The collaboration involves teachers from Seda College, Trinity College, and Pembroke School as co-researchers (see the Team page of this website for bios on these innovative educators). Each school will conduct a bespoke study over time based on the same research questions. This will build a cumulative evidence base on curriculum design and pedagogical choices for powerful learning through 360° VR across STEM-related subjects.
The beauty of the VRTY platform is that students do not need coding skills to create VR environments. This makes it accessible for all students to tell their learning story in VR sophisticated ways, and importantly, share this with others. With the buzz about a metaverse on the horizon, it will be important to empower students to actively engage as content creators of new digital content instead of them being situated as passive consumers. The use of an accessible type of VR for content creation in this project opens up the possibility for all students to have a stake in what is to come.
The VR School Study is unique in its approach to investigating — in all its practical, technical and pedagogical complexity — how VR can be embedded into real school classrooms to value-add to learning, with the project producing useful resources for teachers as well as scholarly insights. The research collaboration with VRTY, AISSA and the three school communities promises credible findings for scaling up the technology. As usual, we will be reporting on our progress as the research unfolds, so stay tuned.
This post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate, Research Lead, the VR School Study.
Ever since Facebook announced its vision for their metaverse on 28 October 2021, including the company’s name change to Meta, there has been a buzz about what it might mean for the future of the internet and our digital (and real) lives.
This blog post unpacks the idea of the metaverse, taking into account Facebook’s vision but also extending beyond it, to understand its history and highlight some implications for teachers.
Where does the term metaverse come from?
English teachers – You Are Up!
The term metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 cyber punk novel Snow Crash. It referred to a computer generated universe.
Snow Crash is a rollicking sci fi read that has fired-up the imagination of those interested in possible technology futures with its fascinating portrayal of the persistent immersive 3D digital world of the metaverse that can be jacked into through a personal headset or public booths that produce a lower grade, glitchy avatar. In fact, the novel popularised the word avatar. It also highlighted the dangers of corporate and government control of knowledge and its infrastructures, dreamt up a devastating hybrid DNA and digital virus, and featured deadly semi-autonomous weapons called ‘rat things’.
An aside: For an earlier version of the metaverse, but this one was called the ‘matrix’, see William Gibson’s (1984) Neuromancer, a dazzling tale about a VR universe inhabited by mastermind AIs that influenced the Matrix film trilogy (soon to be quadrilogy).
What will the metaverse be?
The idea of the metaverse extends beyond Facebook’s (proprietary?) influence and has been described as a spatialised interoperable version of the internet. At the moment no one really knows what the metaverse might be like although there are current smart glasses, persistent VR spaces and gaming sites that provide a window into social, commercial, communication and creative aspects of it. Users will probably connect with the persistent interfaces, spaces and layers of the metaverse using a VR headset or smart glasses or on a screen (or with some type of yet-to-be-invented hardware that can integrate aspects of these). There is also a future vision, and investment into research, for direct human brain-computer interface. The metaverse will be populated with people in avatar form and by AI-powered virtual characters in human and other forms.
Here is a description of what the metaverse might be:
“The metaverse is the idea of a shared digital universe in the cloud created by merging virtual spaces that are physically persistent together with augmented reality (AR) layered over the real world. The metaverse is singular because the concept includes the sum of all virtual and online worlds along with all AR layers enhancing the physical world… Besides games and hangouts, it will include social media platforms, workplace tools, investing resources, online shops and much more. You’ll be able to immerse yourself completely in this spatial internet using virtual reality (VR) technology or just interact with bits of it that are layered over your physical space via AR. Instead of a profile picture, you’ll be represented by a complete digital avatar or persona. You’ll be able to meet up with your friends’ digital personas and wander around visiting virtual places and attending virtual events.” https://history-computer.com/metaverse-the-complete-guide/
For those interested in how Facebook’s metaverse might be designed in stages see this excellent article from Avi Bar-Zeev, veteran developer of and commentator on all things eXtended Reality (XR).
What does the metaverse mean for teachers and students?
1. Be curious but don’t believe the hype: There is a fair bit of publicity around the metaverse, and this will infiltrate the EdTech space – just remember that the metaverse isn’t here yet (at least in a scaled-up interoperable way), and some suggest it may never arrive. So, it’s good to be intrigued without buying into the hype.
2. Keep up with current research on immersive learning: We are still in the early days of building the evidence base for the effectiveness of immersive technologies for learning using headset-mediated VR and augmented reality experienced through glasses or via screen, especially in schools. Results are promising but ongoing rigorous research is needed so that we can confidently embed immersive learning into school classrooms in ways that make pedagogical sense and align with curriculum across subject areas. Asking questions about the evidence base and keeping up with the research on immersive learning is vital as knowledge about this will allow us to ask the right educational questions as the metaverse evolves.
3. Get interested in the (dry) but important areas of privacy law, digital legislation and regulation, and AI ethics: The idea of the metaverse only amplifies existing concerns regarding the automated harvesting, sharing and use of data without user consent including biometric data which is about and of the user body (facial recognition, pupil dilation, gaze and movement tracking etc.) and which can be highly identifying. There are many different forms of biometric data and plenty of biometric harvesting tools available and so we need to watch this space carefully. Automated nudging of behaviour and the affective moods of users will be diffused through the metaverse as current visions see this as a place to advertise and sell products to us as well as collect our personal data in ways which will be highly embodied and emotional. The inclusion of cameras in smart glasses and VR headsets adds another layer of complexity to maintenance of privacy. The Internet of Things will seamlessly fuse with the Internet of Bodies creating legal, ethical and social dilemmas for all of us, personally and professionally. Children and young people will be differently impacted at each stage of their physical, cognitive, moral, and social development. The teaching profession needs to ask who will regulate the metaverse, define its standards, and build and control its infrastructure and content, as this should inform decision making on procurement of technology for schools. No teacher wants to bring unethical technology into the classroom and so we need to start understanding and applying ethical frameworks now and into the future as the metaverse merges with aspects of our everyday lives in work, leisure and learning.
4. Empower children and young people to have a say in what the metaverse should be: Look for places in the curriculum where students can investigate and use the technologies related to the metaverse as well as explore public and industry discourse about its ethical and social implications. Such opportunities should expand the boundaries of digital literacy education to take in civics and citizenship, the environmental impacts of technology, ideas about human-machine relationships, and re-formed conceptions of learning, creativity and identity in the new machine age. Some industry doyens, such as the CEO of the child-targeted Roblox gaming platform which has 42 million daily users logins, suggest that children are already in a proto-metaverse and that one day such platforms will be pivotal to a metaverse providing everything from learning, shopping and business communication tools. Schooling systems rarely recognise the digital leisure life of children and youth, and yet industry is watching and factoring this into their plans for the metaverse. It is important that we as educators facilitate children’s critical engagement and agency in this space so that they are not viewed just as consumers or as data points. The voices and visions of children and young people should be integral to shaping a metaverse which upholds human rights including the rights of child.
The post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate who is looking forward to having a snazzy Star Trek Borg avatar in the metaverse.
P.S. For those interested, here is the full Facebook Meta announcement.
This post reports on Athelstone School teachers’ views on using VRTY, a 360° content creation platform, for learning Italian with primary (elementary) school students. To catch-up on the research go here and here.
Language teachers Jo Romeo and Angelica Cardone provided extensive reflections in video and written form throughout the study. They noted that most students were engaged in the learning task of creating their virtual tour of Italy and incorporate the mandated Italian directional language and greetings. Teachers were particularly pleased to see less technologically confident students gain skills by collaborating with their peers either in pairs to create one virtual world or through peer-to-peer interaction more generally.
Teacher written reflections suggested that throughout the unit of work students were developing the Deeper Learning capacities of effective communication and problem solving through self-directed learning and an academic mindset featuring persistence when confronted with a range of difficulties:
Throughout the research, teachers learnt about the potential of immersive storytelling for language learning and students learnt about this too, guided by a mix of instructional strategies and creative processes. Instructional strategies included explicit teaching, scaffolding of student independent research and student production of different types of interactive media in Italian and English to be embedded in the scenes of their virtual Italian tour. After students had created several interconnected 360° scenes, teachers encouraged them to make audio files of themselves (sometimes with peers) orally using the directional language central to the curriculum. These voice recordings were then embedded in appropriate places in 360° scenes along with other media students had sourced or created such as photo and text information pop-ups providing historical or cultural facts related to the scene.
Students exhibited joy when experiencing their 360° creations through a VR headset, as the teachers explain:
Longitudinal, deep teacher reflection is a key source of data for the VR School Study. Teacher reflections over time provide important insights in to growth in teacher professional learning, student learning and the success of different pedagogical strategies and curriculum planning approaches when using VR real classrooms.
Cover picture: Our last real-life team selfie before the Covid pandemic hit – Front: A/Prof Erica Southgate; Rear (Left to Right): Athelstone School language teachers Angelica Cardone and Jo Romeo, and Principal (and language teacher) Gyllian Godfrey. The study was funded through the South Australian Department for Education Innovative Language Program Grant.
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/
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.
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?
Classroom observation Teacher reflection Surveys
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?
Classroom observation Teacher written and verbal reflection Document (curriculum) analysis
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 Achievement analysis Student work sample analysis
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?
Surveys Student work sample analysis Student and teacher written and verbal reflection Achievement analysis Student talk and behavioural analysis Observation
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 Observation Survey
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 Observation Survey Document analysis
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.
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.