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 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, in this case access to Oculus Rift, 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 low-income school communities?

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 the Callaghan College school community. We intend to openly and ethically share our insights and the resources we produce as part of the project so that the use of immersive VR in classrooms is thoughtful and powerful for learning. We welcome dialogue from students, teachers, policy-makers, researchers and developers on using immersive technology in schools and other educational settings.

Erica Southgate, VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia

 

Photo: Principal Graham Eather of Callaghan College, Australia, trying virtual reality for the first time during a teacher professional development session at the senior campus. Dr Shamus Smith of the VR School project is in the background.

 

 

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What can virtual reality do for learning?

In 1962, Morton Heilig, a cinematographer and inventor, produced a prototype machine called the Sensorama Simulator (pictured above). It was a machine that played 3D films enhanced by stereo sound and effects such as a fan-generated breeze and a series of chemical scents emitted from vents.  In the Sensorama you could feel like you were really riding a motorcycle! While the Sensorama did not make it past the prototype stage, it laid the foundations for some important thinking on what simulating reality (and creating new realities) might involve. This included the potential for technology to transport a person into another realm, elicit powerful feelings of ‘being there’ in that virtual environment, and allowing people to experience things that they might not be able to do in real life. These are some of the affordances of virtual environments.

Affordance is a tricky term because it can mean both how people use the properties of a technology for a particular purpose and how the actual properties of a technology allow for a range of uses (Hammond, 2010). So what are some of the affordances  of 3D virtual environments that can make it a valuable learning tool?  These include:

  • Allowing learners to enhance their knowledge of an environment or object through spatial interaction or manipulation in a fully-realised 3D way (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). An example of this would be rotating a virtual human cell and resizing it to get a better or more detailed view of its specific structures and how these relate to each other. You might also put a simulation of a human cell beside a plant cell and interact and manipulate with these for comparative purposes.
  • Facilitating experiential learning for tasks or activities that are impractical, impossible or unsafe in the real world (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). For example, it would not be safe or practical to experience an active volcanic eruption. A simulated virtual experience could allow you a close-up view of the event, provide a deeper understanding of the phenomena and explore its aftermath. Virtual reality, using head mounted displays (HMDS), has provided field trips through the human body to educate on health, been used to gauge the behaviours of children in road safety scenarios, and train astronauts in repairing equipment. At its best, the skills learnt in the virtual environment can be readily transferred to real world situations.
  • Increasing motivation and engagement in learning tasks through a ‘flow’ state that results from intense feeling of presence or ‘being there’  (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). Using the plant and human cell example cited above, learners may become drawn into the immediacy and intrinsic interest of the task in cognitive and embodied ways. Indeed, there is increasing interest in immersive virtual reality as a tool to explore embodied cognition (Jang et al., 2017). Furthermore, if it is possible to interact with others to do the task in a virtual environment then the educational and social benefits of cooperative learning can become apparent.
  • Allowing profound flights of the imagination. Leaving aside the magic of virtual field trips on and off the planet and back in time, there are a growing number of tools that allow users to create in and customise virtual environments with extraordinary results (eg Tilt Brush). And, there are current explorations of immersive virtual reality as an ‘empathy machine’ that allow people to step into someone else’s shoes and perhaps even change their belief system (Maister et al., 2015). Another immersive technology, 360° video, has been used to provide a window into the lives of people living with autism.

The affordances of virtual environments have enormous potential to enhance learning but require more research on specific applications, groups of learners and in diverse educational settings. This is especially true of highly immersive virtual reality mediated though head mounted displays (HMDs). Some key questions are:

How do the affordances of highly immersive VR, mediated through HMDs, enhance, alter or add to learning experiences especially when compared to desktop virtual environments?

What are the pedagogical implications of these affordances and what should teachers know and do in relation to this?

These questions are central to the VR School project.

References

Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3‐D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology41(1), 10-32.

Hammond, M. (2010). What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education? Education and Information Technologies15(3), 205-217. http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/34602/1/WRAP_Hammond_9870626-ie-030511-hammondaffordancejuly09.pdf

Jang, S., Vitale, J. M., Jyung, R. W., & Black, J. B. (2017). Direct manipulation is better than passive viewing for learning anatomy in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment. Computers & Education106, 150-165.

Maister, L., Slater, M., Sanchez-Vives, M. V., & Tsakiris, M. (2015). Changing bodies changes minds: owning another body affects social cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences19(1), 6-12. https://neiljh.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/the-troublesome-concept-of-technological-affordances/

 

Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Education and someone who wishes she could have tried the Sensorama!

What do we know about highly immersive technology and kids?

What is highly immersive technology and what does the research say about using it with children and young people?

The increasing availability of highly immersive virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology that often uses head-mounted displays (or headsets) has raised questions about its safety and ethical implications in educational settings,  workplaces and for leisure. However, little is known about the impact of highly immersive experiences on children and young people.

While there is no accepted definition of ‘highly immersive’, it is reasonable to say that there are some new technologies that can create very intense feeling of presence or ‘being there’ in virtual and augmented spaces. These technologies allow for a high degree of interaction and autonomy. Different types of technologies and software applications produce different levels of feeling immersed and there is still much work to be done on categorising levels of immersion and their effects on different groups of people. As part of the VR School project we are using the Oculus Rift. This technology does offer high levels of immersion particularly in virtual environments that allow navigation, manipulation, interaction and free play.

The other day I was flying in Minecraft VR, soaring high above the landscape. I was enjoying the wonder and freedom of virtual flying, until I needed to land! As I double clicked the controller and began to descend, my stomach rose to my mouth, I gasped, closed my eyes and braced to hit the ground. When I took the headset off, I was in a crouching position, knees still bent to absorb the ‘impact’.

Highly immersive technologies create cognitive, affective and sensory experiences that can often feel very ‘real’. The reactions of people using this type of technology can range from joy to terror depending on what they are experiencing and their past history. This is why we need to think carefully and ethically about the use of such technology. This is especially true when using immersive technology with children and young people because they are at different developmental stages compared to adults and this can affect how they feel, understand and react to immersive experiences.

The problem at this relatively early stage is that there is very little research conducted with children and young people using these technologies. What research there is indicates a need to explicitly bring together evidence from the child development literature with established ethical principles and our knowledge of the affordances or features of technologies.

While there are a number of ethical principles to consider, beneficence is a key one. Beneficence focuses on the welfare of people and a commitment to ‘do no harm’, especially in relation to children and youth. So let’s consider beneficence in relation to what we do know from research on immersive technology and children.

We do know that virtual reality has been used to good effect for paediatric acute pain distraction in clinical settings although there is poorer evidence on chronic pain distraction (Shahrbanian et al., 2012).  So in this instance, VR is certainly not doing harm.

There is also a documented experiment using a virtual roller coaster ride which compared the prefrontal brain arousal of adults & children (mean age 8.7 years). This experiment found that children were much more susceptible to the arousing impact of audio/visual stimuli and appeared unable to critically evaluate and monitor their experience or inhibit their sense of presence in the virtual environment. In other words, because of their developmental stage, children were more strongly drawn into the experience of the roller coaster ride. Because children were unable to regulate the intensity of the experience in the same way adults could, the authors concluded that there should be more reluctance to ‘expose children to emotional virtual reality stimuli as currently practiced’ (Baumgartner et al., 2008). Given this evidence, it is fair to say that some immersive experiences may cause distress because the developmental stage of a child’s brain does not allow it to regulate the intensity of the experience in the same way an adult brain can.

Between the ages of 3-12 years children gradually develop the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality (Sharon & Woolley, 2004).  Ask any group of children between these ages if they believe in Santa and you will find that there will be an age variation between those who believe versus those that don’t – I admit I still believed in Santa until I was 11. The ability to distinguish fantasy and reality reflects individual social and cognitive development. It is important to consider this in relation to the use of highly immersive technology.

For example, Segovia et al. (2009) found that some primary (elementary) school aged children exposed to the virtual reality environment of swimming with Orcas developed a ‘false memory’ of the experience:  ‘The media richness of the mental imagery…was high enough to be confused with the richness of an event in the physical world’. Similarly in another experiment, 50% of primary school aged children believed that an experience in immersive VR was real one week after being put in the virtual environment (Stanford VHIL, 2015).

And its not just young children that we need to be concerned about. In the outdoor augmented reality game, Alien Contact, older students (aged 11-16 years) asked researchers if aliens had actually crashed at their school and if the researchers were FBI agents (Dunleavy et al., 2009).

Just because a technology can afford certain immersive experiences doesn’t mean they will be psychologically appropriate or safe for all children and young people. There are a number of aspects to consider before using immersive technologies with children and youth as the diagram below indicates:

Diagram VR

Diagram: Conceptual framework for considering aspects of immersive environments in a developmental context (Southgate, Smith & Scevak, 2017).

It’s important that as new immersive technologies become widely adopted that educators engage with questions about their safe and ethical use in the context of what we know about the cognitive, social, moral and affective development of the child and long-held ethical principles such as beneficence. A careful, evidence-led approach is required to the use of highly immersive technologies in schools. This is part of our duty of care towards students.

If you would like to know more about ethical principles, child development and immersive technologies you can read a paper we have written on the topic. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you would like to discuss.

Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Education and VR flying aficionado.

 

References

  • Baumgartner, T. et al. (2008). Feeling present in arousing virtual reality worlds: prefrontal brain regions differentially orchestrate presence experience in adults and children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2, 8
  • Dunleavy, M. et al. (2009). Affordances and limitations of immersive participatory augmented reality simulations for teaching and learning. Journal of Science Education and Technology18(1), 7-22.
  • Segovia, K. & Bailenson, J. (2009). Virtually true: Children’s acquisition of false memories in virtual reality. Media Psychology, 12(4), 371-393.
  • Shahrbanian, S. et al. (2012). Use of virtual reality (immersive vs. non immersive) for pain management in children and adults: A systematic review of evidence from randomized controlled trials. European Journal of Experimental Biology2(5), 1408-1422.
  • Sharon, T. & Woolley, J.D. (2004). Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22(2), 293-310.
  • Southgate, E., Smith, S.P. & Scevak, J. (2017). Asking ethical questions in research using immersive virtual and augmented reality technologies with children and youth. In Virtual Reality (VR), 2017 IEEE Proceedings (pp. 12-18). IEEE. (E1) http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/7892226/
  • Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab (2015). vhil.stanford.edu/news/2015/stanford-studies-virtual-reality-kids-andthe-effects-of-make-believe – accessed 19 Sept 2016.

 

 

 

Information for parents, carers and students on the VR School project

To take part in the VR School project, parents, carers and their child must give their written permission (this is also called consent). Details on the project can be found in the video Information Statement and the written Information Statement. A Parent/Carer and Student Consent (permission) Form is also available. The consent form has a section for students to give their agreement to take part in the project. The Information Statement and Consent Form are also available online through the College’s Canvas learning system.

Associate Professor Erica Southgate

Feature image from Tom Magliery-  ‘i’ – https://flic.kr/p/feYd9f – original image cropped.

Setting up the Oculus Rift in the classroom

Today we set up the Oculus Rifts with their controller tracking system at Callaghan College (Wallsend Campus).  The three Rifts were set up in a small room attached to the main classroom. Chris (pictured below) took the lead in setting up the equipment with two Rifts set up with the trackers on desks, and the other having its trackers mounted on the wall. Chris is a Future Learning Coordinator at Callaghan College, a geography teacher and a co-researcher on the VR School project. Some students and staff tried out the equipment with great success.

IMG_7244.jpg

VR School wins Callaghan College a Top Innovative Schools award

Callaghan College  has been named by The Educator magazine as one of the ‘Top 40 innovative schools in Australia’ for the VR School project. VR School is a partnership between the College and the University of Newcastle’s Digital Identity, Curation and Education (DICE) research network. The project uses the Oculus Rift to provide immersive learning experiences for Year 9 students in science and is producing world-first ethical, health and safety, and pedagogical resources for the use of immersive virtual reality in real classrooms. Impacts on student learning are also being evaluated.

Callaghan College has previously been recognised as a top innovative school by The Educator for its whole of College professional learning in 21st Century pedagogy (2015), and the design, development and implementation of a National first program in Certificate III Aviation – Remote Drone Pilot (Line of Sight) (2016).

Mr Graham Eather, College Principal, & Associate Professor Erica Southgate, DICE Research Network.

Teachers talking VR safety

Teachers have an important duty of care towards their students. To support this, we developed a script for teachers to use in their classrooms to teach students about staying safe in immersive VR.

The script is part of a suite of health and safety resources we developed as part of the VR School Project. It covers things such using hair nets for hygiene, what students should do if they feel cybersick, not staying in immersive VR for too long, and looking out for each other, particular when using VR in ‘moving around mode’ with the controllers.

The script reinforces and elaborates on the advice given on the ‘Be VR Aware’ classroom posters.  It can be found in Resources.

Erica Southgate, VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia

‘Be VR Aware’ classroom posters

Everyone needs reminding to stay safe, so as part of the project we decided to design the ‘Be VR Aware’ classroom posters.

We produced two versions of the poster, one of which has been designed according to accessibility principles. Both versions can be found in Resources.

VR School Project Classroom Safety Poster_Accessible

Emojis representing specific safety aspects, combined with simple text, allow students with lower literacy levels to understand the safety messages. For learners with good literacy, the use of visual representation with text allows for a dual coding of the information during cognition, helping the learner to better recall the message.

The accessible version has the black background. It reflects advice from Vision Australia and the UK Government. The text used in the posters is predominately Verdana, a Sans Serif font, which is ideal for readability.

 

We used plain English, avoiding colloquialisms and complicated phrasing. The text colour is white for maximum contrast against the black background. To test this we used the colour contrast check available at snook.ca. The background is simple and black to provide a contrast with the white text. Complicated backgrounds are not recommended for accessibility purposes. Black was used as it allows the simple colours of the emojis to stand out. It is also recommended for use for people who are colour blind. The tool available at vischeck.com was used to test this.

Please let us know what you think of the posters or if you use them.

Accessibility resources

Vischeck site

Vision Australia accessibility advice

Penn State University accessibility advice

UK Government accessibility advice

 

Erica Southgate, VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia

Keeping students safe and well in VR

Have you ever been cybersick? It’s just like being seasick or car sick. It can range from feeling mildly ill to being highly nauseated. Not everyone gets cybersick but many people do and it’s just one aspect of health and safety that needs consideration when using immersive VR in classrooms.

A lot of research is going on to determine who is most susceptible to cybersickness, and under what conditions. Cybersickness can come on even after a very short period of exposure, particularly in highly immersive VR where a person can have intense feelings of ‘being there’ and ‘move’ in the environment through navigation or interaction.

At this stage, not much is known about the health effects of highly immersive VR, especially on children and young people. In light of this, the VR School Research Team are committed to conducting the project with caution and to the highest ethical and safety standards. Before using highly immersive VR, teachers should read the safety and regulatory guidelines provided by manufacturers on their websites. These guidelines recommend minimum age of use requirements and outline potential adverse reactions including, but not limited to, photo sensitivity and a range of physical and psychological impacts. It should also be noted that current commercial head mounted displays (headsets) are not designed for the size of children’s heads in terms of fit and lens distance for correct alignment with the eyes of the user.

To identify potential adverse reactions, we reviewed the scientific literature and the safety and regulatory guidelines produced by manufacturers. From these, the team designed a VR School Health and Safety Survey, that can be found in Resources. We used this to screen for potential adverse reactions and minimise risk of harm to students and disruption to learning. For example, a student with moderate or severe cybersickness would have a recovery time that impacted not only their learning during the VR lesson, but into the school day.

Disruption to learning caused by exposure to VR is simply not acceptable, nor is the potential for more serious health impacts on student health.

The screening survey we developed was sent home to parents and carers with an information sheet on the project so that they could discuss health and safety with their child, and ensure informed consent.

As the field of immersive VR for learning matures, we welcome the open sharing of information from teachers, students and researchers alike on how to screen for and minimise health risks for students. This is an important new area that requires the formalisation of guidelines, the development of practical tools, and the documentation of case studies so that we can all use VR safely in classrooms.

Erica Southgate, VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia

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