This post reports on Athelstone School teachers’ views on using VRTY, a 360° content creation platform, for learning Italian with primary (elementary) school students. To catch-up on the research go here and here.
Language teachers Jo Romeo and Angelica Cardone provided extensive reflections in video and written form throughout the study. They noted that most students were engaged in the learning task of creating their virtual tour of Italy and incorporate the mandated Italian directional language and greetings. Teachers were particularly pleased to see less technologically confident students gain skills by collaborating with their peers either in pairs to create one virtual world or through peer-to-peer interaction more generally.
Teacher written reflections suggested that throughout the unit of work students were developing the Deeper Learning capacities of effective communication and problem solving through self-directed learning and an academic mindset featuring persistence when confronted with a range of difficulties:
Throughout the research, teachers learnt about the potential of immersive storytelling for language learning and students learnt about this too, guided by a mix of instructional strategies and creative processes. Instructional strategies included explicit teaching, scaffolding of student independent research and student production of different types of interactive media in Italian and English to be embedded in the scenes of their virtual Italian tour. After students had created several interconnected 360° scenes, teachers encouraged them to make audio files of themselves (sometimes with peers) orally using the directional language central to the curriculum. These voice recordings were then embedded in appropriate places in 360° scenes along with other media students had sourced or created such as photo and text information pop-ups providing historical or cultural facts related to the scene.
Students exhibited joy when experiencing their 360° creations through a VR headset, as the teachers explain:
Longitudinal, deep teacher reflection is a key source of data for the VR School Study. Teacher reflections over time provide important insights in to growth in teacher professional learning, student learning and the success of different pedagogical strategies and curriculum planning approaches when using VR real classrooms.
Cover picture: Our last real-life team selfie before the Covid pandemic hit – Front: A/Prof Erica Southgate; Rear (Left to Right): Athelstone School language teachers Angelica Cardone and Jo Romeo, and Principal (and language teacher) Gyllian Godfrey. The study was funded through the South Australian Department for Education Innovative Language Program Grant.
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.
This post provides a snapshot of some of the ways the VR School Study researches the use of VR in schools, with the framework also applicable to other formal educational contexts. VR School is an ongoing multi-site study that employs a mixed-methodology (qualitative and quantitative) approach to research. The study is premised on a multi-perspectival conceptual of education with and in VR. The diagram below outlines some of the key areas that are explored in the research.
Each of these areas prompts a range of questions about virtual reality for education. The table below highlights some of these questions with associated methods for collecting data that might shed light on them.
How can teachers leverage the signature pedagogies of their subject areas/disciplines to ensure deeper learning through VR for their students? How can teachers leverage the learning affordances of VR for deeper learning? What are the pedagogical principles or assumptions the are evident in VR applications?
Classroom observation Teacher reflection Surveys
How can VR be woven into a unit of work which includes the normal range of conventional learning activities in a curriculum-aligned way? Can curriculum objectives be adapted to take advantage of the learning affordances of VR?
Classroom observation Teacher written and verbal reflection Document (curriculum) analysis
How can VR be used to develop novel, engaging and authentic types of formative and summative assessment? How can student peer and self-assessment be built into VR projects? How can VR be used to develop novel, engaging and authentic types of formative and summative assessment? What are strengths and limitations of conventional assessment types in understanding learning?
Teacher and student written and verbal reflection Document (curriculum) analysis Achievement analysis Student work sample analysis
How can students use VR to demonstrate content mastery, collaboration and communication skills, new conceptual understandings, problem-solving skills, metacognition and an academic mindset? What is the student experience of learning through and in VR? How can students move beyond the novel effect of new technology to develop deeper learning?
Surveys Student work sample analysis Student and teacher written and verbal reflection Achievement analysis Student talk and behavioural analysis Observation
Teacher professional learning
What is the teacher experience of learning to use an emerging technology in the classroom? What types of formal professional learning, expert and peer support do teachers require? How do teachers learn from each other and students during VR projects?
Teacher written and verbal reflection Observation Survey
Ethics and safety
What are the ethical, legal, safety and child development issues related to using VR in classrooms?
Document analysis Observation and testing Surveys and experiments (cross-sectional and longitudinal)
Organisational arrangements and culture
What are the technical, practical and organisational enablers and barriers to embedding VR in classrooms in a curriculum-aligned way? What conditions are required for pedagogical risk taking using an emerging technology? How does the culture of the school support or impede innovation?
Teacher and student written and verbal reflection Observation Survey Document analysis
While these are only some of the questions and approaches to data collection that the VR School study is exploring across primary and secondary schools and in different subject areas, it is worth noting that there is a commitment to participatory research: That is research with teachers and students, not on them. Elevating the knowledges of teachers and students will be key to understanding where VR fits best in education and in scaling up immersive learning in schools.
Developing units of work that allow for student VR content creation involves: (a) sequencing and scaffolding learning for curriculum-mandated content and skill acquisition; and, (b) allowing time for students to develop new technology expertise via problem-solving, creative experimentation and collaboration.
In the Athelstone School VR project, primary (elementary) school students use the 360° VRTY platform to create a travel journey that demonstrates Italian language acquisition and knowledge of Italian culture. The learning objectives derive directly from the Australian Curriculum.
Below is the unit of work ‘Persi in Citta’ (Lost in the City), developed for the VR project by Athelstone language teacher Angelica Cardone and Jo Romeo. The unit of work was implemented this term with primary school students in Year 6 (11-12 years of age).
‘Persi in Citta’ (Lost in the City) unit of work
Learning Intention – to use and develop directional language in the VR platform whilst creating different scenes in Italian cities.
Introduce the booklets and go through it as a class (VRTY student handbook)
Re – familiarize themselves with the platform and look at where students were in Term 1 in terms of importing 360 degree images, information markers, portal markers and importing pictures etc.
Allow time to work on their world.
Students to work on their information markers, limit to at least 4 per picture or scene.
Information marker must have information about the landmark they have chosen to use, information must be in English and have the Italian translation.
After information markers have been used and checked by the teacher students to use portal markers so they can move through scenes.
Once portal markers have been used to move in and out of scenes directions will need to be written in to allow others to use the world as a new traveller to Italy. E.g. – Excuse me where is the Colosseum? Scusa dov’e` il Colosseo?
Use directional language learnt in lessons and put them in their scenes.
Portal markers will need to transport the visitors to the location.
Proposal to use the headsets and phones to view the worlds they have created in the VRTY platform. Proposal to use the 360 camera for producing own images to import into the VRTY platform.
Informing – Gather information from a range of sources (ACLITC043) and represent information appropriately for different audiences using a variety of modes (ACLITC044).
Creating – Create imaginative texts for different audiences such as digital stories using characters, places, ideas and events (ACLITC046)
Translating – Create simple bi lingual texts and discuss what translates easily or not (ACLITC048)
Systems of Language – Use grammatical knowledge to interpret and create meaning in Italian (ACLITU052)
Language variation and change – Recognise that language use varies according to the context of situation and culture (ACLITU054)
Can student import a 360 degree image correctly.
Can student import an information marker and use effectively.
Student can import a portal marker and use effectively.
Student can use directional language appropriately to navigate through the scene.
Was able to work collaboratively in pairs or small groups.
Used the student handbook effectively for assistance if required.
In addition to the Languages Curriculum outcomes the unit of work develops the following Level 4 General Capabilities from the Australian Curriculum:
Investigating with ICT
Locate generate and access data and information: locate, retrieve or generate information using search engines and simple search functions and classify information in meaningful ways
Creating with ICT
Generate ideas plans and processes: use ICT effectively to record ideas, represent thinking and plan solutions
Generate solutions to challenges and learning area tasks: independently or collaboratively create and modify digital solutions, creative outputs or data representation/transformation for articular audiences and purposes
Communicating with ICT
Collaborate share and exchange: select and use appropriate ICT tools safely to share and exchange information and to safely collaborate with others
CRITICAL AND CREATIVE THINKING CAPABILITY
Inquiring – identifying, exploring and organising information and ideas
Identify and clarify information and ideas: identify and clarify relevant information and prioritise ideas
Organise and process information: analyse, condense and combine relevant information from multiple sources
Generating ideas, possibilities and actions
Imagine possibilities and connect ideas: combine ideas in a variety of ways and from a range of sources to create new possibilities
PERSONAL AND SOCIAL CAPABILITY
Work independently and show initiative: assess the value of working independently, and taking initiative to do so where appropriate
Become confident resilient and adaptable: devise strategies and formulate plans to assist in the completion of challenging tasks and the maintenance of personal safety
Communicate effectively: identify and explain factors that influence effective communication in a variety of situations
Work collaboratively: contribute to groups and teams, suggesting improvements in methods used for group investigations and projects
Make decisions: identify factors that influence decision making and consider the usefulness of these in making their own decisions
In my recent book, I provide some explanatory frameworks on the pedagogical uses of VR. While much of the public discourse centres around technical differences between types of VR (i.e. the difference between 3 Degree of Freedom [DOF] vs 6 DOF) or whether 360° technology is ‘real’ VR, as an educator I think it is more important to focus on the pedagogical utility of the technology. One way of making pedagogical sense of VR is to conceptualise its different possibilities for learning with explicit connection to the signature pedagogies of disciplines (or school subjects derived from disciplines).
The diagram below (developed for the book) illustrates some key conceptions of VR for learning. VR applications can reflect one or more of these concepts.
When teachers are considering VR they should explore the learning experiences the application offers and how this might fit with the range of instructional strategies commonly used in specific subjects. For example, if you were teaching history you might ask if the software offers a means for transporting students to another place or time because this would fit well with the instructional repertoire usually deployed in the subject area. A core instructional strategy used in a subject is called a ‘signature pedagogy’ (Shulman, 2005). Signature pedagogies are important because they:
implicitly define what counts as knowledge in a field and how things become known…. They define the functions of expertise in a field. (Shulman, 2005, p. 56)
In the case of sparking the imagination through a historical re-creation experience (re-creation being a signature pedagogy of the discipline of history), a time-travel experience would traditionally be facilitated through the instructional use of text, maps, or video. Choosing a time-travel VR experience for history makes good pedagogical sense because it leverages or extends on the signature pedagogy of that particular discipline. Relatedly, this is why VR resonates with the types of place-based pedagogy used in subjects such as geography or in professional training simulations. The technology can be used to take the learner elsewhere and its spatial affordances (properties) fit with the signature pedagogy of geography which is the field trip or professions where situated learning in workplaces (placements) are key (such as clinical health or teacher education).
Let’s look at another example using the diagram. In order to teach science, an educator might want to provide students with the opportunity to conduct experiments that are too complex or dangerous for a school laboratory – experimentation in labs being a signature pedagogy of the discipline of science. The teacher would therefore investigate if there was a total learning environment in the form of a virtual laboratory available so that experiments could be safely simulated.
A performing arts teacher might find that a virtual studio would be a great addition to the actual studio of the drama classroom because it offered a range of tools for her student to design sets and costumes. VR design studios allow for ease of prototyping (click of the controller for creating, erasing and changing elements) at actual scale and let students easily share design ideas for rapid feedback from the teacher and peers (the book has a case study on how a real teacher did this in a rural school). In this case, the virtual environment offers tools to support the signature pedagogy of drama teaching which involve facilitating the creative processes through improvisation and iteration.
Finally, some VR applications enable student content creation – this might be through coding (using game engines such as Unreal and Unity for example) or with more accessible ‘no code create’ drag-and-drop software. In this pedagogical conception of VR, students use the technology as a form of immersive media that can tell a learning story. Students create their own worlds and tell their own stories to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes and to communicate with, and teach, others.
This pedagogical conception of VR as media informs our latest research on using 360° content creation for second language learning at Athelstone primary school. The 360° platform, VRTY, offers ‘no code create’ opportunities for primary school students to create their own ‘surround’ worlds that acts as a foundation to embed other media into (other media includes gaze-activated pop-up text, sound files, photos, videos, gifs and animations). Students are required to demonstrate that they meet learning outcomes, such as oral or written mastery of Italian vocabulary, by creating a 360°world that is enriched with other digital content they have created. Students can link 360° environments together through gaze-activated portals. The many layers of media content creation entail students planning, experimenting, designing, and evaluating the story they want to tell in their virtual worlds. They then share their creations with peers and the teacher for authentic feedback. They are making media-rich narratives to educate others about the Italian language and culture while demonstrating content mastery.
One our key research questions involves understanding how language teachers can leverage their signature pedagogies to take advantage of the learning affordances of 360° media creation in ways that enhance student engagement and learning. Concentrating on the instructional utility of VR in direct relation to the distinctive pedagogies of the subject being taught – its signature pedagogies – will yield theoretically rich and salient insights for teaching and curriculum design. You are invited to follow our adventure. Stay tuned.
Bought to you by A/Prof Erica Southgate on behalf of the Athelstone School VR School Team
Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus, 134(3), 52-59.
Southgate, E. (2020). Virtual reality in curriculum and pedagogy: Evidence from secondary classrooms. Routledge.
In 2019, VRTY partnered with the Athelstone School and the VR School Study to investigate how primary school students could create 360° environments to enhance language learning, in this case Italian. VRTY was created in 2016 to help make virtual reality more accessible to educators and students. Its founders wanted to improve educational approaches by bringing-to-life 21st Century learning outcomes.
So what is it really? VRTY is a VR and interactive 360° content creation and sharing software platform. It lives in the cloud and its benefit is its ability to help anyone create their own virtual content. There’s no need to code because the platform provides its own easy-to-use tools to let the imagination run free, enact design thinking, problem-solve, prototype and create and share feedback with others.
Being cloud based, there are no specific hardware requirements to use the platform; all you need is a computer with Google or safari browsers and an internet connection. To share a newly created project, it can be shared via a QR code or unique web address (URL). When viewing a project, it can be viewed in 360°mode on any device with a google or safari browser; and to view in VR mode it can be viewed using a mobile and a VR cardboard or mobile headset.
Using VRTY 360° in education has the potential to
Increase student engagement;
Facilitate higher order thinking and collaboration;
Allow students to demonstrate content mastery through the creation of their own media-rich virtual environments;
Develop ICT capability area of the National Curriculum integrated across learning areas; and
Authentically share content that can be used across the education community.
VRTY provides online training on the platform and an in-class teleconference training session (which is pictured above). Founder, Kingston Lee-Young is enjoying the Athelstone School collaboration, offering the following insights:
“As software developers, we had a vision of creating something that would improve the learning environment and benefit both teachers and students. Partnering with the Athelstone School allows us to see our VRTY platform in action in the hands of Years 5 and 6 students learning Italian. Whilst the involvement of the VR School Study means we are being measured to see if we are truly adding value.”
The photo above shows Kingston and Sarah Lee (VR Producer at VRTY) providing online training to Athelstone School students.
For more information about VRTY or to see some of its shareable content please head to: https://vrty.io
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.
A/Prof Erica Southgate was commissioned by the Australian Government to produce research on emerging technologies for schools including current state-of-evidence, and pedagogical, practical and ethical advice. The project produced the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) in Schools Research Report, a short read version of the report written for teachers and infographic posters for students. You can find these here: