The adventure begins: High school drama through VR

Over the next few blog posts we will be describing how the VR School Study is breaking new ground in using the 3D drawing program Tilt Brush in senior drama classes in a rural school. Using Tilt Brush for deep learning is certainly an exhilarating adventure for all involved.

Louise Rowley (pictured above) is Head Teacher of Creative and Performing Arts at Dungog High School. Louise is a leading light in VR for learning. Dungog is a lovely rural town located in the middle of dairy and timber country in New South Wales. Here is what Dungog looks like when you drive into town:

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In 2018, the school implemented an innovation program. Inspired by the National Theatre company’s foray into VR as a creative medium, Louise put forward an idea to  use the technology with her senior drama class. The school approved the project and purchased two Oculus Rifts with Touch Controllers with a view to integrating these more widely into the library digital learning hub.

Louise developed a unit of work which allowed students, in groups of three, to use Tilt Brush as a virtual design studio where they could rapidly prototype and share elements of their directorial vision reflected through set and costume design. As Louise explains:

The students were creating a Director’s Folio for a contemporary Australian play called ‘Ruby Moon’. They traditionally have to create a director’s vision and explore this in their set box and costume designs. [Learning objective: understands, manages and manipulates theatrical elements and elements of production, using them perceptively and creatively.] For this project, we included the VR and the program Tilt Brush for them to explore and create an audience experience of their Director’s vision. This really led to more engagement with the atmosphere and audience experience. [Learning objective: understands the dynamics of actor-audience relationship.] They were working in groups to create their designs and needed to understand, manage and manipulate theatrical elements and elements of production.

Students collaborated to work up designs on paper before creating them in Tilt Brush where they could then get feedback from their group, other peers and the teacher. Tilt Brush also allowed them to experiment with lighting and music or sound effects (by importing the latter into their sketches).  The idea was to use Tilt Brush for a period of deep exploration and experimentation before transferring their ideas into a traditional set model built using a cut out cardboard box (set box) and craft materials to build a miniature set. The play they were studying, Ruby Moon, is in the modern Gothic genre and it lends itself to exploration of symbols and motifs to represent themes of loss, grief and a terrible mystery which haunts a family and community.

Of the nine students in the class, only two had tried VR before and these were mobile VR experiences which were passive rather than interactive. Living in a rural area, students had more limited opportunities to attend the theatre or drama workshops, and so were excited to be offered the opportunity of using a virtual studio where they were only limited by their imaginations.

At the beginning of the unit of work, students had the opportunity to do some of the VR demos that Oculus offers. Louise also showed the students the National Theatre company’s approach to using VR as a creative medium for drama. She then had a lesson where students were asked to respond to the following question:

Dungog blackboard

Student’s brainstormed ideas and here are some of their ideas:

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When beginning a VR project, especially where there is a creative component, explicit lessons on the learning affordances of the technology are needed so that students can develop an understanding of how to use it to best effect. In their brainstorm, students noted these affordances such as the manipulation of size/scale and they reflected on how the features of Tilt Brush could assist them in the design process (for example, the ability to quickly change or erase design elements or lighting.)

Teaching students about the learning affordances and specific features of VR programs, especially sandbox applications like Tilt Brush, is an important part of the pedagogical process. Most students I have encountered during the last few years have no or very limited experience of VR technology, especially highly immersive VR which allows for interaction, navigation, creation and collaboration in networked environments. Educators should plan to spend time in their units of work to have lessons on VR safety, allow students to become accustomed to the powerful immersive qualities and technical skills of the technology by having them do demos, and allow time for play with the features of specific VR applications.

Students may not naturally consider the wide range of creative opportunities that they have in certain virtual environments and so teachers should factor in activities which spark student reflection and discussion on the broader learning affordances of VR and what is possible and not possible in specific applications.

Such activities on the affordances of VR and its relationship to the learning task should occur throughout the unit of work, so that student insights can be shared. With a ‘hands on’ technology like VR, sharing this knowledge in class is vital to the quality and success of student projects.

This post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate who

Pic: Dungog by Tim Keegan – originally posted to Flickr as Dungog_9022, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11469250

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