko, I. Love, S., Nash, R., Rodrigues, D., Stearman, N. (2020) Location-Based Virtual Reality Experiences for Children: Japan-UK Knowledge Exchange Network: Final Project Report.


Julian McDougall, Professor in Media and Education, Head of the Centre for Excellence in Media Practice and Programme Leader for the Professional Doctorate (Ed D) in Creative and Media Education at Bournemouth University, UK.