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Blog post Part of special issue: Education research: Northern Ireland

Digital futures in Northern Ireland: Beyond a virtual reality?

Sammy Taggart, Lecturer in Education at Ulster University

On a recent first trip outside Northern Ireland, following my two years or so of Covid-19 bubbling, I was struck by the national media coverage surrounding ‘our wee country’. With news of ongoing political instability in Northern Ireland, the ‘rest of the world’ could be forgiven for thinking that all things ‘over here’ were as disastrous as many of our politicians often make it appear.

Despite, at the time of writing, entering another period of political uncertainty, brinkmanship and stalemate, if we can learn anything from our previous 1,000+ days of legislative hiatus, it is that aspects of society here can function, and even thrive, despite seesawing political stasis and related headlines. Widespread perception is often very different from the lived reality. Work here, centred around the School of Education at Ulster University, is designed to challenge perceptions through virtual reality (VR).

In Northern Ireland (NI), we have our own, more local, enduring challenges with perceptions. Societal divisions remain and, despite it being over 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, some geographical spaces across NI remain ‘no-go areas’ for ‘the other’ community who often perceive them as ‘physical embodiments of fear, threat and conflict’ (Selim, 2015, p. 17). This division continues to extend into schools and schooling and many teachers and pre-service teachers are themselves products of societal division, which has implications for how they approach the teaching of issues related to the conflict (Jansen, 2009; Zembylas, 2013). This is likely, for example in the teaching of local history or citizenship, to impact what fieldwork and out-of-school visits are pursued with school groups in and around NI’s contested spaces. Work from Ulster University (Taggart et al., 2021) uses virtual reality to highlight pre-service teachers’ perceptions of contested spaces in Northern Ireland with aspirations to: increase awareness of what communities have in common; promote empathy regarding historical, location-sensitive events; and move to eradicate ‘spaces of fear’ (Shirlow, 2003). Curated VR experiences in this instance were found to create emotional responses that countered the narratives and perceptions, and, in turn, helped participants to counter partisan versions of the past.

‘Curated VR experiences were found to create emotional responses that countered the narratives and perceptions, and, in turn, helped participants to counter partisan versions of the past.’

This work with VR in initial teacher education at Ulster is complemented by the Virtual Reality in Initial Teacher Education (VRITE) project, funded by the Standing Conference on Teacher Education, North and South (SCoTENS). SCoTENS is a unique network of teacher educators from across the island of Ireland focused primarily on cross-border co-operation for the enhancement of teacher education throughout Ireland. A recent evaluation of SCoTENS’ work (Clarke et al., 2021, p. 93) concluded that ‘the opening-up of conversation among “the geographically close” if “culturally different” is generating awareness of both difference and commonality, but, most importantly, fostering trust, familiarity, and mutual understanding.’ VRITE considers how emerging VR technologies can be used where pre-service teachers and in-service teachers may support each other’s professional learning both technically and pedagogically using a combination of cognitive apprenticeship and reverse-mentoring (Farrell et al., 2022). Focusing on the curricular possibilities of VR, this work pragmatically considers the pedagogical and systemic affordances of such technological engagement, together, across the island of Ireland, and beyond.

In brief, despite how politics and media might be affecting perceptions of Northern Ireland at the moment, there is much to showcase and to celebrate about the collaboration, innovation and outlook here. Our future teaching workforce has opportunities to be increasingly well equipped to challenge their own personal lived experiences about community divisions in NI and is positioned promisingly to have a positive influence on the work of in-service colleagues through respectful reverse-mentoring, and, in turn, their pupils.

The future looks brighter; we are virtually there.


Clarke, L., Galvin, C., Campbell, M., Cowan, P., Hall, K., Magennis, G., O’Doherty, T., Purdy, N., & Abbott, L. (2020). Assessing the value of SCOTENS as a cross-border professional learning network in Ireland using the Wenger–Trayner value-creation framework. Oxford Review of Education, 47(1), 79–97.

Farrell, R., Cowan, P., Brown, M., Roulston, S., Taggart, S., Donlan, E., & Baldwin, M. (2022). Virtual reality in initial teacher education (VRITE): A reverse mentoring model of professional learning for learning leaders. Irish Educational Studies, 41(1), 245–256.

Jansen, J. (2009). Knowledge in the blood: Confronting race and the apartheid past. Stanford University Press.

Selim, G. (2015). The landscape of differences: Contact and segregation in everyday encounters. Cities, 46, 16–25.

Shirlow, P. (2003). ‘Who fears to speak’: Fear, mobility, and ethno-sectarianism in the two ‘ardoynes’. The Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 3(1), 76–91.

Taggart, S., Roulston, S., & McAuley, C. (2021). From virtual peace with virtual reality: Exploring the contested narratives of spaces and places in Northern Ireland. Glencree Journal 2021: Dealing with the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland through engagement and dialogue, pp. 221–237.

Zembylas, M. (2013). Critical pedagogy and emotion: Working through ‘troubled knowledge’ in posttraumatic contexts. Critical Studies in Education, 54(2) 176–189.