Interested in students as virtual reality content creators? Check out this podcast from the VR School Study lead researcher A/Prof Erica Southgate. In the podcast, Erica discusses: selecting ‘sandbox’ applications that allow students to create virtual worlds without needing to code; pedagogical facilitation and curriculum development using this new media; and the evidence base for learning.
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.
In schools, it is vital to align the use of technology to the curriculum. We believe it is important to weave VR through student learning in carefully planned and scaffolded ways. This approach makes VR a powerful learning tool rather than a toy.
In the VR School Research Study, teachers designed a unit of work on body systems related to the NSW Science (biology) syllabus. Within the unit of work, students continued to experience tradition lab-based science learning and explicit teaching. The teachers developed a formative VR assessment task (described below) that carefully scaffolded independent group learning through collaborative research and creativity.
Students had to carefully organise their group effort as they had limited time to complete the task in VR. The unit of work was conducted over about a 6-week period with around 9 of the 22 in-class learning hours designated for VR (we also experienced technical problems which cut into the VR time and some of this time was spent familiarising students with highly immersive experiences and the equipment). We had limited hardware (3 x networked Oculus Rifts with Alienware laptops on each campus) and did not schedule VR time during the last lesson of the day in case a student became cybersick and would be unable to travel home. At most, 4 groups of 3 students could cycle through VR during each 1 hour lesson.
This meant that students had to be very organised with their research and plan and construct their prototype models outside of VR so that they could import, collectively evaluate and rework the model during their scheduled VR time. This entailed self-regulated learning.
Here is a video example of an internal tour of a human heart – researched, prototyped and annotated in Minecraft by three Year 9 girls. The detailed annotations and fun facts, correct internal structure with an accurate flow of ‘blood’ through the organ, made it an impressive example of deep learning using VR technology. It was an amazing tour experience, even if it was a bit claustrophobic at first! At the end of the video you can see the heart’s external scale as one of the girl’s avatars flies around it.
The formative assessment task given to students is outlined, in full, below:
Overview of the Living World VR task
In groups of three students, create a diorama (3D representation) using Minecraft of some part (organ or organ system) of the human body that is responsible for sensing and responding to the environment (internal or external).
This will represent a substantial body of work that thoroughly demonstrates your group’s understanding of the structure and function of the selected organ or organ system. It should aim to both inform and engage other Year 9 students and your teacher.
The final audience will be another group of students, and will be experienced in VR (virtual reality) – Oculus Rift. The look and feel of the presentation will be very different when experienced in VR, compared to playing on a console, tablet or PC/laptop. Groups will be required to do some planning and evaluation of their own diorama in VR before the final audience experiences it, so that it is optimised for VR viewing (immerses the audience).
A 3-minute commentated video will also be created by each group.
- Form groups of three. Allocate roles for each of the group members. Responsibilities may include research, server hosting, building, annotating (placing signs on parts, labelling structures or functions), team leading, VR video commentating, artistic directing and redstone circuit designing. NOTE: Each team member may have multiple responsibilities and could also share responsibilities.
- Choose an organ system (e.g. nervous system, endocrine system) or a smaller part of an organ system (such as an organ or group of organs and tissues).
- Research the subject of your group’s diorama thoroughly. Decide which aspects of the research will be included in your diorama.
- Create a Minecraft world that will be the server for your group’s project. This should be done in Minecraft Windows 10 Edition or Minecraft Pocket Edition (These are the only versions that will be able to network with the version used by Oculus Rift). Ensure that the version used by your group is the same as the version used by Oculus Rift for VR. Other group members join the world in Multiplayer mode.
- Build a diorama. Ensure all structures are labelled and all functions explained (signs would be useful for this purpose). Consider presentation concepts such as linear (visitors must follow a path) and freeform (visitors can go anywhere, maybe even fly). Be innovative and creative. Create new or unexpected features.
- VR testing. Each group will have 4 VR sessions, lasting about 15 minutes each:
Session 1 – Become familiar with Minecraft in Oculus Rift. No building. Learn to use the touch controls and get around. Learn how to build.
Session 2 – Test diorama in VR. Evaluate whether it is fit for the intended audience. Decide what will be edited before the next VR session.
Session 3 – Record 3-minute commentated video of diorama. Press ‘Windows Button’ + ‘G’ in game to start recording.
Session 4 – Observe another group’s diorama. Provide warm/cool feedback.
As educators it’s always good to reflect on our top learning experiences, and so here are my top 5 VR School moments to date.
1. When the tech works it’s magic
It’s no easy feat getting the tech to work for this project. It includes networking the Oculus Rifts so that students can collaborate in Minecraft VR and deploying Window 10 version of Minecraft to desktop and laptop computers or Pocket Edition Minecraft to tablets and diverse BYOD mobile devices. The school system has a block on game stores and a work-around was needed. And, then there is the issue of glitches like inexplicable loss of tracking, program crashes or the need to reset Guardian systems that have shifted within the tight space of the VR room. Every time we get through lesson without too many glitches we breathe a sigh of relief.
2. Students are smiling, laughing, dancing and swimming with dolphins in VR
Watching the joy of students in immersive virtual reality is worth the gargantuan effort to address the technical issues. Students in immersive VR are animated as they explore, create, work together and sensation seek (by flying over landscapes or swimming with dolphins). There is spontaneous dancing and singing too. Watching students have serious fun in the science classroom is just brilliant.
3. Students recognise if they are distracted and refocus back on the learning task
Students remark that all the cool things to do in immersive VR can distract them from getting on with the learning task; however, most do direct themselves and each other back to learning and actively negotiate roles and actions to achieve their goal. Understanding this dynamic is important for future educational applications of the technology.
4. Students collaborate to create new ways to demonstrate their understanding of the topic
Students generally like the challenge of interpreting the learning task to demonstrate their understanding of the topic in new and creative ways; in this case the task is building biological models and delivering unique and fun presentation modes such as tour experiences. It isn’t possible to predict how students will creatively use the affordances of immersive VR (like manipulation of scale or embodied spatial navigation), but the end results are often positively surprising (like taking the teacher on a flying tour of an enormous plant cross-section or building a hollow root system that can be traversed by other learners).
5. Some girls start asking questions about technology careers
An unexpected consequence of putting the technology into classrooms is that it has prompted girls express interest in the uses and future of the technology and possible careers in the area. Using immersive technologies for learning may spark career conversations about tech jobs with girls and other groups who are under-represented in the industry. This is worth thinking about.
Over and out for now (I am off to swim with those virtual dolphins) – A/Prof Erica Southgate
Feature image: Screenshot of the dolphins in Minecraft.
As we move into Phase 2 of the VR School Study, the team thought that we would give you a quick video update on what we have learnt so far and what we hope to achieve over the next few months. Here is Associate Professor Erica Southgate with the low down!
And how cool is the featured picture (top). It is a student work sample from Phase 1 of the study. On the left is a bluebell that the student created in Minecraft VR and on the right is how he labelled the cross-section of the flower by drawing on his research on the different parts and functions of a plant. He took Erica on an amazing guided tour of his creation where they both flew around the flower (like bees) while he explained the meaning of the labelled cross-section to her. It was a thoroughly researched scientific experience and great fun to boot!
This is the second article we have published from phase 1 of the VR School Study. This article reviews the literature on immersive virtual reality and children, and examines ethics and safety, technical issues, and the role of play when learning in highly immersive virtual reality. It is co-authored with teachers from Callaghan College, Newcastle, Australia.
To cite this article in APA:
Southgate, E., Buchanan, R., Cividino, C., Saxby, S., Eather, G., Smith, S.P., Bergin, C., Kilham., Summerville, D. & Scevak, J. (2018). What teachers should know about highly immersive virtual reality: Insights from the VR School Study. Scan, 37(4). Retrieved https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/professional-learning/scan/past-issues/vol-37/research-highly-immersive-virtual-reality
This paper reflects on the ethical and safety implications of implementing highly immersive virtual reality in junior high school classrooms from data collected during phase 1 of the VR School Study.
It should be referenced (APA 6th):
Southgate, E., Smith, S.P., Eather, G., Saxby, S., Cividino, C., Bergin, C., … Scevak, J. (2018). Ethical conduct and student safety in immersive virtual reality: Protocols and resources from the VR School Research Project. IEEE VR Third Workshop on K-12+ Embodied Learning through Virtual & Augmented Reality (KELVAR) which is a part of the IEEE VR Conference, Reutlingen, Germany, 18-22 March, 2018 (pre-publication version).
Unless you’ve tried it, it’s hard to imagine what’s it’s actually like being in Minecraft VR in an embodied way instead of playing it on a screen.
The VR School Project is collecting all kinds of data including video and screen capture of student activity in Minecraft VR. Every so often we will post video or screen capture (where students cannot be identified) as a little window into student activity in Minecraft VR.
The video presented below is a first-person perspective from a boy who is selecting materials before going to join his friends to continue building their virtual reality cafe, which was the learning task. You can hear dialogue from the boys, the teacher and the researcher. Check out his cool dog-headed avatar!
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
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.
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