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.
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.
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.