State of eXtended Reality (XR) and Learning Report

The inaugural Immersive Learning Research Network ‘State of XR & Immersive Learning Outlook Report’ has recently been released. eXtended Reality (XR) is an umbrella term for virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies and immersive learning is a concept used to cover education via these technologies. Associate Professor Erica Southgate, Lead Researcher on the VR School Study, was one of a hundred international experts consulted as part of the report. She is quoted several times on the pedagogical and ethical implications of using VR in schools. This free report is a must read for educators everywhere and can be downloaded here – https://immersivelrn.org/stateofxr_2021/

Student 360° content creation for learner agency

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:

  1. Locate and choose the 360° photo scenes of Italy that best fit a tour narrative.
  2. Locate cultural and historical images that could be embedded in each scene.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.

The storyboard in VRTY for ‘Tour Around Rome’ illustrates the non-linear narrative created by the students with arrow indicating the direction of travel that was possible between 360° scenes.

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.

Reference

Williams, P. (2017). Student Agency for Powerful Learning. Knowledge Quest45(4), 8-15.

New study on 360° VR for primary school language learning

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.

NEW book from the VR School Study

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.

Blog SS

Immerse + Imagine with Michelle Brown

Could you tell me about your professional background Michelle?

I studied Multimedia in the early 2000s and began to incorporate technology into my arts practice, I did a lot of computer design work for musicians, bands and venues back then. About this time I also started working and playing in the music industry. I ended up managing one of Australia’s iconic community radio stations, 4ZZZ in Brisbane, so I didn’t have much time to spend on my art, but I did manage to keep producing work occasionally! Being connected to an industry like music gave me a great bunch of opportunities but I decided to leave 4ZZZ in 2016 to concentrate on a career creating art and producing content.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

In 2016 while I was finishing up my management role I saw some really cool stuff being created with augmented and virtual reality. I started to look into what I needed to get a VR set up and also started producing AR artwork, I already had the animation and illustration skills plus the tech knowledge so it all just kind of fell into place! The biggest barrier for VR is the expense of the equipment however things are getting cheaper with stand-alone headsets like the Quest available, at the time I had to invest in a PC (I was strictly a mac user for a long time!) and a HTC Vive. Some of the artists I saw producing VR artwork include Liz Edwards, a very cool 3D artist, which got me into a VR art app called Tilt Brush, which I’ve used ever since in my workflow, from music videos to large scale installation work.

How do you currently use VR?

I mainly work with some of the VR art apps/programs like Google’s Tilt Brush, Gravity Sketch and some of the animation programs like Tvori. I paint and create environments and worlds in VR that are the base for music videos, installation work and more. Just like a 3D modelling program, many of the VR apps allow you to export 3D creations that can be used in other apps, like Unity, or traditional film editing software like Premiere Pro.

I also teach workshops in using VR and AR in arts practice, so showing ways that you can integrate illustration and animation with mobile apps and teaching people about the art apps I’ve mentioned.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

For me I love it, it really cuts down on the amount of time I spend hand illustrating or animating. The same with 3D modelling, it would take me possibly 3 times the amount of time to create something in Cinema4D that I can model quickly in VR as it’s more attune to actual sculpting/painting.

I also feel that VR can create more of an impactful experience, when you are in a headset it’s easy to ignore everything else going on and just concentrate on the narrative or user experience, no social media distractions!

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

Allow a bit of time for all students to have a play in VR, even if you only have one or two headsets! If you are showing students how to use some of the art programs like Tilt Brush, you need to let them have a little time to get comfortable and creative. But also keep in mind taking breaks if you’re in the headset for more than 30 minutes at a time. I also would recommend giving some direction so that students experimenting with VR art have something to focus on rather than just aimlessly painting swirls, for example; get them to paint a favourite animal or cartoon.

What is unique about creating in VR instead of some other medium?

It’s mainly the speed of which I can get an idea out plus the fact it’s in a three dimensional space, it’s just so much quicker for me to produce a visual story. It’s also a way that I can communicate a theme or an idea that links to a social issue that I can address with my installation work, as it allows for more intimacy and less distraction. Being immersed in a 3D environment by yourself in the headset provides a great opportunity to just focus.

Check out Michelle’s VR art and more on her website https://www.thebadlament.com/

MB

Immerse + Imagine with Alex Bowles

Could you tell us about your professional background Alex?

I came to VR from a background in film and television production, mostly advertising. I got my start at Industrial Light + Magic (ILM) in their commercial production division. This is also where I got my introduction to a lot of the tools that have become central to VR development, like virtual cameras, 3D modelling, CG animation, and rendering pipelines.

At the time, I was less interested in the on-screen possibilities of digital effects and more interested in the ways that the tools and techniques used for effects work were changing the production process itself. Pre-visualization was especially attractive.

I loved the idea of creating virtual sets that allowed creative and production teams to explore their ideas in this relatively cheap, very elastic, and super forgiving design space. Everything about it was the exact opposite of physical production. To me, it was clear that decoupling design from execution was hugely liberating in creative terms, but also a great way to reduce a project’s risks. That’s a rare combination. The key was having a virtual production that offered enough detail, precision, and accuracy to reliably map decisions made there to the real world.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

A few years ago I’d been researching a program for the full-dome theaters used in science centers, natural history museums, and planetariums. The story focused on the overlapping histories of astronomy and cartography. It revealed the ways that increasingly accurate models of the cosmos led to increasingly accurate maps of the world, and by extension, what people were capable of doing within the world. The goal was to make mathematics, science, and technology more accessible to middle-school and high-school students by providing them with a clear view of how they all worked together. This type of interdisciplinary understanding can make learning abstract concepts a lot easier. It can also be very hard to come by in educational systems based on strict compartmentalization of subjects. That’s where third-parties like public science institutions come in.

The problem I found was that the places with these immersive displays couldn’t offer the economic support that this particular program required. I also discovered that these institutions shared a somewhat Balkanized culture. This made co-productions especially difficult, at least for an outside producer like myself. When Oculus announced that it was going to be making full immersion available at consumer-electronics prices, I thought wow, here’s a way to get the program developed and distributed properly.

This proved less straightforward than I imagined. As a friend of mine likes to point out, you should never mistake a clear view for a short distance. It turned out that the technology was both more complex and more nascent than I initially guessed. That’s where I realized my background wasn’t serving me well. When you’re used to life in a very mature ecosystem, you take so much for granted that simply doesn’t exist in an ecosystem that’s just getting started. Even so, I was absolutely hooked. There’s a particular kind of engagement that you get in VR that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. And I think the ability to actually develop an ecosystem around that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

How do you currently use VR?

First and foremost, the best way to create VR is in VR. This is easier said than done, since so many of the tools, from 3D modeling software to game engines, were all developed with flat screens in mind. This makes it very easy to lose touch with the sense of presence in real space that’s key to the best experiences. The more of the process you can bring into an immersive display, the better.

I also use it for some things I never expected. One of them is fitness. I checked out games like Beat Saber and Pistol Whip just because they were getting a lot of buzz, but then I heard about people who were making them a part of regular workout routines, and getting really great results within 3-4 months and wow, yeah, they were right.

One of my favourite uses is bringing global and spatial context to news stories. Google Earth VR is fantastic for this. Simply being able to go to a place, even virtually, has this really remarkable effect on the way you understand stories, and connect them to other stories. This is due to the very different ways our brains encode spatial memories, as opposed to strictly visual memories. Once you’ve got a place-based component to your understanding, you have a much easier time absorbing retaining, and remembering everything else you learn about a topic. It’s amazing.

That phenomena is actually the basis for what I’m working on professionally, which is outreach programs for historical and culturally important sites. By giving people who haven’t visited these places in person the kinds of spatial memories shared by those who have, it becomes possible to expand the community of those who value a given place, who understand why it’s so important, and who are willing to put effort and resources into preservation.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

Let me start by narrowing that to the creative process used by film and television production, since that’s the one I know best. The biggest thing I’ve discovered is that you have to get your target audience involved a lot earlier than you would for a 2D medium. Partly, this is because immersive media doesn’t offer a century-plus of accumulated knowledge embedded in institutional structures, production tools, and so on. You can’t count on tried and true best practices to get you most of the way to a finished piece because at this stage, best practices are little more than well-educated guesses.

The other reason to make user testing an intrinsic part of the creative process is that audiences have so much more agency in immersive programs. Even game developers—who are used to having everything based on player input—have a ton of unfamiliar dynamics to manage when people are fully present in a scene, rather than interacting only via a controller and their thumbs. The more room you give people to surprise you, the more they will end up surprising you. This can be frustrating if you’re focused on a specific vision, so it’s helpful to remember that some of your most promising creative opportunities can come out of these unanticipated interactions. The sooner you can get a read, the better.

All this gets a lot easier if you recognize that the core of the medium isn’t what people see on a screen. The core is how they physically respond to events in three dimensional space. This is why it helps to get the basic physical interactions that are central to the experience prototyped and tested as early as you can, so you can use the feedback you get to determine the project’s final form.

This prototyping stage doesn’t need to be in VR, by the way. Some of the smartest studios I know rely heavily on brown-boxing, which is literally using cardboard boxes to work out where different elements should be placed in the space around users, and to make sure people can move around comfortably enough to enjoy the experience. Once that’s sorted, you can design the virtual experience on top of this real-world foundation.

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

The first thing, and maybe most important thing to do is to experience as much of what’s already out there as you can. Paying close attention to what you do and don’t like should leave you with a general sense of direction.

One of the first things you’ll discover is that VR isn’t actually one technology so much as a bunch of different technologies that are being combined in new and interesting ways. These combinations are the source of a lot of excitement, but they can also be the source of a lot of frustration, especially since pipelines and interoperability standards are so nascent. As a friend of mine put it, in game development, everything takes three times longer than you think it will, and in VR, it takes three times longer than that. So do make a point of being kind to yourself. It’s very much a learning-by-doing effort, and you’re going to get it wrong, a lot. And don’t worry about feeling you don’t know everything about everything because you never will. It’s just too complex.

Eventually the field will deal with this complexity the same way that film and television production, and game development have. We’ll end up with armies of highly-specialised craftspeople who are deeply focused on specific details, and equipped with budgets and schedules to match. But at the moment, we’re nowhere close to that, and I suspect it’ll be many years before we are. For now, the field favours generalists. If this is attractive to you, the best thing is to start with something that seems super simple and purely exploratory, get others involved as early as you can, pay close attention to all the different ways they respond, then building the final product on whatever emerges. Keeping your mind open, especially at the outset, is going to be the most likely way to find your north star.

Immerse + Imagine with James Calvert

Could you tell us about your professional background James?

I started an animation studio called the People’s Republic of Animation when I was 18 years old with a couple of friends. The studio grew over the next 15 years and was producing animated films for global clients. I was, and still am a director and storyteller at heart. In addition to animation, I started and ran a small video games company called Six Foot Kid. Life as an academic only began four years ago when I joined Torrens University Australia, in the design and creative technology faculty.

When did you first get interested in VR and why?

I was working with the ABC in 2017, trekking along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, capturing material for the educational VR experience ‘Kokoda VR’, when my interest in VR really kicked in. I was immediately drawn to VR as a storytelling and educational medium that could transport users to immersive virtual worlds.

2Landscape Phone

How do you currently use VR?

Primarily for telling stories. As a researcher, I am exploring how an immersive story or narrative can benefit education in schools.

What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?

I’ve spent my entire professional career embedded in the ‘creative process’. VR poses some new challenges to the creative process, due to the newness of the medium. Tricks and techniques that have been developed for video games or film making, need some adjustment before applying to VR development. Motion sickness is the prime example here. A great idea that might have worked in games or film, would need rethinking if it causes motion sickness when experienced in VR. However, obstacles such as this are important to the creative process and can always be overcome.

What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?

Go for it! But always test your ideas in VR. The capacity for VR to provide truly memorable embodied moments is incredible. As a tool for creative projects, it is a very rich playground.

Jame’s latest project, Thin Ice VR, weaves together Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic survival story with a tale on the effects of climate change.

 

An educator’s advice on what to look for in a 360° platform

360° content creation platforms are gaining popularity in schools as a way for students to create their own virtual environments and narratives (linear and branching) to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives.

Professionally, I think that students should be creating and sharing this content and not teachers (we should be worrying less about whether students can make a ‘perfect’ product and more concerned about the many technical, thinking and social skills they are learning as the create and share virtual environments, especially if they do this collaboratively.

360° content creation is certainly developmentally appropriate for primary school children and can be great fun for primary and secondary school students. Students can import scenes and annotate them or, better still, create their own 360° photo or video scenes to use as the basis for learning task. Here are some of things I look for as an educator in a 360° platform:

  1. Intuitive no-code mainly ‘drag and drop’ or easy content creation tools with good tutorial and online/real-time support.
  2. The ability to put in your own 360° video or photo foundation environments which can house media-rich content that students can create (video, photo, text, animation/gif) and that can link though hot spots or portals to create linear or branching way (joining environments with different media).
  3. Options for sharing and publishing 360 creations from private class to public viewing.
  4. Clear intellectual property and privacy policies including consideration of biometric* data harvesting – demonstrated knowledge of privacy legislation is required.
  5. Accessible analytics which make sense for learning at content creation and viewing/interaction phases.
  6. Preferably linked or supported by a teacher professional learning community who can share creations, pedagogical experiences and curriculum material.
  7. Easy to manage school and student account arrangements.
  8. Simple to understand advice on and ways to manage network compatibility and bandwidth implications for your school (and if it is a streaming platform, if your school network can accommodate this).

*Biometrics can be defined as the automated recognition and collection of measurable data on biological and behavioural characteristics of individuals. Behavioural data includes vocal patterns, eye tracking/gaze attention, gait tracking or typing recognition.  For more information on biometrics and other legal and ethical issues related to VR and AR technologies see this report for educators.

– This post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate.

Feature image: Screenshot from https://www.360cities.net/search/@tags-aerial

Virtual Reality for Deeper Learning

How can we expand our understanding of learning in/through virtual reality in ways that move beyond training scenarios or simple ‘facts and figures’ knowledge acquisition?

In our latest paper we take a deep dive into how VR can help students develop elusive 21st century thinking skills. We apply the Deeper Learning framework and the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (featured image above) to explore student collaborative and higher order thinking.

 

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.

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