Implementing immersive VR safely in classrooms: A paper from the VR School Study

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).

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

Metacognition and/in virtual reality: Some observations

Educators have become increasingly interested in the idea of metacognition. Metacognition is often simply defined as ‘thinking about thinking’ but to understand its implications for learning we need to look closely at a specific set of thinking processes and behaviours.

These include: how a learner plans how they will go about a task and the goals they set in relation to it; how they assess their understanding of what they’ve learnt; and how they go about evaluating their performance for future improvement.

Metacognitive processes are part of self-regulated learning. This is where learner takes control of their own learning. Self-regulated learners have a deeper understanding of content knowledge, the ability to transfer knowledge and skills, and more powerful higher order thinking strategies for problem solving, logical thought and critical thinking.

In research, there are a number of methods used to identify metacognition in learners including questionnaires, interviews and ‘think-aloud’ protocols. Observational methods can also be used and this is a key component of the VR School Project.

In our project we are collecting information through audio and video recordings of student learning in the VR room at the high schools and by using screen capture to record what is happening in the virtual environment. We then triangulate this (or look at each source of information systematically in relation to the other) and code it for metacognitive and self-regulated behaviours, and pedagogical and collaborative interaction. This is supplemented by post VR experience interviews with students and teachers. One benefit of systematic observation is that it pays attention to both verbal and non-verbal action and this is ideal for exploring metacognition and self regulation in the natural setting of the school.

Observations from the VR School Project indicate the social nature of learning in the virtual environment and the VR room. We have observed five way conversations/interactions across these two realities. These are:

  1. Self-talk as students verbalise their experience in real time.
  2. Talking to the game’s non-player character (robot, horse).
  3. Dialogue with student teammates who are in the same virtual environment and working cooperatively on the learning task.
  4. Conversations between students in VR and classmates who are watching on about the VR experience and the learning task.
  5. Dialogue between the student in VR with the teacher or researcher about the experience and seeking feedback on learning task.

The permeable, social nature of cognition and learning in VR illuminates three types of metacognitive regulation: (1) Self-regulation where students regulate their own behaviours through self-talk and talk to non-player characters; (2) Other-regulation where students working together in VR steer each other back (through talk or action) to aspects of the learning task or to features of the game; and, (3) Shared-regulation where students in VR have conversations with others, both in the virtual environment and outside of it, to process the VR experience, learn new skills  and to progress the task through co-operative learning.

Understanding how virtual reality might be used to develop and enhance metacognitive skills and self-regulation is important if we are to advance beyond a ‘digital toys for classroom’ approach when introducing new technologies into schools.

 

This post bought to you by Associate Professor Erica Southgate and Dr Jill Scevak – We love learning!

DATA – A safe and respectful approach for assisting students in VR

Child protection is a serious issue in today’s society. There are laws, policies and procedures to ensure the welfare of children and young people. Schools are required to provide a protective and caring environment where student safety and well-being are paramount. In Australia, working with children checks are required by law before people can work or volunteer in settings with children and young people. School education systems have clear guidelines for teachers on what constitutes acceptable practice and respectful behaviour towards students.

When you first use VR headsets and hand controllers they can be awkward to put on, take off and adjust. Students often ask teachers, researchers or other students to help them with this. Even with a virtual guardian or chaperone system which indicates safe boundaries, people can move around in VR and come too close to objects putting them at potential risk. It is sometimes necessarily to help students to re-orientate back to a safe space in the real world so that they can avoid hitting objects (as part of the VR School project we always have a ‘spotter’ who looks out for the safety of students). When using a headset a person is either in darkness while they are waiting for an application to load or in the virtual world; basically, they cannot see what is going on outside or who is near them. It can be a bit of a shock to be in a virtual world and have someone in the real world start talking to you or putting a hand on your shoulder! Importantly, we need to be particularly mindful of students who have special needs, life circumstances or cultural norms which have made them touch-adverse.

So how can teachers, researchers and student-helpers interact with a person in VR in a safe and respectful way?

As part of the VR School project we have developed the DATA protocol. This involves involves 3 actions outlined in this poster:

DATA poster_Final

Training teachers, researchers and student-helpers in the DATA method of interaction will go a long way in ensuring VR experiences are safe and respectful for all involved

Questions for teachers to ask about computer games for learning

Globally, an estimated 1.4 billion people play computer games, with growth in popularity driven by mobile device uptake, app proliferation and social media engagement. In Australia, around 98% of households with children have video games, 90% of gamer parents play games with their children, and 35% of children have played games as part of the school curriculum.

There are two types of games used for learning. The first type are ‘serious games’. These are designed to harness the popularity of recreational gaming for specific educative or training purposes. The second type are commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games.  These are recreational games that can be adopted/adapted for learning (the original versions of Minecraft are an example of this).

There is growing evidence that serious and COTS games can be highly motivating and produce positive effects on learning.

However, teachers do face decisions about the selection of games, their alignment to curriculum, suitability for learners, and their place in the pedagogical repertoire. In this networked world, there are also ethical and technical issues to resolve.

Serious Games Framework Poster

To assist teachers in choosing and using computer games effectively in classrooms, we have produced a paper on evidence related to this and we have developed a practical framework in poster form (above). This framework is designed to scaffold teachers to ask critical questions about gaming for learning. We hope that it can be used to increase the effective integration of games into classrooms to benefit both teachers and learners.

 

Dr Shamus Smith and Associate Professor Erica Southgate, developers of the serious games for literacy, Apostrophe Power and Sentence Hero (link to game apps here), available for free download from the App Store and Google Play.

 

References are in the paper (link above).

Information for parents, carers and students on the VR School project

To take part in the VR School project, parents, carers and their child must give their written permission (this is also called consent). Details on the project can be found in the video Information Statement and the written Information Statement. A Parent/Carer and Student Consent (permission) Form is also available. The consent form has a section for students to give their agreement to take part in the project. The Information Statement and Consent Form are also available online through the College’s Canvas learning system.

Associate Professor Erica Southgate

Feature image from Tom Magliery-  ‘i’ – https://flic.kr/p/feYd9f – original image cropped.

Setting up the Oculus Rift in the classroom

Today we set up the Oculus Rifts with their controller tracking system at Callaghan College (Wallsend Campus).  The three Rifts were set up in a small room attached to the main classroom. Chris (pictured below) took the lead in setting up the equipment with two Rifts set up with the trackers on desks, and the other having its trackers mounted on the wall. Chris is a Future Learning Coordinator at Callaghan College, a geography teacher and a co-researcher on the VR School project. Some students and staff tried out the equipment with great success.

IMG_7244.jpg

VR School wins Callaghan College a Top Innovative Schools award

Callaghan College  has been named by The Educator magazine as one of the ‘Top 40 innovative schools in Australia’ for the VR School project. VR School is a partnership between the College and the University of Newcastle’s Digital Identity, Curation and Education (DICE) research network. The project uses the Oculus Rift to provide immersive learning experiences for Year 9 students in science and is producing world-first ethical, health and safety, and pedagogical resources for the use of immersive virtual reality in real classrooms. Impacts on student learning are also being evaluated.

Callaghan College has previously been recognised as a top innovative school by The Educator for its whole of College professional learning in 21st Century pedagogy (2015), and the design, development and implementation of a National first program in Certificate III Aviation – Remote Drone Pilot (Line of Sight) (2016).

Mr Graham Eather, College Principal, & Associate Professor Erica Southgate, DICE Research Network.

Teachers talking VR safety

Teachers have an important duty of care towards their students. To support this, we developed a script for teachers to use in their classrooms to teach students about staying safe in immersive VR.

The script is part of a suite of health and safety resources we developed as part of the VR School Project. It covers things such using hair nets for hygiene, what students should do if they feel cybersick, not staying in immersive VR for too long, and looking out for each other, particular when using VR in ‘moving around mode’ with the controllers.

The script reinforces and elaborates on the advice given on the ‘Be VR Aware’ classroom posters.  It can be found in Resources.

Erica Southgate, VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia

‘Be VR Aware’ classroom posters

Everyone needs reminding to stay safe, so as part of the project we decided to design the ‘Be VR Aware’ classroom posters.

We produced two versions of the poster, one of which has been designed according to accessibility principles. Both versions can be found in Resources.

VR School Project Classroom Safety Poster_Accessible

Emojis representing specific safety aspects, combined with simple text, allow students with lower literacy levels to understand the safety messages. For learners with good literacy, the use of visual representation with text allows for a dual coding of the information during cognition, helping the learner to better recall the message.

The accessible version has the black background. It reflects advice from Vision Australia and the UK Government. The text used in the posters is predominately Verdana, a Sans Serif font, which is ideal for readability.

 

We used plain English, avoiding colloquialisms and complicated phrasing. The text colour is white for maximum contrast against the black background. To test this we used the colour contrast check available at snook.ca. The background is simple and black to provide a contrast with the white text. Complicated backgrounds are not recommended for accessibility purposes. Black was used as it allows the simple colours of the emojis to stand out. It is also recommended for use for people who are colour blind. The tool available at vischeck.com was used to test this.

Please let us know what you think of the posters or if you use them.

Accessibility resources

Vischeck site

Vision Australia accessibility advice

Penn State University accessibility advice

UK Government accessibility advice

 

Erica Southgate, VR Enthusiast and Associate Professor of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia

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