Metacognition and/in virtual reality: Some observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

DATA poster_Final

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

Questions for teachers to ask about computer games for learning

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

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

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

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

Serious Games Framework Poster

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

 

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

 

References are in the paper (link above).

What can virtual reality do for learning?

In 1962, Morton Heilig, a cinematographer and inventor, produced a prototype machine called the Sensorama Simulator (pictured above). It was a machine that played 3D films enhanced by stereo sound and effects such as a fan-generated breeze and a series of chemical scents emitted from vents.  In the Sensorama you could feel like you were really riding a motorcycle! While the Sensorama did not make it past the prototype stage, it laid the foundations for some important thinking on what simulating reality (and creating new realities) might involve. This included the potential for technology to transport a person into another realm, elicit powerful feelings of ‘being there’ in that virtual environment, and allowing people to experience things that they might not be able to do in real life. These are some of the affordances of virtual environments.

Affordance is a tricky term because it can mean both how people use the properties of a technology for a particular purpose and how the actual properties of a technology allow for a range of uses (Hammond, 2010). So what are some of the affordances  of 3D virtual environments that can make it a valuable learning tool?  These include:

  • Allowing learners to enhance their knowledge of an environment or object through spatial interaction or manipulation in a fully-realised 3D way (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). An example of this would be rotating a virtual human cell and resizing it to get a better or more detailed view of its specific structures and how these relate to each other. You might also put a simulation of a human cell beside a plant cell and interact and manipulate with these for comparative purposes.
  • Facilitating experiential learning for tasks or activities that are impractical, impossible or unsafe in the real world (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). For example, it would not be safe or practical to experience an active volcanic eruption. A simulated virtual experience could allow you a close-up view of the event, provide a deeper understanding of the phenomena and explore its aftermath. Virtual reality, using head mounted displays (HMDS), has provided field trips through the human body to educate on health, been used to gauge the behaviours of children in road safety scenarios, and train astronauts in repairing equipment. At its best, the skills learnt in the virtual environment can be readily transferred to real world situations.
  • Increasing motivation and engagement in learning tasks through a ‘flow’ state that results from intense feeling of presence or ‘being there’  (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). Using the plant and human cell example cited above, learners may become drawn into the immediacy and intrinsic interest of the task in cognitive and embodied ways. Indeed, there is increasing interest in immersive virtual reality as a tool to explore embodied cognition (Jang et al., 2017). Furthermore, if it is possible to interact with others to do the task in a virtual environment then the educational and social benefits of cooperative learning can become apparent.
  • Allowing profound flights of the imagination. Leaving aside the magic of virtual field trips on and off the planet and back in time, there are a growing number of tools that allow users to create in and customise virtual environments with extraordinary results (eg Tilt Brush). And, there are current explorations of immersive virtual reality as an ‘empathy machine’ that allow people to step into someone else’s shoes and perhaps even change their belief system (Maister et al., 2015). Another immersive technology, 360° video, has been used to provide a window into the lives of people living with autism.

The affordances of virtual environments have enormous potential to enhance learning but require more research on specific applications, groups of learners and in diverse educational settings. This is especially true of highly immersive virtual reality mediated though head mounted displays (HMDs). Some key questions are:

How do the affordances of highly immersive VR, mediated through HMDs, enhance, alter or add to learning experiences especially when compared to desktop virtual environments?

What are the pedagogical implications of these affordances and what should teachers know and do in relation to this?

These questions are central to the VR School project.

References

Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3‐D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology41(1), 10-32.

Hammond, M. (2010). What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education? Education and Information Technologies15(3), 205-217. http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/34602/1/WRAP_Hammond_9870626-ie-030511-hammondaffordancejuly09.pdf

Jang, S., Vitale, J. M., Jyung, R. W., & Black, J. B. (2017). Direct manipulation is better than passive viewing for learning anatomy in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment. Computers & Education106, 150-165.

Maister, L., Slater, M., Sanchez-Vives, M. V., & Tsakiris, M. (2015). Changing bodies changes minds: owning another body affects social cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences19(1), 6-12. https://neiljh.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/the-troublesome-concept-of-technological-affordances/

 

Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Education and someone who wishes she could have tried the Sensorama!

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