Q & A on teaching drama through VR

In our previous post we introduced a project at Dungog High School where they are using the 3D drawing program Tilt Brush in drama class. In this post, Head Teacher Louise Rowley responds to 4 key questions on her learning journey and how to use VR in drama in a curriculum-aligned way.

What is the VR project about?

The Year 11 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. [Syllabus outcome P1.4: 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. [Drama Stage 6 Syllabus outcome P2.1: 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. They were charged with the task of using them perceptively and creatively and this was taken to a new level of creativity in the VR space. We had been inspired by the National Theatre in the UK who created an immersive experience for their audience based on their director’s vision. This takes the audience to a completely new place and extended the idea of theatre as an immersive art form. [Syllabus outcome P1.4: understands, manages and manipulates theatrical elements and elements of production, using them perceptively and creatively.] The process of taking their Director’s vision into the VR space allowed them to think more about the audience’s experience and really immerse themselves in the director’s role. It allowed them to demonstrate their directorial vision in the immersive virtual world as well as in the physical world. [Syllabus outcomes P2.2: understands the contributions to a production of the playwright, director, dramaturg, designers, front-of-house staff, technical staff and producers; P2.3: demonstrates directorial and acting skills to communicate meaning through dramatic action.]

The project also aligns with key competencies in Drama with students collecting, analysing, organising information, and communicating ideas and information in new and creative ways their Director’s folio and in the VR space. Students were also planning and organising activities and working with others and in teams. The level of collaboration, which developed throughout the project, was a key achievement. Students were discussing ideas like Directors and helping each other to master the new software. They had no experience with the technology before they started and were able to unleash their creativity and I saw students who were less confident really growing in their confidence and ability to take a role in the group.

Using the VR deeply engaged the students in their learning. The project involved enquiry, research, analysis, experimentation and reflection contributing to the development of the key competency solving problems. Students had the opportunity to develop the key competency using technology in the study of new approaches to Drama and Theatre and dramatic forms. VR is a completely new technology and we are already exploring more ideas on how to link more programs together within the Tilt Brush software.

Why use this technology?

In the design process there is a lot of experimentation and collaboration required. Tilt brush has endless features that allow this to occur. Sketches could be saved, videoed, gifs made and photographed, and this process of documenting their ideas helped the students reflect on their ideas more. The quality of their ideas developed further. The Tilt Brush program was an endless space, which incorporated many amazing creative features. Designs could be instantly erased and then re-created quickly. It was not messy and did not waste materials. It had many resources that we do not usually have in the Drama room. Endless colours and brushes, backgrounds, models to be imported and guides to draw around. Sketches could be made smaller or bigger in an instant. It allowed all students to be equal. Once in the technology they were able to each contribute in a very really and tangible way to the group idea. It also allowed our rural students to have access to quality programs, which can sometimes not be available to them because of location.

Student 2

What is the biggest learning curve?

We had to learn how to use the technology and how to program the classwork to make sure other tasks were being completed at the same time. This was fairly painless and the students were great. As the teacher, I had to take a risk with new technology and not be frightened of not knowing absolutely everything about the software. After a while, the students were teaching each other and me.

What advice would you give to teachers?

Just do it! It isn’t scary and you don’t have to know everything. I have given advice to others in my school about trying new technology. There is so much to learn is can be quite overwhelming but is can be a lot of fun. I am now helping other teachers try a few new technologies. So the effect has been good.

 

Feature Image: Head Teacher Louise Rowley experimenting in Tilt Brush

Picture in text: Students discussing virtual set design features.

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:

1200px-Dungog_9022

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:

Photo 9-12-18, 2 17 43 PM

Photo 9-12-18, 2 17 23 PM

Photo 9-12-18, 2 17 19 PM

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

Weaving VR through the science curriculum

In schools, it is vital to align the use of technology to the curriculum. We believe it is important to weave VR through student learning in carefully planned and scaffolded ways. This approach makes VR a powerful learning tool rather than a toy. 

In the VR School Research Study, teachers designed a unit of work on body systems related to the NSW Science (biology) syllabus. Within the unit of work, students continued to experience tradition lab-based science learning and explicit teaching. The teachers developed a formative VR assessment task (described below) that carefully scaffolded independent group learning through collaborative research and creativity.

Students had to carefully organise their group effort as they had limited time to complete the task in VR. The unit of work was conducted over about a 6-week period with around 9 of the 22 in-class learning hours designated for VR (we also experienced technical problems which cut into the VR time and some of this time was spent familiarising students with highly immersive experiences and the equipment). We had limited hardware (3 x networked Oculus Rifts with Alienware laptops on each campus) and did not schedule VR time during the last lesson of the day in case a student became cybersick and would be unable to travel home. At most, 4 groups of 3 students could cycle through VR during each 1 hour lesson.

This meant that students had to be very organised with their research and plan and  construct their prototype models outside of VR so that they could import, collectively evaluate and rework the model during their scheduled VR time. This entailed self-regulated learning.

Here is a video example of an internal tour of a human heart – researched, prototyped and annotated in Minecraft by three Year 9 girls. The detailed annotations and fun facts, correct internal structure with an accurate flow of ‘blood’ through the organ, made it an impressive example of deep learning using VR technology. It was an amazing tour experience, even if it was a bit claustrophobic at first! At the end of the video you can see the heart’s external scale as one of the girl’s avatars flies around it.

The formative assessment task given to students is outlined, in full, below:

Overview of the Living World VR task  

In groups of three students, create a diorama (3D representation) using Minecraft of some part (organ or organ system) of the human body that is responsible for sensing and responding to the environment (internal or external).

This will represent a substantial body of work that thoroughly demonstrates your group’s understanding of the structure and function of the selected organ or organ system. It should aim to both inform and engage other Year 9 students and your teacher.

The final audience will be another group of students, and will be experienced in VR (virtual reality) – Oculus Rift. The look and feel of the presentation will be very different when experienced in VR, compared to playing on a console, tablet or PC/laptop. Groups will be required to do some planning and evaluation of their own diorama in VR before the final audience experiences it, so that it is optimised for VR viewing (immerses the audience).

A 3-minute commentated video will also be created by each group.

Instructions

  1. Form groups of three. Allocate roles for each of the group members. Responsibilities may include research, server hosting, building, annotating (placing signs on parts, labelling structures or functions), team leading, VR video commentating, artistic directing and redstone circuit designing. NOTE: Each team member may have multiple responsibilities and could also share responsibilities.
  2. Choose an organ system (e.g. nervous system, endocrine system) or a smaller part of an organ system (such as an organ or group of organs and tissues).
  3. Research the subject of your group’s diorama thoroughly. Decide which aspects of the research will be included in your diorama.
  4. Create a Minecraft world that will be the server for your group’s project. This should be done in Minecraft Windows 10 Edition or Minecraft Pocket Edition (These are the only versions that will be able to network with the version used by Oculus Rift). Ensure that the version used by your group is the same as the version used by Oculus Rift for VR. Other group members join the world in Multiplayer mode.
  5. Build a diorama. Ensure all structures are labelled and all functions explained (signs would be useful for this purpose). Consider presentation concepts such as linear (visitors must follow a path) and freeform (visitors can go anywhere, maybe even fly). Be innovative and creative. Create new or unexpected features.
  6. VR testing. Each group will have 4 VR sessions, lasting about 15 minutes each:

Session 1 – Become familiar with Minecraft in Oculus Rift. No building. Learn to use the touch controls and get around. Learn how to build.

Session 2 – Test diorama in VR. Evaluate whether it is fit for the intended audience. Decide what will be edited before the next VR session.

Session 3 – Record 3-minute commentated video of diorama. Press ‘Windows Button’ + ‘G’ in game to start recording.

Session 4 – Observe another group’s diorama. Provide warm/cool feedback.

The joy of high school science through virtual reality

The VR School Study has been a two year journey in school-university collaboration. Throughout this time there have been many moments of frustration but also of an excitement that can only be sparked by collective intellectual endeavour. Among students there has also been frustration when the technology fails but these times are in contrast to what can only be be described as moments of pure learning joy.

Sadly, joy is not something that is spoken about enough in relation to schooling, and especially in regard to high school science classes. The joy of discovery is, of course, a central feature of the discipline of science, especially after the trials and tribulations of long periods of hard thought and experimentation. This quote from a lecture published in the journal Science back in 1936 captures the delight of scientific inquiry:

“While it is true that scientific men (sic) must make an impersonal study of the laws of Nature, there is ample evidence from historical records of the joy they have felt on achieving their goal. Newton, it was said, was so agitated when his work on the law of gravitation approached completion that he had to beg a friend to complete his calculation. …Harvey (the first to describe how the heart pumps blood around the body) said that ‘the pains of discovery are amply compensated by the joys of discovery.’ …The joy of the creative intellect, whether in art, literature or science, is one of the most exalted human emotions.”

How often do students experience the joy of scientific inquiry in high school science classrooms? This is a question worth asking because learning through discovery should be serious fun. How have technologies, across the ages, been instrumental in producing feelings of curiosity, wonder, excitement and that ‘exalted’ human emotion, joy? These emotions are intrinsic to the ‘creative intellect’ and they lay at the very heart of ideas in broader educational discourses about student engagement, school climate and motivation for learning.

During the VR School Study there have been moments of pure joy. As part of a unit of work in science, Year 9 students (14-15 years old) were asked to research an organ of the body, model and label it in desktop PC Minecraft Win 10 or Pocket Edition on mobile devices, and then import it into Win 10 Minecraft VR run on networked Oculus Rifts. There, they continued collaboratively building and refining the model in preparation for presenting what they had learnt about that body part to an audience.

Some examples of the pure joy of learning stand out. For instance, the first time a group of girls imported the levitating eyeball they had built in desktop computer Minecraft into Minecraft VR, there were squeals of excitement, raucous laughter, and a rapid flow of ideas about how to refine the model. They flew under and around the eyeball which was as large as a house and then into its interior via the eye’s lens. When they met inside the eye, and started lighting it up with torches, the amazement of the experience was palpable. A screenshot of the eyeball is below and the scale of it is discernible by the box on the ground which represents 1m x 1m. The square gap on the top of the eyeball was  used by the girls who would fly high and then dive into it.

floating eye from above2

A group of boys had built an eyeball with an optical nerve attached to it which the player could run through until they reached the internal part of the eye. They then began to make a rollercoaster for others to tour the eye with plans for it to extend through the optical nerve. The sheer fun of running up and through a nerve while discussing the function of it was wonderful to observe.

One group of girls had built an artery and they had labelled the various layers of the artery wall after researching the correct biological terms. As they refined their model in VR, the girls excitedly discussed how they would take peers on a tour of it, travelling through the artery ‘like a platelet in the bloodstream.’ Below is a screenshot of a side view of the artery with a pig in front of it and below this is a screenshot of a cross-sectional view of the artery with the key identifying its part.

Artery from side

Artery with legend

A group of boys took great care in building a spinal column with nerve endings, spinal fluid (or spinal juice as one fellow called it) attached to a detailed brain in cross-section. In VR, the structure was as high as a skyscraper and flying up and around it as they commentated on what work was still required was an astounding experience. They had provided, at ground level, an informative key to parts of the model. To hear students talk authoritatively and with great energy about how they went about selecting materials to try to accurately reflect the biological components of the spine, nerves and brain, while simultaneously working to improve the representation, provided a glimpse into the power of virtual reality for learning. Below is a screenshot looking up at the spinal cord with nerves and the brain; the floating white cubes are lanterns to illuminate it at night, although one boy did remark they might be thought of as electrical impulses emitting from the brain.  The feature image for this blog post is a screenshot looking down at the brain at night.

Brain looking up

While the study is not all smooth sailing, with the technological hitches demotivating some students, it has yielded insights into how collaborative inquiry using immersive VR can promote deep, authentic learning. The discovery component is twofold. Firstly there is a visceral discovery in how much more wondrous 3D models and cross-sections can look and feel in a truly immersive environment; the uniquely embodied and affective qualities of an experience that it is all around you compared with looking at or generating something on a computer screen. Secondly, there is discovery in researching and applying what is often fairly dry theoretical scientific knowledge in a process of collective creative intellect stemming from collaborative experimentation with the learning affordances of VR such as manipulation of size or unique navigation techniques (flying or diving).

The study provides a tantalizing glimpse into the (near) future of immersive education.

 

Keeping it real – A/Prof Erica Southgate (who is still recovering from flying around that skyscraper of a brain!)

 

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