Teachers reflect on 360° VR for language learning

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:

“(The project) has enabled aspects of learning as they (students) have designed and created their own (virtual) worlds without too much teacher input. They have explored the platform on their own and used it to showcase their language and IT skills. Students did their own research on well-known landmarks as well as using their prior knowledge to include in their VR worlds. This has enabled them to learn factual historical information about different Italian landmarks and has also improved their vocabulary on directional language.… Students enjoyed recording their voices for the sound markers (that were embedded in the 360° scenes) and some students also researched how to pronounce particular words. They became independent workers as most of the time they problem solved on their own trying different strategies to see if they worked or didn’t. This displayed determination and commitment to successfully complete their (virtual worlds).”

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:

“Most students reacted (to the immersive experience) with expressions such as ‘This is amazing’, ‘This is so cool!’. They were actually able to experience firsthand by being engaged in their virtual world. … (T)hey were able to interact more with the world they created using the headsets because for them it felt like they were in Italy and experiencing the tour around Italy rather than just seeing it on the screen.”

“The students were excited and eager to view their worlds in VR using the headsets. It was fantastic to see their enthusiasm and wonder at being able to view what they had created on a screen using the VRTY platform into what felt like ‘real life’.”

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.

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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