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

Against reductionism: VR for education

I recently received an intriguing inquiry asking if there was a standard for measuring the effective use of VR in education? What a thought-provoking question (and I thank my colleague for this because it really got me thinking). It got me thinking that now is the time to disrupt some common assumptions about VR (and XR – eXtended Reality) technology for learning so that we can genuinely work out how to best to use the tech in schools and other formal educational settings.

Reductivist assumptions – reducing the complexity of learning and of learning with VR – are sometimes evident in the field of VR for education. These assumptions will prevent us from understanding the many and varied issues related to designing educational VR applications and implementing these at scale in classrooms, virtual and real. Reductionist assumptions restrict our critical engagement and our ability to imagine possibilities for VR in classrooms. Reductionism is a hasty and lazy intellectual and practical position that seeks to simplify the multi-dimensionality of phenomena (things in the world such as this thing we call ‘learning’). While reductionist accounts of using VR for education can offer comforting and easily digestible ‘answers’ to difficult or intransigent issues, this approach will, overall, act as a roadblock for educators navigating towards use of the technology to realise its creative, cognitive, moral and social potential for humans.

Here are a five reductivist assumptions that need challenging:

Reductivist assumption 1: Learning is recalling facts and figures and VR should facilitate this.

Let’s not reduce the difficult and joyous processes of learning to just recalling facts and figures for a quiz. Sure, declarative knowledge acquisition (recalling facts, figures, data, information – the core stuff of content knowledge) is important. This is why remembering (or recall as educators say) is a foundational cognitive process of Blooms Revised Taxonomy (Figure 1) [1, 2].

Figure 1: Blooms Revised Taxonomy [1]

Blooms

Researchers often focus on the question of whether exposure to a VR experience can increase recall of declarative knowledge (facts and figures) especially compared to having the same content delivered via a different type of media or through a traditional instructional approach. This type of research is important as it provides a measure of content knowledge acquisition (usually in the short term, unless the researcher re-tests participants to see whether the knowledge has been retained). From a research perspective it is reasonably easy to give a pre and post quiz on facts and figures and compare the results (and perhaps even give learners other surveys that measure factors that might mediate declarative knowledge acquisition such as an individual’s self-efficacy, spatial awareness, motivation etc.).

However, we would be doing ourselves a disservice as educators and researchers if the only type of learning we cared about was recall of declarative knowledge. As Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy points out, we want to know if student understand the implications of what they can remember, can apply it to similar or novel situations (transfer), deploy that knowledge as part of critical analysis and evaluation, and use it as part of a process that creates completely novel perspectives and products.

We require more research on designing and using VR, and other XR tech such as augmented reality, to support learning that includes but moves well beyond the bottom layers of Bloom’s taxonomy. In practice this means examining VR products for their ‘baked in’ or implicit assumptions about what learning is – if applications only promote recall of declarative knowledge with some limited understanding, then that is fine, as long as we recognise this as only one (vital but limited) facet of learning.

We might also ask ourselves why we should make an investment in VR hardware and software if declarative knowledge recall is the only learning outcome from an app especially if this can be achieved through other more ubiquitous, cheaper technology and/or traditional classroom pedagogical practice?

Reductivist assumption 2: We just need a killer VR educational app and the pedagogical use case will follow.

Some technologists like to talk about killer apps (the one app to rule them all) and how it will create the ultimate “use case” (meaning the best way to pedagogically use VR even though they don’t use the word pedagogy). There are also educators who like to flip this and say, ‘pedagogy before technology’. Both positions are naive simplifications.

I’ve said it before, and I will continue saying it – Pedagogically, VR is not one thing.

As represented in Figure 3, we can think of VR as a new form of media that can empower learners through consumption of immersive experiences and some apps allow learners to create their own virtual objects and worlds to demonstrate learning. There are also VR apps that simulate total learning environments such as laboratories or clinical settings.

Figure 3. Conceptions of immersive VR for learning [3]

Conceptions of VR diagram Feature Image

VR applications can offer diverse types of learning experiences Consider the varying degree of active learning that students can have in different virtual environments (Table 1).

Table 1. Typology of VR environments by student learning interaction and autonomy [3].

Typology

We have a long way to go to theorise and explore the many different pedagogical uses for VR and which of these are most suitable for classrooms across age levels, subject areas, and for different types of learning objectives. I hope that there will be a smarm of killer apps that can create a buzz in the classroom and that these reflect beautiful, pedagogical diversity.

Equally, we need to be much more critical in interrogating the pedagogical assumptions that underpin conceptions of instruction and learning in VR apps. It’s no use saying ‘pedagogy before technology’ when VR applications (and other forms of Edtech) already have pedagogical assumptions baked in.

Reductivist assumption 3: VR is the curriculum

VR apps will never be the curriculum – they can never replace the complex and diverse ways that teachers interpret, enact and truly differentiate curriculum in their classrooms. Thinking that a killer VR app will arrive that will replace a teacher’s skillful mediation of curriculum to student diversity is a furphy. What teachers need are VR apps, with real classroom case studies attached to them, that can help them imagine possibilities and enhancements as they plan and implement their interpretation of curriculum for their students. We need to explore how teachers design curriculum that weaves VR apps through it to enhance specific types of learning.

The metaphor needs to be weaving into curriculum not replacing it.

Reductivist assumption 4: We need a standard way to assess learning with VR

Assessing learning with VR will be as varied as its pedagogical uses and the learning objectives that flow from these. Learning is not one thing. Blooms Revised Taxonomy provides a window into the multidimensional cognitive aspects of learning and being clear about the learning objectives when selecting applications is vital. As teachers ask yourself these questions:

Are we using a VR application to assist with declarative knowledge acquisition? Or, to allow learners to develop procedural knowledge and skills they can practice in a VR simulation? Do we want applications that provide opportunities for transfer of existing knowledge? Or select VR environments that can, in-situ, foster ‘soft skills’ such as communication, collaboration, and time-management? Does a VR app assist with developing affective or moral learning related to empathy or examining belief systems, for example? Are we looking to provide opportunities for learning that involve verbal and non-verbal communication with others for (inter)cultural understanding and exchange? Or, to provide a virtual forum that gives students an opportunity to meet experts who can share their wisdom in dialogue and action?  Do we want to use VR applications that can fire up the imagination to promote creativity and the exchange of creative processes and products? Or select VR environments that give students access to unique artistic, intellectual, cultural or sporting events?

Just as VR is pedagogically not one thing, its potential nexus with the varied types of learning and learning objectives creates a rich educational tapestry. For each of the types of learning listed above, the teacher would identify or develop assessment criteria with metrics and non-quantifiable means of determining if learning objective/s had been met, and the role of VR in this.

While commercial VR is a young technology in formal educational contexts such as schools, we have reached a point where we need to complicate our conception about learning with the tech including our approach to assessment, not simply it.

Reductivist assumption 5: Hardware choices are technical choices

Hardware choices are difficult. In schools we are talking about investment of precious resources with an evolving yet not established evidence base on pedagogical models and efficacy for learning with VR. Hardware choices are not however only technical choices. The hardware, platform and software that teachers choose will have ethical implications for their schools and classrooms.

This is a space filled with tensions and unknowns when legally and ethically it should be clear to educators, students and their families exactly what data is being collected, harvested in real-time and shared/sold-on by tech companies whose VR hardware, software and integrated platforms are being used in classrooms. Artificial intelligence can automatically harvest vast amounts of highly identifiable biometric data (information about individual bodies such as gaze patterns and pupil dilation, movement, proximity to virtual objects, voice etc). Is this data being collected, for what purposes and with what consent? Camera built into VR headsets can capture the real environment that students are in – what implications does this have for privacy?

Manufacturers of hardware usually put an age limit in their online safety advice, and it would be wise for teachers to check this too before procurement. Educators should also be aware that social VR, while opening the world up to learners also has child protection issues.

Many countries have weak regulation regarding data harvesting and the selling-on of such sensitive data including biometrics, which is usually gathered without us knowing. It is up to teachers to think ahead on these types of ethical issues and make fully informed, justifiable procurement decisions. I know this is a difficult job and puts educators in a quandary, but technical choices in this field are also ethical choices.

FYI – The Voices of VR podcast frequently covers privacy in XR – https://voicesofvr.com/

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

References

[1] Vanderbilt University (n.d). Blooms Taxonomy Diagram. Retrieved https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/

[2] Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice41(4), 212-218.

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

Cover photo by Rodion Kutsaiev: https://www.pexels.com/photo/white-and-brown-round-frame-7911758/

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).

What the VR School Study is bringing you in 2022

During 2022, the VR School Study will be reporting on research conducted in collaboration with the Association of Independent Schools of South Australia (AISSA) and their member schools — SEDA College, Pembroke School and Trinity College — located in Adelaide. The research is also a partnership with 360° VR company VRTY. The research will focus on students as VR content creators in junior secondary school STEM with occasional forays into primary (elementary) school. We will be exploring pedagogical approaches to leveraging VR in STEM classrooms for Deeper Learning and creativity, sharing curriculum ideas, and showcasing the 360° VR content students create for authentic audiences with their unique perspectives on learning through the technology. We will report on progress through numbered project updates from each school which will use the same cover image so that they will be easily identifiable as part of set.  Look out for these as well as other posts that will pull together findings across schools. Let the VR School Study in 2022 begin!

New VR research launch

Exciting news. Today the VR School Study launches a new research partnership with the The Association of Independent Schools of South Australia (AISSA) and 360° VR education company VRTY to explore how student content creation can develop the deeper learning skills of content mastery, collaboration, problem solving, communication, creativity, and self directed learning.

The collaboration involves teachers from Seda College, Trinity College, and Pembroke School as co-researchers (see the Team page of this website for bios on these innovative educators). Each school will conduct a bespoke study over time based on the same research questions. This will build a cumulative evidence base on curriculum design and pedagogical choices for powerful learning through 360° VR across STEM-related subjects.

The beauty of the VRTY platform is that students do not need coding skills to create VR environments. This makes it accessible for all students to tell their learning story in VR sophisticated ways, and importantly, share this with others. With the buzz about a metaverse on the horizon, it will be important to empower students to actively engage as content creators of new digital content instead of them being situated as passive consumers. The use of an accessible type of VR for content creation in this project opens up the possibility for all students to have a stake in what is to come.

The VR School Study is unique in its approach to investigating — in all its practical, technical and pedagogical complexity — how VR can be embedded into real school classrooms to value-add to learning, with the project producing useful resources for teachers as well as scholarly insights. The research collaboration with VRTY, AISSA and the three school communities promises credible findings for scaling up the technology. As usual, we will be reporting on our progress as the research unfolds, so stay tuned.

This post bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate, Research Lead, the VR School Study.

Happy 5th birthday to the VR School Study

In late August 2021, the VR School study celebrated 5 years of ground-breaking research. Associate Professor Erica Southgate highlights three key findings from research so far:

Research papers and teaching resources are available on the VR School website under the Resources tab and there is a book for those who are interested:

An interview about the VR School Study

The VR School Study has featured in an interview published by the Independent Schools Association of NSW (AISNSW). The interview covers areas such as leveraging the learning affordances of VR to develop deeper understanding, problem-solving and creativity with students. You can read the interview here.

Student 360° content creation for learner agency

How do children go about planning the content and experiences of virtual environments that they are creating to demonstrate learning mastery? How do they think about creating virtual environments for their peers to learn in? What are the special learning outcomes related to this? Not much is known about these areas. 

The VR School Study is interested in students as virtual environment content creators. As part of the research, we collected data on the approaches students take when creating their own virtual worlds to demonstrate mastery of learning. This blog reports on interesting findings from the Athelstone School Innovative Languages project where primary (elementary) aged children are building their own 360° virtual tours to demonstrate mastery of the Italian language.

The students are using VRTY, a platform that allows them to plan and create their virtual worlds without needed to code. The platform provides easy-to-use tools with built in tutorials and a fun guide so that students can independently learn to use the platform after a couple of formal training sessions. Previous blog posts describe the VRTY platform and how it is leveraged through the teacher’s curriculum design. The first step, after training, is for students to research and plan their virtual tour. The planning involves storyboarding through VRTY. Students need to:

  1. Locate and choose the 360° photo scenes of Italy that best fit a tour narrative.
  2. Locate cultural and historical images that could be embedded in each scene.
  3. Create their own content to embed in the scene such as text and sound file that draw on the vocabulary mandated and reflect their research on cultural and historical information about Italy.
  4. Design a narrative through storyboarding in VRTY that reflects the story they want to tell and consider whether the tour experience should be linear or non-linear (the image below is of one student’s storyboard).
  5. Create each 360° scene and embed their content into it in an engaging way and place teleporter hotspots in the scenes so those experiencing the tour can move between scenes.  

Fourteen students from a mixed ability class chose to be part of the project with 11 virtual worlds in total created – some students chose to work in pairs. Equal numbers of boys and girls participated. On average student virtual worlds comprised six 360° scenes. Overall, students created 187 pieces of content to embed in scenes in their virtual worlds, including 50 sound files and 137 information markers. The cover image to this blog post is a screen shot from the student tour ‘Journey around Rome’ which shows student created information and sound markers embedded into the scene.

Interestingly, 7 of the 11 worlds were structured according to a non-linear narrative. Non-linear narratives allowed those experiencing the tour to move back and forth between all or most 360° scenes. Students who developed a non-linear narrative storyboard explained that this allowed have the freedom to go back and check out aspects of a scene they might have missed or enjoyed. The image below is of a non-linear narrative storyboard developed in VRTY. The virtual tour was created by a female student who called it ‘Journey around Rome’ and it allowed the traveler to move between a number of historic sites with all sorts of images, text and sound files in English and Italian embedded into them which used the mandated vocabulary and other Italian. Best still the traveler could return to a hotel room and decide which day trip they might take next or they could go back and visit somewhere they had already been.

The storyboard in VRTY for ‘Tour Around Rome’ illustrates the non-linear narrative created by the students with arrow indicating the direction of travel that was possible between 360° scenes.

This sophisticated non-linear narrative approach to constructing a user experience was premised on creating a sense of agency for those experiencing the tour (or other learners). In choosing non-linear narratives some children were tapping into the strength of developing learner agency when designing their virtual worlds. Non-linear narratives were not essential for developing agency but, in many cases, were important to this.

The significance of developing agency in learning cannot be underestimated, as Williams (2017) explains:

“Students with agency develop a self-perception that is based on their abilities as independent thinkers. Our task as educators is not to tell them what to think but to help reveal their thinking by reflecting back to them what we are observing and noticing and naming their acts of problem solving. This feedback builds a metacognitive awareness that reinforces their identities as capable thinkers who are able to construct their own understandings. This mode of learning shifts the locus of power from the teacher to the student, thus setting up students as the experts in their own learning.” (p. 11).

The Athelstone School VR project illustrates how many students themselves understand the significance of agency in creating engaging and efficacious 360° learning environments.

Reference

Williams, P. (2017). Student Agency for Powerful Learning. Knowledge Quest45(4), 8-15.

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.

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