The rights of the child, XR technology and schools

In March 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged and school students in many countries were adapting to online learning, the United Nations (UN) released “General comment No. 25 on the children’s rights in relation to the digital environment”. Drawing on an extensive international consultation process with children and a raft of expert submissions, General comment 25 provides guidance on how children’s rights should be fostered and protected in digital environments. This post outlines some key areas in General comment 25 in order to pose some thoughts on how they relate to the use of XR (eXtended Reality including augmented and virtual reality) technology in schools.

Before outlining these key areas, it is worth historically situating General comment 25. It is part of a children’s rights-based lineage from the UN adopting the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) which recognised the social, economic, cultural and civil roles of children and setting a minimum standards for protecting their rights. Below is a poster version which provides a snapshot of the principles that underpin the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Nation state signatories to the Convention can be found here

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To return to General comment 25, the document begins by using the four principles from the Convention to provide guidance on children’s digital rights. The principles and some of my thoughts on their implications for XR in schools are outlined below:

  1. NON-DISCRIMATION“The right to non-discrimination requires States parties ensure that all children have equal and effective access to the digital environment in ways that are meaningful to them. States parties should take all measures necessary to overcome digital exclusion.” (p. 2).

Implications: All schools, not just wealthy ones, should be able to provide their students with continuous, equitable and meaningful access to XR learning technologies including the infrastructure (connectivity, bandwidth etc) that powers the tech. Teachers should be provided with independent, evidence-based professional learning opportunities and ongoing pedagogical support to assist them to integrate XR in ways that are most effective for learning across subjects and in integrated units of work. Digital divides are born in policy (and funding) failures, no more so than in the field of school education.

  1. BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD“States parties should ensure that, in all actions regarding the provision, regulation, design, management and use of the digital environment, the best interests of every child is a primary consideration” (p. 2-3).

Implications: Most countries are at an early stage of regulation governing XR technology and the development of ethical standards informing its design is also nascent. In the meantime, there are some existing frameworks such as safety by design, privacy by design and guidelines on automated decision making that schools should utilise to guide procurement and implementation. I realise this feels like yet another thing to learn and do beyond the core business of schooling; however, until there is strong regulation and industry-wide accepted ethical standards in place, it is perhaps the only way most teachers in most countries will be able to uphold the digital rights of the child.

  1. RIGHT TO LIFE, SURVIVAL AND DEVELOPMENT “Opportunities provided by the digital environment play an increasingly crucial role in children’s development… States parties should identify and address the emerging risks that children face in diverse contexts, including by listening to their views on the nature of the particular risks that they face…. States parties should pay specific attention to the effects of technology in the earliest years of life, when brain plasticity is maximal and the social environment…. Training and advice on the appropriate use of digital devices should be given to parents, caregivers, educators and other relevant actors, taking into account the research on the effects of digital technologies on children’s development … ” (p. 3).

Implications: . Teachers use their knowledge of child development everyday in the classroom. This knowledge about child development needs to be extended to include the potential effects of XR technologies on children and adolescents. There is no other technology like XR technology – It can make the user’s brain and the body feel as though they are in a totally different place, imaginary or actual, with real and computer-generated actors interacting in real time, for better and for worse. There is evidence that children have developed false memories after a VR experience. There are also child protection issues related to the use of VR equipment in classrooms and open social VR platforms. The current evidence base on the immediate and longer term effects of immersive technology on children is inadequate as very few studies have been conducted and there is more work required on ensuring research with children using XR technology is ethical. Most manufacturers of VR headsets provide health and safety information and suggested age limits; however, like Terms of Service and company privacy policies, these are often not read or skimmed over. There is a great deal of work to be done by both government and industry in developing plain English and child-friendly policy related to technology risks including but not limited to privacy issues. In the digital sphere of education policy and in industry, there are either opaque or non-existent accountability mechanisms to query or contest data extraction and use, and third-party data interests, or to seek redress if something goes wrong. There is significant work to do if children and their parents/caregivers are to be given a voice and ways to effectively exercise rights in the digital learning space generally and with XR specifically.      

  1. RESPECT FOR THE VIEWS OF THE CHILD – “When developing legislation, policies, programmes, services and training on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, States parties should involve all children, listen to their needs and give due weight to their views. They should ensure that digital service providers actively engage with children, applying appropriate safeguards, and give their views due consideration when developing products and services.” (p.3-4).

What are the views of children on the digital environment including XR technologies for leisure and learning? How do schooling systems and teachers amplify these voices for good transparent policy development and to inform classroom practice? How can schools engage in critical conversations with technology companies and ask the right ethical and educational questions about EdTech to seek evidence of effectiveness for learning and to advocate on behalf of children especially when so much of schooling has become platform dominated (often one-platform dominated)? Why is there a dearth of independent professional learning on digital technologies available to teachers?  It is fair to say that these are generally unanswered yet vital questions that deserve more than lip service from state education authorities and those in charge of schooling systems. The proliferation of digital literacy curricula is a good place to start classroom conversations. In case you are interested, here is a child friendly version of General comment 25 that can be used in class.

It is worth ending this whirlwind tour through some sections of General Comment 25 by highlighting section 42 of the document that specifically related to XR technologies:

“States parties should prohibit by law the profiling or targeting of children of any age for commercial purposes on the basis of a digital record of their actual or inferred characteristics, including group or collective data, targeting by association or affinity profiling. Practices that rely on neuromarketing, emotional analytics, immersive advertising and advertising in virtual and augmented reality environments to promote products, applications and services should also be prohibited from engagement directly or indirectly with children.” (pp.7-8).

There is a lot to unpack in this paragraph. Here are some key points to consider. The intersection between XR and artificial intelligence (AI) has hastened the harvesting of highly identifiable data from people’s bodies known as biometric data. This is harvested using the tracking and sensors built into XR hardware and software products and represents a significant privacy risk to users of the technology including children. Data can be (and is) being collected through the tracking of limb, head and finger movements, gaze patterns and pupil dilation as proxy measures for attention, facial expressions, speech and written communication, geolocation sensors, and information about the surrounding environment captured via pass-through camera technology in headsets. As boring as it seems, it is well worth reviewing the privacy policies of XR software and hardware companies. For example, check out Meta’s supplementary privacy policy, which also has a separate eye tracking policy embedded into it, to get a sense of the degree of biometric data harvesting and potential sharing of this with third parties.

The thing about biometric data is that is so personal that it can be used to identify individuals and settings. While the privacy implications of this for adults is serious, the implications for children and schools is even more concerning. In many countries and jurisdictions there is weak regulation around biometric data collection, storage, use and commercial currency for third party transactions (selling on bodily information)  despite its sensitivities. In addition, the use of that data, linked to other information collected via multiple platforms and online interactions, for surveilling, unfairly profiling, and manipulating or ‘nudging’ people’s emotional states and behaviour, covertly and overtly, raises serious ethical issues especially for vulnerable populations such as children. Hence, General Comment 25 specifically identifies virtual and augmented reality technology as representing a special class of risk to children. If you want to learn more about the ethics and implications of AI-powered biometric and affective computing applications for schools, check out the ethical framework for education contained in this report.    

Now is the time that teachers, educational policy makers, researchers and industry need to have serious conversations WITH children and their parent and caregivers about the digital rights of the child broadly and especially in relation to unique challenges emerging technologies that XR and AI bring. But conversations will not be enough. Consultation and engagement need to be accompanied by practical educational, accountability and regulatory initiatives if the digital right of the child are to be endorsed and celebrated in schools.

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

Cover image by https://oscaw.com/art-camp-week-2-lets-make-eyes 

New VR survey for teachers

Virtual reality (VR) has a lot of potential for learning and teaching. However, we don’t know a lot about why and how Australian teachers use VR and what the perspectives are of those who haven’t tried it in class. This 15-20 minute survey is for early childhood, primary and secondary teachers who are considering the technology or have used it in their classroom. Your participation would assist in finding solutions that address the implementation and scaling up of VR for education.

Information on, and the survey, can be found here 

Results will be available for free download from this website.

This study is being conducted by A/Prof Erica Southgate (UON)) Prof Matt Bower (MQU), A/Prof Michael Cowling (CQU), Dr Paul Unsworth (UniSA) and A/Prof James Birt (BondUni). 

On researching VR with teachers in schools

I recently did a podcast with VR enthusiast and educator Craig Frehlich on why we need to do more research WITH teachers, and not on them, to really understand the enablers and barriers to integrating a wide range of powerful, curriculum-aligned VR learning opportunities into classrooms:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-82-vr-participatory-research-and-pedagogy/id1333244708?i=1000580379562

This of course extends to providing genuine opportunities within research projects for students to provide their perspectives on the use of the technology for learning and to showcase their virtual creations to authentic audiences (more on this in a future blog post).

Pedagogical strategies for introducing 360° VR in class

Year 7 students at Trinity College are set the task of creating a vision of the school of the future using 360° VR as the medium of communication; these VR visions used to inform conversations in the school community from a student perspective. Before they begin the project, the class does an initial lesson to become familiar with the hardware and is guided through two brainstorming activities by teachers Jessica Simons and Steve Grant. These brainstorming activities are intended to get students thinking about safety in VR and have them identify engaging design feature of a 360° VR experience.

Students are asked to work in their small groups to use their desks which as whiteboards to write down a set of safety pointers for using VR. The teachers then guide a whole class discussion to come up with a set of safety guidelines that are synthesised by the teacher on a whiteboard. Here are some of the student’s safety ideas:

TRinity safety 2

Trinity safety 1

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This activity was followed by students experiencing a 360° tour using the headset and then having a whole class discussion about what made the tour engaging and what might have been improved. Here is a video except is from the whole group discussion on 360° design features guided by their teachers: 

These pedagogical strategies for first lessons with VR promote student agency and responsibility for safety and prime their imaginations and critical thinking skills through evaluation a user experience of the technology.

P.S. In case you want to put a face to the teachers in the video, Steve and Jessica are pictured below after the delivery of this lesson. To find out more about them go to the Team page of the VR School website.

Designing a 360° VR boating safety resource for children

Associate Professor Erica Southgate has partnered with 360° company VRTY and NSW Maritime, the government agency responsible for marine safety and regulation, to develop a unique learning resource on boating safety for primary school aged students.

NSW Maritime currently undertake education programs on boating safety in schools and are now investing in the development of this digital learning resource to complement face-to-face delivery and promote mobile learning opportunities for students.

The 360° learning resource will cover areas such as the importance of life jackets, essential safety equipment on boats, and on-water awareness. It will include a child-centred narrative and interactive and informative multi-media pop-ups. Some of these pop-ups will be ‘easter eggs’ or fun findable content embedded in the resource for discovery learning. The learning affordances or special properties of 360° media are well suited to a learning resource on boating safety as students can be virtually transported out to a waterway to get a real feeling of what it is like to travel in vessel while maintaining awareness of safety. They can learn and practice this awareness in the security of the classroom or home. The project includes a participatory component where children will provide feedback on the design of the resource.

So far, we have brainstormed and storyboarded the resource with NSW Maritime staff. And, we have just returned from capturing 360° footage as the video illustrates. Throughout the rest of 2022, we will keep you updated on our progress on 360° Boating Safety Resource. Stay tuned.

Students co-creating safety guidelines for VR

Throughout 2022, we are focused on students as educational VR content creators. This includes students taking an active role in designing their own guidelines for safely using VR equipment. A visit to Trinity College at the start of their VR project saw Steve Grant, Director of Innovation and Creativity, facilitate a brainstorming session with Year 7 students where they worked together to come up with safety guidance for their project. In addition, students also worked as a whole class to develop ideas about good design in VR. At Southern Montessori School, teacher Toni Maddock led her middle school class through a similar co-design process. This video provides a great insight into the start of the project at Southern Montessori with students working together to develop their own safety instructions. As these teachers demonstrate, facilitating powerful VR learning experiences involves empowering students from the very first lesson.

Southern Montessori School joins the VR School Study

Southern Montessori Middle School is excited to launch our VR project. Southern Montessori’s VR project is part of an integrated Humanities and Science unit based on the inquiry question: ‘How can we secure food for our future?’ Students will be using VR to create their own biome, identify problems arising from human impact, and find solutions to these problems. Students will be challenged to demonstrate their learning in a creative and engaging manner.

Southern Montessori Middle School is a mixed age year 7-9 community located in the southern suburbs of Adelaide with a strong focus on academics. We combine our thirty six Year 7, 8 and 9 students together and work in small, ability-based groups following the Australian Curriculum but presented with Montessori principles. We are committed to innovative approaches to learning that are not only relevant and engaging, but also prepare our students for their future.

Teachers Siobhan Curran and Toni Maddock have developed this unit of work and series of activities designed for students to not only think critically and creatively about the content, but also think creatively about how VR technology can be used as a tool to assist their learning. Having not used VR in the past, students and teachers alike are excited to take part in this research and to see what the students can achieve.

This post bought to you by teacher and co-researcher Toni Maddock

Developing curriculum for 360° VR

This update is from Pembroke School in Adelaide. Ella Camporeale, Assistant Head of Design and Technology and teacher on the VR study, explains how she has developed a unit of work which integrates student 360° VR content creation for her Year 9 Digital Design class:

Ella pic blurred background“I have developed a Semester-long course for my Year 9 Digital Design class using VR as a form of new media for students to demonstrate knowledge about sustainability and to educate others in the school community about this. The learning outcomes from the Australian Curriculum are aligned with the Technologies Learning Area, Year 9 and 10 band. Specifically, the outcomes relate to developing mastery of digital technology, design thinking and digital solutions.

I am dividing the units of work into three topics. We are looking at sustainability more broadly, data on sustainability in the Middle School and the VR project which will allow students to work in groups to create a virtual reality environment on a topic related to sustainability. The data on sustainability we collect will be integrated into the VR component.

 We have been looking at the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities of sustainable practice in the Middle School. This is all leading into the pitch the students will be giving for their VR project. We will narrow this down so groups of students work on a specific topic on sustainability in which they will develop their VR environment. Topics will be green space, water, waste, recycling, energy and materials. We hope to amalgamate the VR scenes each group creates to make a single educational resource on sustainability at school. 

Students will undertake a brainstorming activity on how they would like their VR project to look. It may be that they produce a story and develop a more gamified interface with characters designed as markers in the VR scene, it may be an education tool, or produced as a systems pitch. After brainstorming, students will start data collection, setting up interviews and surveys for key school stakeholders. This will allow them to gather and visualise data which will eventually be integrated into their VR project. Finally, students will storyboard and plan the VR component of the project, using a similar process as would be undertaken if using other digital media such as video or animation.

Processes of reflection and iteration will be important as students’ progress through each unit in the project, both in groups and individually.”

Stay tuned for more updates from Pembroke School on their VR journey in 2022.

SEDA College VR project launch

SEDA College in Adelaide launched its VR project on 16 March 2022. SEDA is a senior school with a focus on academics and sport with practical connections to industry. Classrooms are located in local sport, recreation, and community facilities and industry settings. It has a ‘one teacher, one classroom’ model that allows teachers to take on a mentoring approach to education.

SEDA’s VR project is part of an integrated (project-based) unit of work that addresses the driving question: How can 360° virtual reality be used to enhance stakeholder experience in sport? The project launch day was attended by representatives from Football South Australia, and saw students and teachers undertake individual and collaborative learning activities that were sequenced to develop initial knowledge and confidence.

Adrian launch day croppedAdrian Stenta (left), teacher and co-researcher on the VR project, developed a sequence of activities for the launch. The activities were designed to get students thinking about the learning objectives, using the technology for audience engagement, and familiarising themselves with the VRTY platform through guided play. 

Adrian reflected on what it was like for a teacher who had never used VR before to take part in the research and what he hoped he and his students would get out of it:

 

We will keep you updated on Adrian and the student’s VR learning journey. Look out for more updates throughout 2022.

New paper – Students creating a VR learning resource

In 2021, Trinity College, located in Adelaide, undertook a pilot study to explore how junior secondary students could create a 360° virtual reality learning resource on the science of energy for primary (elementary) school students. This collaborative project was important because there are very few studies on how school students can become VR content creators and use the power of the technology for authentic learning. Authentic learning involves actively demonstrating content mastery for real world applications – in this case using the new media of VR to teach younger peers about the wonders of science.

The team learnt a lot during the study with the main factor impacting the project being time due to curriculum constraints rather than secondary student creativity and engagement. Secondary female students were graded highly on the virtual world content creation task indicating that VR content creation can promote good learning outcomes and interest in emerging educational technology for girls.

Younger students generally found the VRTY platform easy to use and most enjoyed experiencing the 360° learning resource produced by their older peers. While the content knowledge of primary school students did not increase after using the learning resource, the project did provide promising results in shifting the current emphasis away from passive VR consumption in secondary school classrooms to active VR content creation by students, for students.

A research paper from the project will be presented at the 2022 IEEE VR KELVAR Workshop: K-12+ Embodied Learning through Virtual and Augmented Reality. The accepted version of the paper ‘School students creating a virtual reality learning resource for children’, is available in the University of Newcastle’s NOVA repository – http://hdl.handle.net/1959.13/1430150

To cite this paper:

Southgate, E., Grant, S., Ostrowski, S., Norwood, A., Williams, M. and Tafazoli, D. (2022). School students creating a virtual reality learning resource for children. Proceedings 2022 IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces Abstracts and Workshops (VRW).

This research is conducted in collaboration with, and funded by, the Association of Independent Schools of South Australia (AISSA).

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