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