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.
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 article was first published by the Australian Association for Research in Education (29 June, 2020). I’m sharing it here because it highlights some interesting findings from the book.
Virtual Reality in school education: Australia leads the way with groundbreaking research
By Erica Southgate
In 2016, I attended a meeting and fortuitously sat next to the (now retired) principal of Callaghan College who asked me what type of research I’d like to do in schools. At the time a new high-end, highly immersive type of virtual reality (VR) hardware called the Oculus Rift had been released. This type of VR equipment was costly and needed an expensive computer to run but offered entry into amazing worlds. It provided high fidelity environments to be explored through gestural interaction via controllers that allowed you to use your virtual hands to interact with virtual objects and avatars (either other people or computer characters) and navigate in ways that felt incredibly embodied (I am addicted to flying and jumping off clouds in VR).
I made a gentle pitch that I’d like to work with teachers to embed this technology into classrooms to see how it could be used for learning but that I had no idea what we might find. And so began the VR School Study, a collaboration with Callaghan College and later, Dungog High School, both government high schools in NSW, Australia. It became the first research internationally to embed high-end VR in school classrooms.
VR School Study
The VR School Study is ongoing participatory research that aims to explore the use of immersive virtual reality in real classrooms. We focus on how VR can be used to enhance learning, its relationship to curriculum, and its implications for pedagogy. And we examine all the practical, ethical and safety issues that come with integrating emerging technology in classrooms. At the end 2018, the study reached a major milestone with the completion of two major case studies into the use of the technology in secondary schools.
An ‘arduous’ adventure in emerging technology
IN 2018, on the last day of research at Callaghan College, I interviewed two teachers about what it was like to embed an emerging technology in the classroom. The response was, ‘Arduous comes to mind.’ While we did have a laugh, the comment summed up a range of issues encountered during the research.
Space to accommodate VR and safety concerns
Trying to find an available classroom space large enough to accommodate the play areas needed for this VR, which is best used standing and moving around, proved difficult. On one campus we managed to get a room with a small storeroom off it that squeezed in three sets of VR equipment with play areas while at the other we had a larger former lab-preparation room attached to a classroom. Both VR rooms were beyond the immediate supervisory gaze of the teacher and so required me or a student to act as a safety ‘spotter’ to ensure there were no collisions with walls, furniture or peers. Even though there is a built in ‘Guardian System’ (a pop-up virtual cage mapped to the real environment you should stay within), some students became so immersed that they ignored it and needed intervention. Even now with ‘pass through’ cameras in some VR headsets (these allow the user to see the outside environment when they go beyond the Guardian System) some people become so immersed and are interacting with such speed that they can run into objects. Engineered safety solutions are not always enough to maintain safety.
Network and server issues
Getting the tech to work within the confines of the school internet network proved difficult. Game stores that allow multiplayer environments were blocked and internet work-arounds required. Teachers had to set-up individual student accounts which was time-consuming and often update applications in their own time. Our screen capture video, which showed a first-person view of what the student was seeing and doing in a virtual environment, indicated that the technology failed 15% of the time due to network, server and VR tracking drop-out. One of my favourite moments in student humour and resilience was when I heard one boy say to another as they who were fixing a server issue for the third time, “Aren’t you glad you signed up for this?”.
Content mastery and creativity through collaboration
Students were given the highest quality VR and ‘sandbox’ applications, such as Minecraft VR and Tilt Brush which allowed them to create in virtual environments without needing to code. Combined with clever curriculum design they undertook self-directed formative assessment tasks.
In Year 9 science this involved groups researching and developing a model of a body organ in Minecraft VR. The results were an astounding mix of scientific knowledge melded with creative endeavour developed through group problem-solving and collaboration inside and outside of VR.
One group produced an anatomically correct, labelled eyeball which was toured by via a rollercoaster while another built a skyscraper of a brain sitting atop a spinal cord which you flew up to interact with engineered components representing neurons. While in VR, students narrated from memory the parts and function of the brain. Analysis of the screen capture video using a framework adapted from work by Assistant Professor in Learning and Learning Processes the University of Oulu, Jonna Malmberg, indicated that the majority of students used the creative properties of VR to engage in highly collaborative science learning.
At Dungog High School a senior drama class used single-player 3-D sculpting program Tilt Brush, as an infinite virtual design studio to explore symbolism in set design at real life scale and beyond. Students worked in groups to quickly prototype symbolic elements of their directorial vision with peers and the teacher moving in and out of VR to offer feedback. Mistakes were erased or changes made at the press of a button. The virtual studio of Tilt Brush melded with the drama studio to offer students an opportunity to view their design in 3D from the perspective of an audience member, director, designer or actor. All they needed to do was teleport round the virtual environment to do this.
Let’s leave behind the EdTech evangelism
An admission – I’m not a fan of the type of innovation discourse which permeates university managerial-speak and is associated with EdTech (educational technology) evangelism. This type of talk conjures up images of momentous leaps in ways of doing and knowing with the trope of the lone (male, yes it is a gendered) genius leading the charge with their vision of the future.
Innovation is incorrectly depicted as a development shortcut detached from contexts and the years of work that yield incremental improvements and insights, as Stanford University Director, Christian Seelos, and colleague Johanna Mair, argue. They warn against evaluating innovation only on positive outcomes as this can stifle experimentation required to progress an initiative in difficult or unpredictable environments.
This aligns with critical studies in EdTech where research is on the ‘state-of-the-actual’ rather than the ‘state-of-the-art’, as Distinguished Research Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Neil Selwyn reminds us. It entails moving away from trying to ‘prove’ a technology works for learning to scrutinizing what actually takes place especially in contexts that are not the ‘model’ well-resourced schools where technologies are often tested.
Teleporting away for now
As I have argued elsewhere, to get the best ethical and educational outcomes with emerging technologies we must carefully incubate these in schools (and not just resource-rich ones) in collaboration with willing teachers so that we can document incremental ‘innovation’ through ‘state-of-the-actual’ reporting. This can be an arduous project but one full of authentic and valuable insights for those willing to go on a research and pedagogical adventure. It’s this type of evidence, not EdTech evangelism, that we need.
For those who want more. In May 2020, I published findings from the study in Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogy: Evidence from Secondary Classrooms (Routledge). As co-researchers, teachers from Callaghan College and Dungog High School contributed to their respective chapters in this book. The book offers new pedagogical frameworks for understanding how to best use the properties of VR for deeper learning as well as a ‘state-of-the-actual’ account of the ethical, practical and technical aspects of using VR in low-income school communities.
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.
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.
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.
Fire up your pedagogical imagination by exploring the learning affordances (properties) of virtual reality with our new classroom poster Infographic on the Power of Virtual Reality for Education and Top Tips for Teachers sheet, available for free download here:
The VR School Study has been a two year journey in school-university collaboration. Throughout this time there have been many moments of frustration but also of an excitement that can only be sparked by collective intellectual endeavour. Among students there has also been frustration when the technology fails but these times are in contrast to what can only be be described as moments of pure learning joy.
Sadly, joy is not something that is spoken about enough in relation to schooling, and especially in regard to high school science classes. The joy of discovery is, of course, a central feature of the discipline of science, especially after the trials and tribulations of long periods of hard thought and experimentation. This quote from a lecture published in the journal Science back in 1936 captures the delight of scientific inquiry:
“While it is true that scientific men (sic) must make an impersonal study of the laws of Nature, there is ample evidence from historical records of the joy they have felt on achieving their goal. Newton, it was said, was so agitated when his work on the law of gravitation approached completion that he had to beg a friend to complete his calculation. …Harvey (the first to describe how the heart pumps blood around the body) said that ‘the pains of discovery are amply compensated by the joys of discovery.’ …The joy of the creative intellect, whether in art, literature or science, is one of the most exalted human emotions.”
How often do students experience the joy of scientific inquiry in high school science classrooms? This is a question worth asking because learning through discovery should be serious fun. How have technologies, across the ages, been instrumental in producing feelings of curiosity, wonder, excitement and that ‘exalted’ human emotion, joy? These emotions are intrinsic to the ‘creative intellect’ and they lay at the very heart of ideas in broader educational discourses about student engagement, school climate and motivation for learning.
During the VR School Study there have been moments of pure joy. As part of a unit of work in science, Year 9 students (14-15 years old) were asked to research an organ of the body, model and label it in desktop PC Minecraft Win 10 or Pocket Edition on mobile devices, and then import it into Win 10 Minecraft VR run on networked Oculus Rifts. There, they continued collaboratively building and refining the model in preparation for presenting what they had learnt about that body part to an audience.
Some examples of the pure joy of learning stand out. For instance, the first time a group of girls imported the levitating eyeball they had built in desktop computer Minecraft into Minecraft VR, there were squeals of excitement, raucous laughter, and a rapid flow of ideas about how to refine the model. They flew under and around the eyeball which was as large as a house and then into its interior via the eye’s lens. When they met inside the eye, and started lighting it up with torches, the amazement of the experience was palpable. A screenshot of the eyeball is below and the scale of it is discernible by the box on the ground which represents 1m x 1m. The square gap on the top of the eyeball was used by the girls who would fly high and then dive into it.
A group of boys had built an eyeball with an optical nerve attached to it which the player could run through until they reached the internal part of the eye. They then began to make a rollercoaster for others to tour the eye with plans for it to extend through the optical nerve. The sheer fun of running up and through a nerve while discussing the function of it was wonderful to observe.
One group of girls had built an artery and they had labelled the various layers of the artery wall after researching the correct biological terms. As they refined their model in VR, the girls excitedly discussed how they would take peers on a tour of it, travelling through the artery ‘like a platelet in the bloodstream.’ Below is a screenshot of a side view of the artery with a pig in front of it and below this is a screenshot of a cross-sectional view of the artery with the key identifying its part.
A group of boys took great care in building a spinal column with nerve endings, spinal fluid (or spinal juice as one fellow called it) attached to a detailed brain in cross-section. In VR, the structure was as high as a skyscraper and flying up and around it as they commentated on what work was still required was an astounding experience. They had provided, at ground level, an informative key to parts of the model. To hear students talk authoritatively and with great energy about how they went about selecting materials to try to accurately reflect the biological components of the spine, nerves and brain, while simultaneously working to improve the representation, provided a glimpse into the power of virtual reality for learning. Below is a screenshot looking up at the spinal cord with nerves and the brain; the floating white cubes are lanterns to illuminate it at night, although one boy did remark they might be thought of as electrical impulses emitting from the brain. The feature image for this blog post is a screenshot looking down at the brain at night.
While the study is not all smooth sailing, with the technological hitches demotivating some students, it has yielded insights into how collaborative inquiry using immersive VR can promote deep, authentic learning. The discovery component is twofold. Firstly there is a visceral discovery in how much more wondrous 3D models and cross-sections can look and feel in a truly immersive environment; the uniquely embodied and affective qualities of an experience that it is all around you compared with looking at or generating something on a computer screen. Secondly, there is discovery in researching and applying what is often fairly dry theoretical scientific knowledge in a process of collective creative intellect stemming from collaborative experimentation with the learning affordances of VR such as manipulation of size or unique navigation techniques (flying or diving).
The study provides a tantalizing glimpse into the (near) future of immersive education.
Keeping it real – A/Prof Erica Southgate (who is still recovering from flying around that skyscraper of a brain!)
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
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’smagic
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!