Ever wonder what happens when immersive VR is used in real classrooms?

How can the real environment of the classroom interact and intersect with the virtual environment for deep learning and fun?

Virtual reality is becoming ubiquitous and affordable with people asking how it might be used to offer students, of all ages, wondrous learning experiences. When I scroll through twitter feed, I see all kinds of educational technology (ed tech) articles on virtual and augmented technologies, usually featuring glossy stock photos of children and young people sporting the wide-mouth VR gape, a kind of visual short-hand for just how amazing an immersive VR experience can be. Most of the articles that accompany these images are about how the special affordances of VR (its properties or possibilities for action) can be used for learning – for example, virtual field trips to amazing places on and beyond the planet and the ability to manipulate the scale of virtual objects from the smallest (exploring a single human cell that appears as large as person) to the largest (zooming in and out of archaeological sites from an aerial view to a single in-situ artefact).

While there is imaginative thought in ed tech, evangelist-style articles, there is also a surprising lack of evidence on what actually happens when immersive technologies are introduced into real live schools.

There is some research from the field of computer science and health on lab-based or clinical experimentation using immersive VR with children but this research often has small numbers of participants and can be limited in its implications to everyday ‘natural’ settings. Classrooms are dynamic natural settings where learning, in all its complexity, is influenced by a range of factors from the individual differences of students and their socio-cultural and geographic backgrounds, peer interaction, mandated curriculum and assessment options, and the pedagogy or the instructional choices teachers make every time they plan a lesson or step into a classroom.

So what happens when you provide students and teachers with the opportunity to use immersive virtual reality for learning?

How can the curriculum be tailored to use immersive virtual reality for deep learning and how can we assess if VR actually enhances learning?

What are the opportunities and challenges of using the latest VR technology in school communities, including equity concerns?

How do students and teachers experience immersive VR in their classrooms?

Importantly, given the developmental stages of learners, how can we use this type of technology safely and ethically in schools?

The purpose of the VR School project is to create a robust, evidence-based dialogue on these questions based on the data we collect during our collaborative research with teachers in real schools. The project involves openly sharing insights and the resources so that the use of immersive VR in classrooms across subject areas. The focus is on  pedagogically appropriate and imaginative use of the technology for deeper learning. We welcome dialogue from students, teachers, policy-makers, researchers and developers on using immersive technology in schools and other educational settings.

Erica Southgate (PhD), VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Emerging Technologies for Education, University of Newcastle, Australia.

 

 

Featured post

NEW book from the VR School Study

Out of three years of co-research with teachers comes the first book (of many I hope) from the VR School Study. The book, Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogy: Evidence from Secondary Classrooms (2020 Routledge) provides a brand new pedagogical framework with scaffolds for educators on how to use the technology for deeper learning. Case studies from Callaghan College and Dungog High School are included with a focus on metacognition, collaboration and creativity.

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Panel talk on VR ethics

Recently I participated in the IEEE VR 2020 panel on Ethics and Privacy in Mixed Reality. Due to Covid-19, the organisers of IEEE VR, the premier research conference on XR technologies, moved (in just a few weeks) from a traditional face-to-face format to fully online mode. This included the option of presenting in Mozilla Hubs and so the panel itself was presented in VR. I was invited to speak by Diane Hosfelt, Senior Research Engineer at Mozilla and a leading proponent of privacy in mixed reality technologies. The other panelists were Divine Maloney (Clemson University) whose PhD explores implicit bias in VR and leading public intellectual on XR (extended reality) technologies Kent Bye. Here is a video of the panel discussion:

Just to show how fun it was to present in VR, here is a screenshot of the panel and some of the audience members in action in Hubs VR (it was also live streamed to Twitch).

I hope you enjoy the wide-ranging discussion on ethics and privacy. It is certainly applicable to the increasing ‘datafication’ of education.

Until next time – A/Prof Erica Southgate

Immerse + Imagine with Michela Ledwidge

Could you tell me a about your professional background?

I’m a director and indie studio owner whose career started with web development in the early 90s. I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my career. I self-funded over a decade’s worth of experimental interactive films by working as a systems architect and troubleshooter. During the dotcom and Web 2.0 years I worked on a large variety of corporate, start-up and indie projects (e.g. BBC, Reuters) through my consultancy thequality.com, culminating in founding Mod Films in London in 2004 with invention award funding from the UK National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA). In 2010 Mish Sparks and I co-founded Mod Productions in Sydney to form a more commercially viable indie studio that today is simply called Mod and focuses on realtime and virtual production.

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When did you first get interested in VR and why?

I first became aware of VR in the late 80s when I was in high school. I’d started programming on the Commodore 64 when it came out a few years earlier and I was amazed by how immersive an experience could be conjured up that machine’s ground-breaking (for the time) graphics and audio capabilities. The occasional glimpse of military flight simulators and VR technology labs in the press and on TV only piqued my interest further in creating virtual worlds. My first (super brief) experience of VR was the Dactyl Nightmare arcade game which left me wholly underwhelmed but this interest was rekindled at university where I set up the first web site in NSW as part of a Computer Science Honours project in 1993. When Virtual Reality Modelling Language was released I began my VR development career in earnest although it was many years before VR became accessible outside research labs.

How do you currently use VR?

At Mod we use VR behind the scenes all the time for visualisation and prototyping, even when the final product is not intended for an immersive audience. For example, to collaborate on a 3D design job or to make sense of a large data set. Our main VR activities are around virtual production – using Extended Reality (XR) tools and processes for film & TV. We are in the late stages of making  a documentary A Clever Label  as a virtual production – I call it a “documentary experience” which explores data storytelling and hosting a documentary in VR. This will initially be released as a regular video with an interactive VR product to follow. This year we’ve adapted to a post-COVID-19 routine of hosting weekday sessions in the Hubs by Mozilla VR platform which allows us to meet our virtual team socially and share presentations with body language. We use VR extensively for recreation – Beat Saber is a wonderful gift during lockdown.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

We’ve only scratched the surface of what a creative immersive experience can be. My practice sits at the intersection of film and game so while I’m drawn to VR as an artistic and production tool – it is only part of our Extended Reality (XR) palette. Interactive experience design is my focus though – not VR. Not all projects end up with a digital immersive component at all and sometimes concepts move between AR, VR, and MR. There’s always exciting developments in how rich the audio-visual experience can be. With the teams we work with, there’s often creative tension between the visual effects (VFX) view of the world and the game design view. With VFX, the focus is typically all about the aesthetic, linear story and visual fidelity, where in game design the creative process is usually tempered by the need to keep as much of the process real-time where some aesthetic compromises have to be made. I find this area very exciting and challenging to work in but ultimately I try to keep an open mind for each project and look for the right medium.

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

Start small but there’s never been a better time to invest the time into practical VR making with a wealth of creative collaborative tools available. For makers, game engines like Unity and UE4 provide tonnes of free sample projects for high school students and above to use. Invest in the VR headset you can afford but make sure students learn the difference between 3DOF (three degree of freedom) and 6DOF (six degree of freedom) experiences. Possibly the biggest mistake I’ve seen in immersive media education is focusing on 360 video (and not on 6DOF VR). I’m particularly keen to see more students exploring virtual production for storytelling using VR scouting and virtual camera tools developed for shows like The Lion King (some now available as free Unreal Engine downloads!). These resources are still considered a high-end production tool but over the next decade we will see the democratization of virtual production. Film and games can be highly collaborative mediums and I look forward to seeing more school projects where students learn the valuable skills of creative and technical collaboration in VR.

Immerse + Imagine with Michelle Brown

Could you tell me about your professional background Michelle?

I studied Multimedia in the early 2000s and began to incorporate technology into my arts practice, I did a lot of computer design work for musicians, bands and venues back then. About this time I also started working and playing in the music industry. I ended up managing one of Australia’s iconic community radio stations, 4ZZZ in Brisbane, so I didn’t have much time to spend on my art, but I did manage to keep producing work occasionally! Being connected to an industry like music gave me a great bunch of opportunities but I decided to leave 4ZZZ in 2016 to concentrate on a career creating art and producing content.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

In 2016 while I was finishing up my management role I saw some really cool stuff being created with augmented and virtual reality. I started to look into what I needed to get a VR set up and also started producing AR artwork, I already had the animation and illustration skills plus the tech knowledge so it all just kind of fell into place! The biggest barrier for VR is the expense of the equipment however things are getting cheaper with stand-alone headsets like the Quest available, at the time I had to invest in a PC (I was strictly a mac user for a long time!) and a HTC Vive. Some of the artists I saw producing VR artwork include Liz Edwards, a very cool 3D artist, which got me into a VR art app called Tilt Brush, which I’ve used ever since in my workflow, from music videos to large scale installation work.

How do you currently use VR?

I mainly work with some of the VR art apps/programs like Google’s Tilt Brush, Gravity Sketch and some of the animation programs like Tvori. I paint and create environments and worlds in VR that are the base for music videos, installation work and more. Just like a 3D modelling program, many of the VR apps allow you to export 3D creations that can be used in other apps, like Unity, or traditional film editing software like Premiere Pro.

I also teach workshops in using VR and AR in arts practice, so showing ways that you can integrate illustration and animation with mobile apps and teaching people about the art apps I’ve mentioned.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

For me I love it, it really cuts down on the amount of time I spend hand illustrating or animating. The same with 3D modelling, it would take me possibly 3 times the amount of time to create something in Cinema4D that I can model quickly in VR as it’s more attune to actual sculpting/painting.

I also feel that VR can create more of an impactful experience, when you are in a headset it’s easy to ignore everything else going on and just concentrate on the narrative or user experience, no social media distractions!

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

Allow a bit of time for all students to have a play in VR, even if you only have one or two headsets! If you are showing students how to use some of the art programs like Tilt Brush, you need to let them have a little time to get comfortable and creative. But also keep in mind taking breaks if you’re in the headset for more than 30 minutes at a time. I also would recommend giving some direction so that students experimenting with VR art have something to focus on rather than just aimlessly painting swirls, for example; get them to paint a favourite animal or cartoon.

What is unique about creating in VR instead of some other medium?

It’s mainly the speed of which I can get an idea out plus the fact it’s in a three dimensional space, it’s just so much quicker for me to produce a visual story. It’s also a way that I can communicate a theme or an idea that links to a social issue that I can address with my installation work, as it allows for more intimacy and less distraction. Being immersed in a 3D environment by yourself in the headset provides a great opportunity to just focus.

Check out Michelle’s VR art and more on her website https://www.thebadlament.com/

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Immerse + Imagine with Alex Bowles

Could you tell us about your professional background Alex?

I came to VR from a background in film and television production, mostly advertising. I got my start at Industrial Light + Magic (ILM) in their commercial production division. This is also where I got my introduction to a lot of the tools that have become central to VR development, like virtual cameras, 3D modelling, CG animation, and rendering pipelines.

At the time, I was less interested in the on-screen possibilities of digital effects and more interested in the ways that the tools and techniques used for effects work were changing the production process itself. Pre-visualization was especially attractive.

I loved the idea of creating virtual sets that allowed creative and production teams to explore their ideas in this relatively cheap, very elastic, and super forgiving design space. Everything about it was the exact opposite of physical production. To me, it was clear that decoupling design from execution was hugely liberating in creative terms, but also a great way to reduce a project’s risks. That’s a rare combination. The key was having a virtual production that offered enough detail, precision, and accuracy to reliably map decisions made there to the real world.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

A few years ago I’d been researching a program for the full-dome theaters used in science centers, natural history museums, and planetariums. The story focused on the overlapping histories of astronomy and cartography. It revealed the ways that increasingly accurate models of the cosmos led to increasingly accurate maps of the world, and by extension, what people were capable of doing within the world. The goal was to make mathematics, science, and technology more accessible to middle-school and high-school students by providing them with a clear view of how they all worked together. This type of interdisciplinary understanding can make learning abstract concepts a lot easier. It can also be very hard to come by in educational systems based on strict compartmentalization of subjects. That’s where third-parties like public science institutions come in.

The problem I found was that the places with these immersive displays couldn’t offer the economic support that this particular program required. I also discovered that these institutions shared a somewhat Balkanized culture. This made co-productions especially difficult, at least for an outside producer like myself. When Oculus announced that it was going to be making full immersion available at consumer-electronics prices, I thought wow, here’s a way to get the program developed and distributed properly.

This proved less straightforward than I imagined. As a friend of mine likes to point out, you should never mistake a clear view for a short distance. It turned out that the technology was both more complex and more nascent than I initially guessed. That’s where I realized my background wasn’t serving me well. When you’re used to life in a very mature ecosystem, you take so much for granted that simply doesn’t exist in an ecosystem that’s just getting started. Even so, I was absolutely hooked. There’s a particular kind of engagement that you get in VR that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. And I think the ability to actually develop an ecosystem around that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

How do you currently use VR?

First and foremost, the best way to create VR is in VR. This is easier said than done, since so many of the tools, from 3D modeling software to game engines, were all developed with flat screens in mind. This makes it very easy to lose touch with the sense of presence in real space that’s key to the best experiences. The more of the process you can bring into an immersive display, the better.

I also use it for some things I never expected. One of them is fitness. I checked out games like Beat Saber and Pistol Whip just because they were getting a lot of buzz, but then I heard about people who were making them a part of regular workout routines, and getting really great results within 3-4 months and wow, yeah, they were right.

One of my favourite uses is bringing global and spatial context to news stories. Google Earth VR is fantastic for this. Simply being able to go to a place, even virtually, has this really remarkable effect on the way you understand stories, and connect them to other stories. This is due to the very different ways our brains encode spatial memories, as opposed to strictly visual memories. Once you’ve got a place-based component to your understanding, you have a much easier time absorbing retaining, and remembering everything else you learn about a topic. It’s amazing.

That phenomena is actually the basis for what I’m working on professionally, which is outreach programs for historical and culturally important sites. By giving people who haven’t visited these places in person the kinds of spatial memories shared by those who have, it becomes possible to expand the community of those who value a given place, who understand why it’s so important, and who are willing to put effort and resources into preservation.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

Let me start by narrowing that to the creative process used by film and television production, since that’s the one I know best. The biggest thing I’ve discovered is that you have to get your target audience involved a lot earlier than you would for a 2D medium. Partly, this is because immersive media doesn’t offer a century-plus of accumulated knowledge embedded in institutional structures, production tools, and so on. You can’t count on tried and true best practices to get you most of the way to a finished piece because at this stage, best practices are little more than well-educated guesses.

The other reason to make user testing an intrinsic part of the creative process is that audiences have so much more agency in immersive programs. Even game developers—who are used to having everything based on player input—have a ton of unfamiliar dynamics to manage when people are fully present in a scene, rather than interacting only via a controller and their thumbs. The more room you give people to surprise you, the more they will end up surprising you. This can be frustrating if you’re focused on a specific vision, so it’s helpful to remember that some of your most promising creative opportunities can come out of these unanticipated interactions. The sooner you can get a read, the better.

All this gets a lot easier if you recognize that the core of the medium isn’t what people see on a screen. The core is how they physically respond to events in three dimensional space. This is why it helps to get the basic physical interactions that are central to the experience prototyped and tested as early as you can, so you can use the feedback you get to determine the project’s final form.

This prototyping stage doesn’t need to be in VR, by the way. Some of the smartest studios I know rely heavily on brown-boxing, which is literally using cardboard boxes to work out where different elements should be placed in the space around users, and to make sure people can move around comfortably enough to enjoy the experience. Once that’s sorted, you can design the virtual experience on top of this real-world foundation.

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

The first thing, and maybe most important thing to do is to experience as much of what’s already out there as you can. Paying close attention to what you do and don’t like should leave you with a general sense of direction.

One of the first things you’ll discover is that VR isn’t actually one technology so much as a bunch of different technologies that are being combined in new and interesting ways. These combinations are the source of a lot of excitement, but they can also be the source of a lot of frustration, especially since pipelines and interoperability standards are so nascent. As a friend of mine put it, in game development, everything takes three times longer than you think it will, and in VR, it takes three times longer than that. So do make a point of being kind to yourself. It’s very much a learning-by-doing effort, and you’re going to get it wrong, a lot. And don’t worry about feeling you don’t know everything about everything because you never will. It’s just too complex.

Eventually the field will deal with this complexity the same way that film and television production, and game development have. We’ll end up with armies of highly-specialised craftspeople who are deeply focused on specific details, and equipped with budgets and schedules to match. But at the moment, we’re nowhere close to that, and I suspect it’ll be many years before we are. For now, the field favours generalists. If this is attractive to you, the best thing is to start with something that seems super simple and purely exploratory, get others involved as early as you can, pay close attention to all the different ways they respond, then building the final product on whatever emerges. Keeping your mind open, especially at the outset, is going to be the most likely way to find your north star.

Immerse + Imagine with James Calvert

Could you tell us about your professional background James?

I started an animation studio called the People’s Republic of Animation when I was 18 years old with a couple of friends. The studio grew over the next 15 years and was producing animated films for global clients. I was, and still am a director and storyteller at heart. In addition to animation, I started and ran a small video games company called Six Foot Kid. Life as an academic only began four years ago when I joined Torrens University Australia, in the design and creative technology faculty.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

I was working with the ABC in 2017, trekking along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, capturing material for the educational VR experience ‘Kokoda VR’, when my interest in VR really kicked in. I was immediately drawn to VR as a storytelling and educational medium that could transport users to immersive virtual worlds.

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How do you currently use VR?

Primarily for telling stories. As a researcher, I am exploring how an immersive story or narrative can benefit education in schools.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

I’ve spent my entire professional career embedded in the ‘creative process’. VR poses some new challenges to the creative process, due to the newness of the medium. Tricks and techniques that have been developed for video games or film making, need some adjustment before applying to VR development. Motion sickness is the prime example here. A great idea that might have worked in games or film, would need rethinking if it causes motion sickness when experienced in VR. However, obstacles such as this are important to the creative process and can always be overcome.

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

Go for it! But always test your ideas in VR. The capacity for VR to provide truly memorable embodied moments is incredible. As a tool for creative projects, it is a very rich playground.

Jame’s latest project, Thin Ice VR, weaves together Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic survival story with a tale on the effects of climate change.

 

An educator’s advice on what to look for in a 360° platform

360° content creation platforms are gaining popularity in schools as a way for students to create their own virtual environments and narratives (linear and branching) to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives.

Professionally, I think that students should be creating and sharing this content and not teachers (we should be worrying less about whether students can make a ‘perfect’ product and more concerned about the many technical, thinking and social skills they are learning as the create and share virtual environments, especially if they do this collaboratively.

360° content creation is certainly developmentally appropriate for primary school children and can be great fun for primary and secondary school students. Students can import scenes and annotate them or, better still, create their own 360° photo or video scenes to use as the basis for learning task. Here are some of things I look for as an educator in a 360° platform:

  1. Intuitive no-code mainly ‘drag and drop’ or easy content creation tools with good tutorial and online/real-time support.
  2. The ability to put in your own 360° video or photo foundation environments which can house media-rich content that students can create (video, photo, text, animation/gif) and that can link though hot spots or portals to create linear or branching way (joining environments with different media).
  3. Options for sharing and publishing 360 creations from private class to public viewing.
  4. Clear intellectual property and privacy policies including consideration of biometric* data harvesting – demonstrated knowledge of privacy legislation is required.
  5. Accessible analytics which make sense for learning at content creation and viewing/interaction phases.
  6. Preferably linked or supported by a teacher professional learning community who can share creations, pedagogical experiences and curriculum material.
  7. Easy to manage school and student account arrangements.
  8. Simple to understand advice on and ways to manage network compatibility and bandwidth implications for your school (and if it is a streaming platform, if your school network can accommodate this).

*Biometrics can be defined as the automated recognition and collection of measurable data on biological and behavioural characteristics of individuals. Behavioural data includes vocal patterns, eye tracking/gaze attention, gait tracking or typing recognition.  For more information on biometrics and other legal and ethical issues related to VR and AR technologies see this report for educators.

– This post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate.

Feature image: Screenshot from https://www.360cities.net/search/@tags-aerial

New report & infographics on immersive learning

A/Prof Erica Southgate was commissioned by the Australian Government to produce research on emerging technologies for schools including current state-of-evidence, and pedagogical,practical and ethical advice. The project produced the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies  (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) in Schools Research Report, a short read version of the report written for teachers and infographic posters for students. You can find these here:

Full report – Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies in Schools Research Report 

Short Read on Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Schools

VR and AR infographics for students

 

Virtual Reality for Deeper Learning

How can we expand our understanding of learning in/through virtual reality in ways that move beyond training scenarios or simple ‘facts and figures’ knowledge acquisition?

In our latest paper we take a deep dive into how VR can help students develop elusive 21st century thinking skills. We apply the Deeper Learning framework and the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (featured image above) to explore student collaborative and higher order thinking.

 

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