Teachers reflect on 360° VR for language learning

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:

“(The project) has enabled aspects of learning as they (students) have designed and created their own (virtual) worlds without too much teacher input. They have explored the platform on their own and used it to showcase their language and IT skills. Students did their own research on well-known landmarks as well as using their prior knowledge to include in their VR worlds. This has enabled them to learn factual historical information about different Italian landmarks and has also improved their vocabulary on directional language.… Students enjoyed recording their voices for the sound markers (that were embedded in the 360° scenes) and some students also researched how to pronounce particular words. They became independent workers as most of the time they problem solved on their own trying different strategies to see if they worked or didn’t. This displayed determination and commitment to successfully complete their (virtual worlds).”

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:

“Most students reacted (to the immersive experience) with expressions such as ‘This is amazing’, ‘This is so cool!’. They were actually able to experience firsthand by being engaged in their virtual world. … (T)hey were able to interact more with the world they created using the headsets because for them it felt like they were in Italy and experiencing the tour around Italy rather than just seeing it on the screen.”

“The students were excited and eager to view their worlds in VR using the headsets. It was fantastic to see their enthusiasm and wonder at being able to view what they had created on a screen using the VRTY platform into what felt like ‘real life’.”

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.

Training children in 360° content creation

An essential part of scaffolding digital learning when using emerging technology in schools is the provision of developmentally appropriate training on using platforms to meet learning objectives. While there is a lot of talk about generations Y and Z being digital natives, there is great variability in the capability of children and young people in using digital tools for learning, especially when it is comes to creating rather than consuming products.

Throughout the Athelstone School project we have thought carefully about training and supporting primary school aged students (11 – 12years) in using the 360° VRTY platform or content creation.  In 2019 we did a pilot study using VRTY with Year 5 students which helped us hone the training approach. In this phase of the study student training was conducted via teleconference and lasted 40 minutes. VRTY personnel delivered the training, while the teachers and researcher were on hand to assist. This initial training involved a general introduction to using the platform to create virtual worlds in screen mode. We used a ‘sticky note’ exercise to evaluate the training where students writing down their comments on a post-it note about the training so that we could gauge the class’s training experience. This exercise revealed most students enjoyed the training but that some found it challenging as the examples below show.

Some student feedback from the first training exercise.

In 2020, we expanded the training and support approach to include an additional teleconference session on how to save and share virtual content with others in screen and immersive modes. VRTY designed a special handbook for students on this step-by-step process. This handbook was printed out and put on each desk for easy referral. This supplemented to in-platform tutorials and information, providing an option for students who might prefer more conventional reference material to support learning. This in-class training was undertaken via conference which we already had practice with before the necessity of conducting such sessions due to COVID restrictions.

Training in action from the student perspective.

One of the learning objectives for the unit of work was that students could use the on-desk training handbook effectively for assistance to trouble-shoot issues as they arose. The evaluation indicated that all students met this learning objective.

Our experience shows that primary school students may need different training and resource approaches to build confidence and scaffolding them towards competence in using 360° content creation tools. The training response included provision of in-platform instructions and tutorials with a back-up paper-based manual available on student desks. Once confidence was developed, students played and learnt through this process too. Multi-pronged training approaches coupled with practice and play makes perfect.

Training in progress 21st century style.

This post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate, the VRTY team Kingston Lee-Young and Sarah Lee and the teachers of Athelstone School.

Conceptions of VR + signature pedagogies = learning fit

In my recent book, I provide some explanatory frameworks on the pedagogical uses of VR. While much of the public discourse centres around technical differences between types of VR (i.e. the difference between 3 Degree of Freedom [DOF] vs 6 DOF) or whether 360° technology is ‘real’ VR, as an educator I think it is more important to focus on the pedagogical utility of the technology. One way of making pedagogical sense of VR is to conceptualise its different possibilities for learning with explicit connection to the signature pedagogies of disciplines (or school subjects derived from disciplines).

The diagram below (developed for the book) illustrates some key conceptions of VR for learning. VR applications can reflect one or more of these concepts.

When teachers are considering VR they should explore the learning experiences the application offers and how this might fit with the range of instructional strategies commonly used in specific subjects. For example, if you were teaching history you might ask if the software offers a means for transporting students to another place or time because this would fit well with the instructional repertoire usually deployed in the subject area. A core instructional strategy used in a subject is called a ‘signature pedagogy’ (Shulman, 2005). Signature pedagogies are important because they:

implicitly define what counts as knowledge in a field and how things become known…. They define the functions of expertise in a field. (Shulman, 2005, p. 56)

In the case of sparking the imagination through a historical re-creation experience (re-creation being a signature pedagogy of the discipline of history), a time-travel experience would traditionally be facilitated through the instructional use of text, maps, or video. Choosing a time-travel VR experience for history makes good pedagogical sense because it leverages or extends on the signature pedagogy of that particular discipline. Relatedly, this is why VR resonates with the types of place-based pedagogy used in subjects such as geography or in professional training simulations. The technology can be used to take the learner elsewhere and its spatial affordances (properties) fit with the signature pedagogy of geography which is the field trip or professions where situated learning in workplaces (placements) are key (such as clinical health or teacher education).

Let’s look at another example using the diagram. In order to teach science, an educator might want to  provide students with the opportunity to conduct experiments that are too complex or dangerous for a school laboratory – experimentation in labs being a signature pedagogy of the discipline of science. The teacher would therefore investigate if there was a total learning environment in the form of a virtual laboratory available so that experiments could be safely simulated.

A performing arts teacher might find that a virtual studio would be a great addition to the actual studio of the drama classroom because it offered a range of tools for her student to design sets and costumes. VR design studios allow for ease of prototyping (click of the controller for creating, erasing and changing elements) at actual scale and let students easily share design ideas for rapid feedback from the teacher and peers (the book has a case study on how a real teacher did this in a rural school).  In this case, the virtual environment offers tools to support the signature pedagogy of drama teaching which involve facilitating the creative processes through improvisation and iteration.

Finally, some VR applications enable student content creation – this might be through coding (using game engines such as Unreal and Unity for example) or with more accessible ‘no code create’ drag-and-drop software. In this pedagogical conception of VR, students use the technology as a form of immersive media that can tell a learning story. Students create their own worlds and tell their own stories to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes and to communicate with, and teach, others.

This pedagogical conception of VR as media informs our latest research on using 360° content creation for second language learning at Athelstone primary school. The 360° platform, VRTY, offers ‘no code create’ opportunities for primary school students to create their own ‘surround’ worlds that acts as a foundation to embed other media into (other media includes gaze-activated pop-up text, sound files, photos, videos, gifs and animations). Students are required to demonstrate that they meet learning outcomes, such as oral or written mastery of Italian vocabulary, by creating a 360°world that is enriched with other digital content they have created. Students can link 360° environments together through gaze-activated portals. The many layers of media content creation entail students planning, experimenting, designing, and evaluating the story they want to tell in their virtual worlds. They then share their creations with peers and the teacher for authentic feedback. They are making media-rich narratives to educate others about the Italian language and culture while demonstrating content mastery.

One our key research questions involves understanding how language teachers can leverage their signature pedagogies to take advantage of the learning affordances of 360° media creation in ways that enhance student engagement and learning. Concentrating on the instructional utility of VR in direct relation to the distinctive pedagogies of the subject being taught – its signature pedagogies –  will yield theoretically rich and salient insights for teaching and curriculum design. You are invited to follow our adventure. Stay tuned.

Bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate on behalf of the Athelstone School VR School Team

References

Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus134(3), 52-59.

Southgate, E. (2020). Virtual reality in curriculum and pedagogy: Evidence from secondary classrooms. Routledge.

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.

 

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