The VR School Study has featured in an interview published by the Independent Schools Association of NSW (AISNSW). The interview covers areas such as leveraging the learning affordances of VR to develop deeper understanding, problem-solving and creativity with students. You can read the interview here.
How do children go about planning the content and experiences of virtual environments that they are creating to demonstrate learning mastery? How do they think about creating virtual environments for their peers to learn in? What are the special learning outcomes related to this? Not much is known about these areas.
The VR School Study is interested in students as virtual environment content creators. As part of the research, we collected data on the approaches students take when creating their own virtual worlds to demonstrate mastery of learning. This blog reports on interesting findings from the Athelstone School Innovative Languages project where primary (elementary) aged children are building their own 360° virtual tours to demonstrate mastery of the Italian language.
The students are using VRTY, a platform that allows them to plan and create their virtual worlds without needed to code. The platform provides easy-to-use tools with built in tutorials and a fun guide so that students can independently learn to use the platform after a couple of formal training sessions. Previous blog posts describe the VRTY platform and how it is leveraged through the teacher’s curriculum design. The first step, after training, is for students to research and plan their virtual tour. The planning involves storyboarding through VRTY. Students need to:
- Locate and choose the 360° photo scenes of Italy that best fit a tour narrative.
- Locate cultural and historical images that could be embedded in each scene.
- Create their own content to embed in the scene such as text and sound file that draw on the vocabulary mandated and reflect their research on cultural and historical information about Italy.
- Design a narrative through storyboarding in VRTY that reflects the story they want to tell and consider whether the tour experience should be linear or non-linear (the image below is of one student’s storyboard).
- Create each 360° scene and embed their content into it in an engaging way and place teleporter hotspots in the scenes so those experiencing the tour can move between scenes.
Fourteen students from a mixed ability class chose to be part of the project with 11 virtual worlds in total created – some students chose to work in pairs. Equal numbers of boys and girls participated. On average student virtual worlds comprised six 360° scenes. Overall, students created 187 pieces of content to embed in scenes in their virtual worlds, including 50 sound files and 137 information markers. The cover image to this blog post is a screen shot from the student tour ‘Journey around Rome’ which shows student created information and sound markers embedded into the scene.
Interestingly, 7 of the 11 worlds were structured according to a non-linear narrative. Non-linear narratives allowed those experiencing the tour to move back and forth between all or most 360° scenes. Students who developed a non-linear narrative storyboard explained that this allowed have the freedom to go back and check out aspects of a scene they might have missed or enjoyed. The image below is of a non-linear narrative storyboard developed in VRTY. The virtual tour was created by a female student who called it ‘Journey around Rome’ and it allowed the traveler to move between a number of historic sites with all sorts of images, text and sound files in English and Italian embedded into them which used the mandated vocabulary and other Italian. Best still the traveler could return to a hotel room and decide which day trip they might take next or they could go back and visit somewhere they had already been.
This sophisticated non-linear narrative approach to constructing a user experience was premised on creating a sense of agency for those experiencing the tour (or other learners). In choosing non-linear narratives some children were tapping into the strength of developing learner agency when designing their virtual worlds. Non-linear narratives were not essential for developing agency but, in many cases, were important to this.
The significance of developing agency in learning cannot be underestimated, as Williams (2017) explains:
“Students with agency develop a self-perception that is based on their abilities as independent thinkers. Our task as educators is not to tell them what to think but to help reveal their thinking by reflecting back to them what we are observing and noticing and naming their acts of problem solving. This feedback builds a metacognitive awareness that reinforces their identities as capable thinkers who are able to construct their own understandings. This mode of learning shifts the locus of power from the teacher to the student, thus setting up students as the experts in their own learning.” (p. 11).
The Athelstone School VR project illustrates how many students themselves understand the significance of agency in creating engaging and efficacious 360° learning environments.
Williams, P. (2017). Student Agency for Powerful Learning. Knowledge Quest, 45(4), 8-15.
This post provides a snapshot of some of the ways the VR School Study researches the use of VR in schools, with the framework also applicable to other formal educational contexts. VR School is an ongoing multi-site study that employs a mixed-methodology (qualitative and quantitative) approach to research. The study is premised on a multi-perspectival conceptual of education with and in VR. The diagram below outlines some of the key areas that are explored in the research.
Each of these areas prompts a range of questions about virtual reality for education. The table below highlights some of these questions with associated methods for collecting data that might shed light on them.
|Pedagogy||How can teachers leverage the signature pedagogies of their subject areas/disciplines to ensure deeper learning through VR for their students?|
How can teachers leverage the learning affordances of VR for deeper learning?
What are the pedagogical principles or assumptions the are evident in VR applications?
|Curriculum||How can VR be woven into a unit of work which includes the normal range of conventional learning activities in a curriculum-aligned way?|
Can curriculum objectives be adapted to take advantage of the learning affordances of VR?
Teacher written and verbal reflection
Document (curriculum) analysis
|Assessment||How can VR be used to develop novel, engaging and authentic types of formative and summative assessment?|
How can student peer and self-assessment be built into VR projects?
How can VR be used to develop novel, engaging and authentic types of formative and summative assessment?
What are strengths and limitations of conventional assessment types in understanding learning?
|Teacher and student written and verbal reflection|
Document (curriculum) analysis
Student work sample analysis
|Student learning||How can students use VR to demonstrate content mastery, collaboration and communication skills, new conceptual understandings, problem-solving skills, metacognition and an academic mindset?|
What is the student experience of learning through and in VR?
How can students move beyond the novel effect of new technology to develop deeper learning?
Student work sample analysis
Student and teacher written and verbal reflection
Student talk and behavioural analysis
|Teacher professional learning||What is the teacher experience of learning to use an emerging technology in the classroom?|
What types of formal professional learning, expert and peer support do teachers require?
How do teachers learn from each other and students during VR projects?
|Teacher written and verbal reflection|
|Ethics and safety||What are the ethical, legal, safety and child development issues related to using VR in classrooms?||Document analysis|
Observation and testing
Surveys and experiments (cross-sectional and longitudinal)
|Organisational arrangements and culture||What are the technical, practical and organisational enablers and barriers to embedding VR in classrooms in a curriculum-aligned way?|
What conditions are required for pedagogical risk taking using an emerging technology?
How does the culture of the school support or impede innovation?
|Teacher and student written and verbal reflection|
While these are only some of the questions and approaches to data collection that the VR School study is exploring across primary and secondary schools and in different subject areas, it is worth noting that there is a commitment to participatory research: That is research with teachers and students, not on them. Elevating the knowledges of teachers and students will be key to understanding where VR fits best in education and in scaling up immersive learning in schools.
Cover image from Pexel.
An essential part of scaffolding digital learning when using emerging technology in schools is the provision of developmentally appropriate training on using platforms to meet learning objectives. While there is a lot of talk about generations Y and Z being digital natives, there is great variability in the capability of children and young people in using digital tools for learning, especially when it is comes to creating rather than consuming products.
Throughout the Athelstone School project we have thought carefully about training and supporting primary school aged students (11 – 12years) in using the 360° VRTY platform or content creation. In 2019 we did a pilot study using VRTY with Year 5 students which helped us hone the training approach. In this phase of the study student training was conducted via teleconference and lasted 40 minutes. VRTY personnel delivered the training, while the teachers and researcher were on hand to assist. This initial training involved a general introduction to using the platform to create virtual worlds in screen mode. We used a ‘sticky note’ exercise to evaluate the training where students writing down their comments on a post-it note about the training so that we could gauge the class’s training experience. This exercise revealed most students enjoyed the training but that some found it challenging as the examples below show.
In 2020, we expanded the training and support approach to include an additional teleconference session on how to save and share virtual content with others in screen and immersive modes. VRTY designed a special handbook for students on this step-by-step process. This handbook was printed out and put on each desk for easy referral. This supplemented to in-platform tutorials and information, providing an option for students who might prefer more conventional reference material to support learning. This in-class training was undertaken via conference which we already had practice with before the necessity of conducting such sessions due to COVID restrictions.
One of the learning objectives for the unit of work was that students could use the on-desk training handbook effectively for assistance to trouble-shoot issues as they arose. The evaluation indicated that all students met this learning objective.
Our experience shows that primary school students may need different training and resource approaches to build confidence and scaffolding them towards competence in using 360° content creation tools. The training response included provision of in-platform instructions and tutorials with a back-up paper-based manual available on student desks. Once confidence was developed, students played and learnt through this process too. Multi-pronged training approaches coupled with practice and play makes perfect.
This post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate, the VRTY team Kingston Lee-Young and Sarah Lee and the teachers of Athelstone School.
Developing units of work that allow for student VR content creation involves: (a) sequencing and scaffolding learning for curriculum-mandated content and skill acquisition; and, (b) allowing time for students to develop new technology expertise via problem-solving, creative experimentation and collaboration.
In the Athelstone School VR project, primary (elementary) school students use the 360° VRTY platform to create a travel journey that demonstrates Italian language acquisition and knowledge of Italian culture. The learning objectives derive directly from the Australian Curriculum.
Below is the unit of work ‘Persi in Citta’ (Lost in the City), developed for the VR project by Athelstone language teacher Angelica Cardone and Jo Romeo. The unit of work was implemented this term with primary school students in Year 6 (11-12 years of age).
‘Persi in Citta’ (Lost in the City) unit of work
Learning Intention – to use and develop directional language in the VR platform whilst creating different scenes in Italian cities.
- Introduce the booklets and go through it as a class (VRTY student handbook)
- Re – familiarize themselves with the platform and look at where students were in Term 1 in terms of importing 360 degree images, information markers, portal markers and importing pictures etc.
- Allow time to work on their world.
- Students to work on their information markers, limit to at least 4 per picture or scene.
- Information marker must have information about the landmark they have chosen to use, information must be in English and have the Italian translation.
- After information markers have been used and checked by the teacher students to use portal markers so they can move through scenes.
- Once portal markers have been used to move in and out of scenes directions will need to be written in to allow others to use the world as a new traveller to Italy. E.g. – Excuse me where is the Colosseum? Scusa dov’e` il Colosseo?
- Use directional language learnt in lessons and put them in their scenes.
- Portal markers will need to transport the visitors to the location.
- Proposal to use the headsets and phones to view the worlds they have created in the VRTY platform. Proposal to use the 360 camera for producing own images to import into the VRTY platform.
- Informing – Gather information from a range of sources (ACLITC043) and represent information appropriately for different audiences using a variety of modes (ACLITC044).
- Creating – Create imaginative texts for different audiences such as digital stories using characters, places, ideas and events (ACLITC046)
- Translating – Create simple bi lingual texts and discuss what translates easily or not (ACLITC048)
- Systems of Language – Use grammatical knowledge to interpret and create meaning in Italian (ACLITU052)
- Language variation and change – Recognise that language use varies according to the context of situation and culture (ACLITU054)
|Can student import a 360 degree image correctly.|
|Can student import an information marker and use effectively.|
|Student can import a portal marker and use effectively.|
|Student can use directional language appropriately to navigate through the scene.|
|Was able to work collaboratively in pairs or small groups.|
|Used the student handbook effectively for assistance if required.|
In addition to the Languages Curriculum outcomes the unit of work develops the following Level 4 General Capabilities from the Australian Curriculum:
Investigating with ICT
- Locate generate and access data and information: locate, retrieve or generate information using search engines and simple search functions and classify information in meaningful ways
Creating with ICT
- Generate ideas plans and processes: use ICT effectively to record ideas, represent thinking and plan solutions
- Generate solutions to challenges and learning area tasks: independently or collaboratively create and modify digital solutions, creative outputs or data representation/transformation for articular audiences and purposes
Communicating with ICT
- Collaborate share and exchange: select and use appropriate ICT tools safely to share and exchange information and to safely collaborate with others
CRITICAL AND CREATIVE THINKING CAPABILITY
Inquiring – identifying, exploring and organising information and ideas
- Identify and clarify information and ideas: identify and clarify relevant information and prioritise ideas
- Organise and process information: analyse, condense and combine relevant information from multiple sources
Generating ideas, possibilities and actions
- Imagine possibilities and connect ideas: combine ideas in a variety of ways and from a range of sources to create new possibilities
PERSONAL AND SOCIAL CAPABILITY
- Work independently and show initiative: assess the value of working independently, and taking initiative to do so where appropriate
- Become confident resilient and adaptable: devise strategies and formulate plans to assist in the completion of challenging tasks and the maintenance of personal safety
- Communicate effectively: identify and explain factors that influence effective communication in a variety of situations
- Work collaboratively: contribute to groups and teams, suggesting improvements in methods used for group investigations and projects
- Make decisions: identify factors that influence decision making and consider the usefulness of these in making their own decisions
The VR School Study has always been concerned with safe and ethical use of immersive technologies especially with children and young people, and in schools. We were the first to create safety resources and procedures for teachers and students and, in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, we continue to make safety and hygiene the top priority.
Hence, we have developed a safety protocol and set of related resources to address hygiene and safety for VR headsets that use mobile phones – this is the type of equipment we are using for the 360° VR content creation that is the basis of the Athelstone Italian language learning study. The resources were developed for training primary (elementary) school aged children in Year 6 (11-12 years old).
Context always matters when assessing and addressing risk including VR use in classrooms, especially during a pandemic. When undertaking risk assessment and development of protocols and resources to mitigate risk for VR (or any equipment digital or otherwise), each school must address their local conditions, follow expert advice on hygiene and safety, and develop their own risk assessment, protocols and resources.
For the Covid-19 state-of-play in South Australia (SA), where Athelstone School is located, see the SA government updates here – https://www.covid-19.sa.gov.au/home/dashboard and the SA Department of Education website on Covid-19 here – https://www.education.sa.gov.au/supporting-students/health-e-safety-and-wellbeing/covid-19-coronavirus. Our protocol and resources were developed in August 2020 when the Covid-19 situation was reflected in the snapshot from the government website below:
Here is a summary of the risks identified and the proposed mitigation strategies developed in relation to context:
|Potential risk||Mitigation strategy|
|Covid-19 transmission through student sharing of VR headsets and phones||– Assign each student their own headset, box for headset storage and phone|
– Label headsets, storage box and phone with the name of the student to allow students and teachers to monitor the use of personally assigned equipment.
– Teachers train students in not sharing headsets, storage box or phones and to always return headset to its assigned box.
– Reinforce safety and hygiene messages and procedure in class at the beginning of the lesson and with a poster displayed at the front of the classroom and with a laminated version on each desk.
– Teachers in-class monitoring that students use their assign headset and pack headset into assigned box.
– For the duration of the research no other students or classes use equipment.
|Lack of compliance with Education Department Covid-19 advice for schools||– Principal does daily online checks of Department’s Covid-19 advice for schools to ensure compliance and that the project’s risk mitigation strategies do not contravene advice.|
|Poor VR headset and phone hygiene||– At the beginning and end of each lesson students wash/sanitise their hands. |
– At the end of each lesson students use disposable sanitiser wipes to clean their assigned headset (except for lenses) and phone at the end of each lesson and return VR headset to its assigned box.
|Teacher handling of phone after it’s been sanitised may put them at risk||– Teachers use disposable gloves to collect phones from students and connect these to charging station.|
|Desk contamination with from VR headset||– At the end of the lesson and after wiping their headsets and phones, students use sanitiser wipes to clean their desk and the laminated safety poster which is on their desk.|
|Improper disposal of used sanitiser wipes and gloves||– At the end of each lesson students dispose of used disinfectant/alcohol cloths in plastic bag that has no tears or holes in it and this is tied shut by teachers who dispose of it directly into school skip bin. |
– Teachers dispose of used gloves in plastic bag that has no tears or holes in it and this is tied shut by teachers who dispose of it directly in to school skip bin.
|Students experience cybersickness||– Students trained to recognise signs of cybersickness or discomfort and to immediately take headset off and tell teacher. |
– The training message is reinforced on safety poster displayed in classroom with a laminated version on each desk.
– Students buddy-up to check on each other during use of headset.
– Limit of 15 minutes per lesson in headset monitored by teacher and student-buddy.
|Students move out of seat with VR headset on and injury themselves or others||– Students receive training on staying seated while they have the headset on. |
– The training message is reinforced on safety poster displayed in classroom with a laminated version on each desk.
– Students buddy up to make sure each remains seated and teachers monitor this in class.
Here are the teacher-delivered safety and hygiene training script for students:
Here is the teacher safety and hygiene classroom procedure:
The ‘Be VR Safe’ poster for display in classrooms and on student’s desks is a child-friendly version of the safety and hygiene procedure outlined in the training script.
All these resources can be downloaded from the resources section of this website.
On a related note – Since the beginning of the pandemic, the VR research and industry sectors have been working overtime to define and address safe use of high-end VR (where the computing is in the headset) and although there is no definitive advice this article covers some of the issues – https://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/evaluating-immersive-experiences-during-covid-19-and-beyond
Until next time, stay safe.
A/Prof Erica Southgate
Cover photo by cottonbro from Pexels
In my recent book, I provide some explanatory frameworks on the pedagogical uses of VR. While much of the public discourse centres around technical differences between types of VR (i.e. the difference between 3 Degree of Freedom [DOF] vs 6 DOF) or whether 360° technology is ‘real’ VR, as an educator I think it is more important to focus on the pedagogical utility of the technology. One way of making pedagogical sense of VR is to conceptualise its different possibilities for learning with explicit connection to the signature pedagogies of disciplines (or school subjects derived from disciplines).
The diagram below (developed for the book) illustrates some key conceptions of VR for learning. VR applications can reflect one or more of these concepts.
When teachers are considering VR they should explore the learning experiences the application offers and how this might fit with the range of instructional strategies commonly used in specific subjects. For example, if you were teaching history you might ask if the software offers a means for transporting students to another place or time because this would fit well with the instructional repertoire usually deployed in the subject area. A core instructional strategy used in a subject is called a ‘signature pedagogy’ (Shulman, 2005). Signature pedagogies are important because they:
implicitly define what counts as knowledge in a field and how things become known…. They define the functions of expertise in a field. (Shulman, 2005, p. 56)
In the case of sparking the imagination through a historical re-creation experience (re-creation being a signature pedagogy of the discipline of history), a time-travel experience would traditionally be facilitated through the instructional use of text, maps, or video. Choosing a time-travel VR experience for history makes good pedagogical sense because it leverages or extends on the signature pedagogy of that particular discipline. Relatedly, this is why VR resonates with the types of place-based pedagogy used in subjects such as geography or in professional training simulations. The technology can be used to take the learner elsewhere and its spatial affordances (properties) fit with the signature pedagogy of geography which is the field trip or professions where situated learning in workplaces (placements) are key (such as clinical health or teacher education).
Let’s look at another example using the diagram. In order to teach science, an educator might want to provide students with the opportunity to conduct experiments that are too complex or dangerous for a school laboratory – experimentation in labs being a signature pedagogy of the discipline of science. The teacher would therefore investigate if there was a total learning environment in the form of a virtual laboratory available so that experiments could be safely simulated.
A performing arts teacher might find that a virtual studio would be a great addition to the actual studio of the drama classroom because it offered a range of tools for her student to design sets and costumes. VR design studios allow for ease of prototyping (click of the controller for creating, erasing and changing elements) at actual scale and let students easily share design ideas for rapid feedback from the teacher and peers (the book has a case study on how a real teacher did this in a rural school). In this case, the virtual environment offers tools to support the signature pedagogy of drama teaching which involve facilitating the creative processes through improvisation and iteration.
Finally, some VR applications enable student content creation – this might be through coding (using game engines such as Unreal and Unity for example) or with more accessible ‘no code create’ drag-and-drop software. In this pedagogical conception of VR, students use the technology as a form of immersive media that can tell a learning story. Students create their own worlds and tell their own stories to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes and to communicate with, and teach, others.
This pedagogical conception of VR as media informs our latest research on using 360° content creation for second language learning at Athelstone primary school. The 360° platform, VRTY, offers ‘no code create’ opportunities for primary school students to create their own ‘surround’ worlds that acts as a foundation to embed other media into (other media includes gaze-activated pop-up text, sound files, photos, videos, gifs and animations). Students are required to demonstrate that they meet learning outcomes, such as oral or written mastery of Italian vocabulary, by creating a 360°world that is enriched with other digital content they have created. Students can link 360° environments together through gaze-activated portals. The many layers of media content creation entail students planning, experimenting, designing, and evaluating the story they want to tell in their virtual worlds. They then share their creations with peers and the teacher for authentic feedback. They are making media-rich narratives to educate others about the Italian language and culture while demonstrating content mastery.
One our key research questions involves understanding how language teachers can leverage their signature pedagogies to take advantage of the learning affordances of 360° media creation in ways that enhance student engagement and learning. Concentrating on the instructional utility of VR in direct relation to the distinctive pedagogies of the subject being taught – its signature pedagogies – will yield theoretically rich and salient insights for teaching and curriculum design. You are invited to follow our adventure. Stay tuned.
Bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate on behalf of the Athelstone School VR School Team
Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus, 134(3), 52-59.
Southgate, E. (2020). Virtual reality in curriculum and pedagogy: Evidence from secondary classrooms. Routledge.
In 2019, VRTY partnered with the Athelstone School and the VR School Study to investigate how primary school students could create 360° environments to enhance language learning, in this case Italian. VRTY was created in 2016 to help make virtual reality more accessible to educators and students. Its founders wanted to improve educational approaches by bringing-to-life 21st Century learning outcomes.
So what is it really? VRTY is a VR and interactive 360° content creation and sharing software platform. It lives in the cloud and its benefit is its ability to help anyone create their own virtual content. There’s no need to code because the platform provides its own easy-to-use tools to let the imagination run free, enact design thinking, problem-solve, prototype and create and share feedback with others.
Being cloud based, there are no specific hardware requirements to use the platform; all you need is a computer with Google or safari browsers and an internet connection. To share a newly created project, it can be shared via a QR code or unique web address (URL). When viewing a project, it can be viewed in 360°mode on any device with a google or safari browser; and to view in VR mode it can be viewed using a mobile and a VR cardboard or mobile headset.
Using VRTY 360° in education has the potential to
- Increase student engagement;
- Facilitate higher order thinking and collaboration;
- Allow students to demonstrate content mastery through the creation of their own media-rich virtual environments;
- Develop ICT capability area of the National Curriculum integrated across learning areas; and
- Authentically share content that can be used across the education community.
VRTY provides online training on the platform and an in-class teleconference training session (which is pictured above). Founder, Kingston Lee-Young is enjoying the Athelstone School collaboration, offering the following insights:
“As software developers, we had a vision of creating something that would improve the learning environment and benefit both teachers and students. Partnering with the Athelstone School allows us to see our VRTY platform in action in the hands of Years 5 and 6 students learning Italian. Whilst the involvement of the VR School Study means we are being measured to see if we are truly adding value.”
The photo above shows Kingston and Sarah Lee (VR Producer at VRTY) providing online training to Athelstone School students.
For more information about VRTY or to see some of its shareable content please head to: https://vrty.io
The VR School Study is in a new partnership with Athelstone School, a South Australian primary (elementary) school. The Athelstone School research will investigate how 360° VR content creation can be used for learning Italian. Funded by the South Australian Department of Education’s Innovative Language Program Grants (ILPG) program, Year 5 and 6 students will use the VRTY platform to create and share their own virtual worlds guided by the Australian curriculum. This action research has already undergone a pilot phase that happened in the second half of 2019 and we are now entering into the first of several research cycles in order to explore technical challenges, developmental appropriateness of 360° VR, and the efficacy and innovative potential of 360° VR content creation for learning another language.
The teacher co-researchers on the project are language teachers Angelica Cardone (far left behind) and Jo Romeo (left front on top image), and Principal Gyllian Godfrey (back centre) who is also a qualified language teacher. Gyllian provided this reflection on the project:
“The ILPG has offered the opportunity to test the benefits of VR for students
learning languages at primary level and has also upped-the-ante by making
students the creators of their own content, by developing non-linear language
learning narratives for themselves and their peers.”
In our next blog, the folks from VRTY explain how students can use their platform for content creation and learning. Stay tuned.
Bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate who is taking up a lot of room (right front) in the photo above.
This article was first published by the Australian Association for Research in Education (29 June, 2020). I’m sharing it here because it highlights some interesting findings from the book.
Virtual Reality in school education: Australia leads the way with groundbreaking research
In 2016, I attended a meeting and fortuitously sat next to the (now retired) principal of Callaghan College who asked me what type of research I’d like to do in schools. At the time a new high-end, highly immersive type of virtual reality (VR) hardware called the Oculus Rift had been released. This type of VR equipment was costly and needed an expensive computer to run but offered entry into amazing worlds. It provided high fidelity environments to be explored through gestural interaction via controllers that allowed you to use your virtual hands to interact with virtual objects and avatars (either other people or computer characters) and navigate in ways that felt incredibly embodied (I am addicted to flying and jumping off clouds in VR).
I made a gentle pitch that I’d like to work with teachers to embed this technology into classrooms to see how it could be used for learning but that I had no idea what we might find. And so began the VR School Study, a collaboration with Callaghan College and later, Dungog High School, both government high schools in NSW, Australia. It became the first research internationally to embed high-end VR in school classrooms.
VR School Study
The VR School Study is ongoing participatory research that aims to explore the use of immersive virtual reality in real classrooms. We focus on how VR can be used to enhance learning, its relationship to curriculum, and its implications for pedagogy. And we examine all the practical, ethical and safety issues that come with integrating emerging technology in classrooms. At the end 2018, the study reached a major milestone with the completion of two major case studies into the use of the technology in secondary schools.
An ‘arduous’ adventure in emerging technology
IN 2018, on the last day of research at Callaghan College, I interviewed two teachers about what it was like to embed an emerging technology in the classroom. The response was, ‘Arduous comes to mind.’ While we did have a laugh, the comment summed up a range of issues encountered during the research.
Space to accommodate VR and safety concerns
Trying to find an available classroom space large enough to accommodate the play areas needed for this VR, which is best used standing and moving around, proved difficult. On one campus we managed to get a room with a small storeroom off it that squeezed in three sets of VR equipment with play areas while at the other we had a larger former lab-preparation room attached to a classroom. Both VR rooms were beyond the immediate supervisory gaze of the teacher and so required me or a student to act as a safety ‘spotter’ to ensure there were no collisions with walls, furniture or peers. Even though there is a built in ‘Guardian System’ (a pop-up virtual cage mapped to the real environment you should stay within), some students became so immersed that they ignored it and needed intervention. Even now with ‘pass through’ cameras in some VR headsets (these allow the user to see the outside environment when they go beyond the Guardian System) some people become so immersed and are interacting with such speed that they can run into objects. Engineered safety solutions are not always enough to maintain safety.
Network and server issues
Getting the tech to work within the confines of the school internet network proved difficult. Game stores that allow multiplayer environments were blocked and internet work-arounds required. Teachers had to set-up individual student accounts which was time-consuming and often update applications in their own time. Our screen capture video, which showed a first-person view of what the student was seeing and doing in a virtual environment, indicated that the technology failed 15% of the time due to network, server and VR tracking drop-out. One of my favourite moments in student humour and resilience was when I heard one boy say to another as they who were fixing a server issue for the third time, “Aren’t you glad you signed up for this?”.
Content mastery and creativity through collaboration
Students were given the highest quality VR and ‘sandbox’ applications, such as Minecraft VR and Tilt Brush which allowed them to create in virtual environments without needing to code. Combined with clever curriculum design they undertook self-directed formative assessment tasks.
In Year 9 science this involved groups researching and developing a model of a body organ in Minecraft VR. The results were an astounding mix of scientific knowledge melded with creative endeavour developed through group problem-solving and collaboration inside and outside of VR.
One group produced an anatomically correct, labelled eyeball which was toured by via a rollercoaster while another built a skyscraper of a brain sitting atop a spinal cord which you flew up to interact with engineered components representing neurons. While in VR, students narrated from memory the parts and function of the brain. Analysis of the screen capture video using a framework adapted from work by Assistant Professor in Learning and Learning Processes the University of Oulu, Jonna Malmberg, indicated that the majority of students used the creative properties of VR to engage in highly collaborative science learning.
At Dungog High School a senior drama class used single-player 3-D sculpting program Tilt Brush, as an infinite virtual design studio to explore symbolism in set design at real life scale and beyond. Students worked in groups to quickly prototype symbolic elements of their directorial vision with peers and the teacher moving in and out of VR to offer feedback. Mistakes were erased or changes made at the press of a button. The virtual studio of Tilt Brush melded with the drama studio to offer students an opportunity to view their design in 3D from the perspective of an audience member, director, designer or actor. All they needed to do was teleport round the virtual environment to do this.
Let’s leave behind the EdTech evangelism
An admission – I’m not a fan of the type of innovation discourse which permeates university managerial-speak and is associated with EdTech (educational technology) evangelism. This type of talk conjures up images of momentous leaps in ways of doing and knowing with the trope of the lone (male, yes it is a gendered) genius leading the charge with their vision of the future.
Innovation is incorrectly depicted as a development shortcut detached from contexts and the years of work that yield incremental improvements and insights, as Stanford University Director, Christian Seelos, and colleague Johanna Mair, argue. They warn against evaluating innovation only on positive outcomes as this can stifle experimentation required to progress an initiative in difficult or unpredictable environments.
This aligns with critical studies in EdTech where research is on the ‘state-of-the-actual’ rather than the ‘state-of-the-art’, as Distinguished Research Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Neil Selwyn reminds us. It entails moving away from trying to ‘prove’ a technology works for learning to scrutinizing what actually takes place especially in contexts that are not the ‘model’ well-resourced schools where technologies are often tested.
Teleporting away for now
As I have argued elsewhere, to get the best ethical and educational outcomes with emerging technologies we must carefully incubate these in schools (and not just resource-rich ones) in collaboration with willing teachers so that we can document incremental ‘innovation’ through ‘state-of-the-actual’ reporting. This can be an arduous project but one full of authentic and valuable insights for those willing to go on a research and pedagogical adventure. It’s this type of evidence, not EdTech evangelism, that we need.
For those who want more. In May 2020, I published findings from the study in Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogy: Evidence from Secondary Classrooms (Routledge). As co-researchers, teachers from Callaghan College and Dungog High School contributed to their respective chapters in this book. The book offers new pedagogical frameworks for understanding how to best use the properties of VR for deeper learning as well as a ‘state-of-the-actual’ account of the ethical, practical and technical aspects of using VR in low-income school communities.
Erica Southgate (PhD) is Associate Professor of Emerging Technologies for Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is lead author of the recent Australian Government commissioned report, Artificial intelligence and emerging technologies (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) in schools research report, and a maker of computer games for literacy learning. Erica is always looking for brave teachers to collaborate with on research and can be contacted at Erica.firstname.lastname@example.org. Erica is on Twitter@EricaSouthgate