Q & A on teaching drama through VR

In our previous post we introduced a project at Dungog High School where they are using the 3D drawing program Tilt Brush in drama class. In this post, Head Teacher Louise Rowley responds to 4 key questions on her learning journey and how to use VR in drama in a curriculum-aligned way.

What is the VR project about?

The Year 11 students were creating a Director’s Folio for a contemporary Australian play called Ruby Moon. They traditionally have to create a director’s vision and explore this in their set box and costume designs. [Syllabus outcome P1.4: understands, manages and manipulates theatrical elements and elements of production, using them perceptively and creatively.] For this project, we included the VR and the program Tilt Brush for them to explore and create an audience experience of their Director’s vision. This really led to more engagement with the atmosphere and audience experience. [Drama Stage 6 Syllabus outcome P2.1: understands the dynamics of actor-audience relationship.]

They were working in groups to create their designs and needed to understand, manage and manipulate theatrical elements and elements of production. They were charged with the task of using them perceptively and creatively and this was taken to a new level of creativity in the VR space. We had been inspired by the National Theatre in the UK who created an immersive experience for their audience based on their director’s vision. This takes the audience to a completely new place and extended the idea of theatre as an immersive art form. [Syllabus outcome P1.4: understands, manages and manipulates theatrical elements and elements of production, using them perceptively and creatively.] The process of taking their Director’s vision into the VR space allowed them to think more about the audience’s experience and really immerse themselves in the director’s role. It allowed them to demonstrate their directorial vision in the immersive virtual world as well as in the physical world. [Syllabus outcomes P2.2: understands the contributions to a production of the playwright, director, dramaturg, designers, front-of-house staff, technical staff and producers; P2.3: demonstrates directorial and acting skills to communicate meaning through dramatic action.]

The project also aligns with key competencies in Drama with students collecting, analysing, organising information, and communicating ideas and information in new and creative ways their Director’s folio and in the VR space. Students were also planning and organising activities and working with others and in teams. The level of collaboration, which developed throughout the project, was a key achievement. Students were discussing ideas like Directors and helping each other to master the new software. They had no experience with the technology before they started and were able to unleash their creativity and I saw students who were less confident really growing in their confidence and ability to take a role in the group.

Using the VR deeply engaged the students in their learning. The project involved enquiry, research, analysis, experimentation and reflection contributing to the development of the key competency solving problems. Students had the opportunity to develop the key competency using technology in the study of new approaches to Drama and Theatre and dramatic forms. VR is a completely new technology and we are already exploring more ideas on how to link more programs together within the Tilt Brush software.

Why use this technology?

In the design process there is a lot of experimentation and collaboration required. Tilt brush has endless features that allow this to occur. Sketches could be saved, videoed, gifs made and photographed, and this process of documenting their ideas helped the students reflect on their ideas more. The quality of their ideas developed further. The Tilt Brush program was an endless space, which incorporated many amazing creative features. Designs could be instantly erased and then re-created quickly. It was not messy and did not waste materials. It had many resources that we do not usually have in the Drama room. Endless colours and brushes, backgrounds, models to be imported and guides to draw around. Sketches could be made smaller or bigger in an instant. It allowed all students to be equal. Once in the technology they were able to each contribute in a very really and tangible way to the group idea. It also allowed our rural students to have access to quality programs, which can sometimes not be available to them because of location.

Student 2

What is the biggest learning curve?

We had to learn how to use the technology and how to program the classwork to make sure other tasks were being completed at the same time. This was fairly painless and the students were great. As the teacher, I had to take a risk with new technology and not be frightened of not knowing absolutely everything about the software. After a while, the students were teaching each other and me.

What advice would you give to teachers?

Just do it! It isn’t scary and you don’t have to know everything. I have given advice to others in my school about trying new technology. There is so much to learn is can be quite overwhelming but is can be a lot of fun. I am now helping other teachers try a few new technologies. So the effect has been good.

 

Feature Image: Head Teacher Louise Rowley experimenting in Tilt Brush

Picture in text: Students discussing virtual set design features.

Immersive VR: A literature review and infographic for teachers

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

The report is: ‘Immersive virtual reality, children and school education: A literature review for teachers.’

I welcome dialogue on the literature review from teachers, researchers and developers – A/Prof Erica Southgate

Top 5 VR School moments (so far)

As educators it’s always good to reflect on our top learning experiences, and so here are my top 5 VR School moments to date.

1. When the tech works it’s magic

It’s no easy feat getting the tech to work for this project. It includes networking the Oculus Rifts so that students can collaborate in Minecraft VR and deploying Window 10 version of Minecraft to desktop and laptop computers or Pocket Edition Minecraft to tablets and  diverse BYOD mobile devices. The school system has a block on game stores and a work-around was needed. And, then there is the issue of glitches like inexplicable loss of tracking, program crashes or the need to reset Guardian systems that have shifted within the tight space of the VR room.  Every time we get through lesson without too many glitches we breathe a sigh of relief.

2. Students are smiling, laughing, dancing and swimming with dolphins in VR

Watching the joy of students in immersive virtual reality is worth the gargantuan effort to address the technical issues. Students in immersive VR are animated as they explore, create, work together and sensation seek (by flying over landscapes or swimming with dolphins). There is spontaneous dancing and singing too. Watching students have  serious fun in the science classroom is just brilliant.

3. Students recognise if they are distracted and refocus back on the learning task

Students remark that all the cool things to do in immersive VR can distract them from getting on with the learning task; however, most do direct themselves and each other back to learning and actively negotiate roles and actions to achieve their goal. Understanding this dynamic is important for future educational applications of the technology.

4. Students collaborate to create new ways to demonstrate their understanding of the topic

Students generally like the challenge of interpreting the learning task to demonstrate their understanding of the topic in new and creative ways; in this case the task is building biological models and delivering unique and fun presentation modes such as tour experiences.  It isn’t possible to predict how students will creatively use the affordances of immersive VR (like manipulation of scale or embodied spatial navigation), but the end results are often positively surprising (like taking the teacher on a flying tour of an enormous plant cross-section or building a hollow root system that can be traversed by other learners).

5. Some girls start asking questions about technology careers

An unexpected consequence of putting the technology into classrooms is that it has prompted girls express interest in the uses and future of the technology and possible careers in the area. Using immersive technologies for learning may spark career conversations about tech jobs with girls and other groups who are under-represented in the industry. This is worth thinking about.

Over and out for now (I am off to swim with those virtual dolphins) – A/Prof Erica Southgate

Feature image: Screenshot of the dolphins in Minecraft.

An update from the VR School Study

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!

A new research article from the VR School Study

This is the second article we have published from phase 1 of the VR School Study. This article reviews the literature on immersive virtual reality and children, and examines ethics and safety, technical issues, and the role of play when learning in highly immersive virtual reality.  It is co-authored with teachers from Callaghan College, Newcastle, Australia.

To cite this article in APA:

Southgate, E., Buchanan, R., Cividino, C., Saxby, S., Eather, G., Smith, S.P., Bergin, C., Kilham., Summerville, D. & Scevak, J. (2018). What teachers should know about highly immersive virtual reality: Insights from the VR School Study. Scan37(4). Retrieved https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/professional-learning/scan/past-issues/vol-37/research-highly-immersive-virtual-reality

A little window into Minecraft VR

Unless you’ve tried it, it’s hard to imagine what’s it’s actually like being in Minecraft VR in an embodied way instead of playing it on a screen. 

The VR School Project is collecting all kinds of data including video and screen capture of student activity in Minecraft VR. Every so often we will post video or screen capture (where students cannot be identified) as a little window into student activity in Minecraft VR.

The video presented below is a first-person perspective from a boy who is selecting materials before going to join his friends to continue building their virtual reality cafe, which was the learning task. You can hear dialogue from the boys, the teacher and the researcher. Check out his cool dog-headed avatar!

 

Students speak out about using immersive VR for learning

What do high school students say about using immersive virtual reality (VR) for learning? Student reflections from the VR School Project provide unique insights into the educational potential and problems of using immersive VR in real classrooms.

‘VR is really cool because different types of learners are able to effectively absorb the information they need to be taught. It’s also fun, and has a reputation for being fun.’

Fifty four students aged 13-15 years participated in phase 1 of the research. As the quote above indicates, the majority students were excited to be given the opportunity to use Minecraft with the Oculus Rift to do their science or ICT lessons. Some talked about the experience as being ‘FUN, FUN, FUN’, saying they ‘would recommend it to anyone.’

Other students thought that immersive VR had the potential to transform learning in the classroom:

‘I personally think learning with Virtual Reality will change students perspective of learning in a majorly good way as it gives the student a whole new way to learn and interact with the stuff they are learning.’

Some were more equivocal, observing that ‘Although it (VR) removes distractions, it also adds them’ and it ‘was easier to get distracted by VR (version of Minecraft) than computer (version)’. The distraction factor may be a result of the novelty of the experience, however it is worth investigating further how the intensity of the experience — the sense of presence and freedom of agency (autonomy of navigation, manipulation and creativity) which Minecraft VR allows — may interfere with on-task behaviour.

A few students also mentioned cybersickness as a ‘negative’:

‘Our virtual reality tasks are entertaining and more engaging than any other normal science class, although while engaging in this task I have motion sickness which causes me to finish earlier than I normally would. There aren’t really any downsides apart from motion sickness.’

The student perspective from Phase 1 of the VR School project has yielded several ‘leads’ to be explored during phase 2 of the study which will be conducted in the first half of 2018. Harnessing student enthusiasm for immersive VR for increased on-task learning is vital if the technology is to enhance education.

Furthermore, as part of the project we screened for potential susceptibility to cybersickness and educated students about the condition, actively checking on their well-being while they were in VR. Students themselves exhibited good awareness of cybersickness and appeared to monitor how they were feeling during the VR experience, with most opting to get out at the first signs of discomfort. While there were a very few cases of cybersickness witnessed by the team, we will more closely examine the phenomenon from the student perspective during phase 2 of the project.

 

Associate Professor Erica Southgate on behalf of the awesomeness which is VR School team.

 

Photo: m.i.m.i ‘Shout!’ https://flic.kr/p/aCcip5

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

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