Immersive VR: A literature review and infographic for teachers

I was recently commissioned to write a literature review on immersive virtual reality for teachers by the New South Wales Department of Education. The Department kindly distilled the literature review into an infographic to guide teacher practice

The report is: ‘Immersive virtual reality, children and school education: A literature review for teachers.’

I welcome dialogue on the literature review from teachers, researchers and developers – A/Prof Erica Southgate

Three observations on gender and VR in the classroom

Can immersive virtual reality (IVR) be used to get girls interested in technology subjects and digital careers? The VR School Project offers some insights into this interesting question.

Girls and women are significantly under-represented in STEM courses and professions. In Australia, 84 per cent of those with STEM qualifications are male (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016) and women make up only 19% of those enrolled in IT degrees (Zagami, 2016). In the USA, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs (Beede et al., 2011) and make up 18% of those with a computer science degree (Vu, 2017). By age 14, girls are far less likely than boys to aspire to STEM-related careers (Archer, 2013). In lights of these statistics, it is worth asking – Can IVR be used to get girls interested in technology subjects and careers?

From phase 1 of the VR School project, we make the following observations:

  1. Girls were much less likely to have tried IVR than boys In our sample (22 female, 32 male), girls were almost 3 times as likely to have had NO experience of IVR compared to boys prior to the study. Boys were 3 times more like than girls to have tried IVR at least once or twice.
  2. A minority of girls were very reluctant to try IVRFour of the twenty two girls explicitly expressed a reluctance to try IVR, some saying it was ‘embarrassing’ to wear a head mounted display (HMD) and/or because they were worried that their classmates were looking at them. These girls requested that the door to the VR room  be closed. While we could not shut the door, we did convince the girls to use the equipment which were mainly away from the view of the class. Gender theory can offer some insight into these girl’s behaviour. Constructions of emphasised femininity require girls and women to comply with certain notions of attractiveness, and, let’s face it, HMDs are not especially beautiful. Girls and women are socialised to be aware of who is looking at them, often so they can remain safe. HMDs block this awareness, making girls feel self-conscious and, perhaps, vulnerable.
  3. Boys expressed absolute enthusiasm for IVR That 79% of boys had experienced IVR prior to the study compared to 36% of girls, points to boys either actively seeking out or being given more opportunities to use new technology. Boys generally volunteered to try out the technology first, while most girls appeared happy to wait. A few girls volunteered to help out assisting other students with equipment and safety in the VR room, but it was mostly boys who took on this role, expressing confidence in their ability despite most being relative newcomers to IVR.

While our sample size is relatively small, these phenomena indicate a need to investigate gendered patterns of IVR technology engagement and interaction more closely. Utilizing social and psychological theories of masculinity and femininity to understand behaviour and opportunity will be important. Having a female researcher on site who demonstrated knowledge about the equipment and immersive experiences was probably helpful, particularly when girls needed encouragement or when they asked about future career opportunities. We believe that IVR does have the potential to switch girls on to technology subjects and careers. However, much more fine-grained research is required to understand and address gender dynamics in classrooms if this is to be fully realized.

 

Bought to you by a woman who loves VR, Associate Professor Erica Southgate

Students speak out about using immersive VR for learning

What do high school students say about using immersive virtual reality (VR) for learning? Student reflections from the VR School Project provide unique insights into the educational potential and problems of using immersive VR in real classrooms.

‘VR is really cool because different types of learners are able to effectively absorb the information they need to be taught. It’s also fun, and has a reputation for being fun.’

Fifty four students aged 13-15 years participated in phase 1 of the research. As the quote above indicates, the majority students were excited to be given the opportunity to use Minecraft with the Oculus Rift to do their science or ICT lessons. Some talked about the experience as being ‘FUN, FUN, FUN’, saying they ‘would recommend it to anyone.’

Other students thought that immersive VR had the potential to transform learning in the classroom:

‘I personally think learning with Virtual Reality will change students perspective of learning in a majorly good way as it gives the student a whole new way to learn and interact with the stuff they are learning.’

Some were more equivocal, observing that ‘Although it (VR) removes distractions, it also adds them’ and it ‘was easier to get distracted by VR (version of Minecraft) than computer (version)’. The distraction factor may be a result of the novelty of the experience, however it is worth investigating further how the intensity of the experience — the sense of presence and freedom of agency (autonomy of navigation, manipulation and creativity) which Minecraft VR allows — may interfere with on-task behaviour.

A few students also mentioned cybersickness as a ‘negative’:

‘Our virtual reality tasks are entertaining and more engaging than any other normal science class, although while engaging in this task I have motion sickness which causes me to finish earlier than I normally would. There aren’t really any downsides apart from motion sickness.’

The student perspective from Phase 1 of the VR School project has yielded several ‘leads’ to be explored during phase 2 of the study which will be conducted in the first half of 2018. Harnessing student enthusiasm for immersive VR for increased on-task learning is vital if the technology is to enhance education.

Furthermore, as part of the project we screened for potential susceptibility to cybersickness and educated students about the condition, actively checking on their well-being while they were in VR. Students themselves exhibited good awareness of cybersickness and appeared to monitor how they were feeling during the VR experience, with most opting to get out at the first signs of discomfort. While there were a very few cases of cybersickness witnessed by the team, we will more closely examine the phenomenon from the student perspective during phase 2 of the project.

 

Associate Professor Erica Southgate on behalf of the awesomeness which is VR School team.

 

Photo: m.i.m.i ‘Shout!’ https://flic.kr/p/aCcip5

The spiders are coming! VR guardian systems are not always enough

Fully immersive VR is a truly embodied experience. You move and interact with virtual objects and characters and, if the virtual environment is networked, with other players. It’s not like watching a movie, it’s like being in it and you can make things happen. This feeling of ‘being there’ in the virtual world is called presence or, when you are with others, social presence.

Immersive VR systems (Oculus Rift or HTC Vive) are designed so that the user is ‘protected’ or ‘contained’ by a virtual Guardian or Chaperone system. These systems consist of a 3D grid cage which pops up when the user strays beyond the safe, object free area that they have set up when configuring the equipment (see the screenshot below for Oculus Rift). Guardian systems temporarily break the sense of immersive presence by providing a visual cue that the user needs to move back into the safe zone.

Guardian system pic for blog

During phase 1 of the VR School Project, we observed that students moved in very different ways especially in Minecraft VR where there is a great deal of autonomy in the open world game.

Some students moved very little, favoring small hand gestures and head movements and minor body rotations. Others rotated a lot but within a fairly restricted footprint but moved their heads, hands and arms more freely. There were also students who were very kinetic; they danced, boxed, galloped on the spot on virtual horses, waved their arms around, crouched down, kicked and repeatedly rotated, often getting the tether (which attaches the headset to the laptop) wrapped around their bodies.

All students in VR needed supervision, even the less active movers. In the VR School project, either the researcher or another students acted as a ‘spotter’. The spotter’s role was to make sure that the students in VR did not collide with objects or student spectators. This role was necessary because the engineered solution to safety, in this case the Guardian system, was sometimes ‘ignored’ by students. I have put the word ‘ignored’ in quote marks because it did not appear that students consciously put themselves at risk of bumping into objects. Rather, some students appeared to be so immersed that they automatically continued their actions outside of the safe area and seemed surprised when the spotter told them they were too close to objects and needed reorientation.

Furthermore, it appeared that the intensity of immersive VR could occasionally trigger a flight or fright response. For example, on one occasion when using the survival mode of Minecraft VR, a student was violently startled when spiders began to approach her. She began to crab-walk sideways at speed and the researcher had to speak loudly to her and place a hand on her shoulder to stop her running off.

There is certainly much more research that needs to be done on the adequacy of Guardian systems in breaking intense feelings of presence in VR, especially for those who are new to the experience but also in relation to startle responses. Some research suggests that young people can become so immersed in virtual and augmented reality environments that they enact unsafe behaviour due to a lack of awareness.

In most cases the Guardian system combined with the physical sensation of being tethered broke the feeling of presence enough so that student regulated their own safety in VR. The current version of the Oculus Rift is tethered, however the new Oculus Go is not. There are certainly safety issue to be explored with untethered design and practical and duty of care issues regarding the need for constant supervision of students who are in immersive VR. Much more public discussion regarding these issues is required.

 

Associate Professor Erica Southgate

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