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CVR Guest Series: The Challenges of VR Content in Classrooms and How College Students Solved Them

Posted on 29 September 2016

Welcome back to the CVR Guest Blog series! In this instalment, we invited the awesome people over at foundry10 to share the work they're doing in the VR space. Back in May, Tom and Colin presented on behalf of their team and delivered an enlightening presentation on education in VR. They follow up on some of those ideas in this article about one of their recent hackathons, which focused on ways to overcome some of the challenges of using VR in the classroom.

Written by Tom Swanson

Late one Friday night in July, about 40 college students gathered at the foundry10 office to kick off a hackathon. While students came from a variety of backgrounds and skillsets, they had all come together with the unified goal to create VR content that could be used in classrooms. With a focus on learning and teaching, the students discussed ideas to solve problems based on guidelines that reflected common challenges we actually encountered when introducing VR to real classrooms.

At foundry10, we study non-traditional learning in applied settings. With all of the buzz around VR, we wanted to see how it could be used effectively in classrooms. Starting in 2014, we have been doing just that, sending VR kits out to teachers with interesting ideas and seeing how the teens, teachers, and community interact with the tech. While we started with just one school here in Seattle, we now have over 20 across the globe. This work has highlighted a few key hurdles that teachers have encountered when trying to implement VR.

We presented three of these hurdles to the collegiate hackathon, as categories, to see how college students would solve the problems teachers encounter with VR in classrooms. They were:

Most intuitive/easy to pick up: Time is a very real limitation in schools, and getting teens involved and acting within the virtual space quickly is essential. How can content be designed so it is more “noob-friendly”?

Most usable in a classroom: Space and engagement are both challenges for teachers. How do you implement VR, like the HTC Vive, with limited classroom space? When most VR content is individually focused, and headsets are expensive and demanding, how can you engage multiple learners at once, even outside of the experience?

Best blend of VR tech and learning: Virtual textbooks and non-interactive content are generally not hits with teens and reduce the capability of this new tech to a simple re-packaging of school concepts. How can learning be achieved while maintaining immersion and presence? How can the power of VR be leveraged to create stronger and more impactful learning?

These were the categories that we presented to the college students, and here is how they solved those challenges.

Most intuitive/easy to pick up

This category went to a very straightforward (as you would expect) and fun game simply named “Marimba”. Upon entering the experience, the player immediately sees a marimba laid out in front of them. Looking down, player hands are replaced with mallets, and it is pretty easy to see where to go from there. The fully functional Marimba took less than 30 seconds to figure out, and within moments testers were able to start playing songs. In addition to being easy to learn, it was evident from some of our younger playtesters, that this made an interesting musical instrument accessible to them in an engaging way.

Additional ideas that the participants discussed adding in were tutorials for playing specific songs (using light-up keys), adding more percussion instruments, performing in front of a virtual audience, and enabling team-play. All of these kept to the core idea of having a simple, intuitive musical game that could be engaged in a virtual setting and give learners access to a huge range of instruments, many of which are inaccessible in most schools. 

The real beauty of Marimba, however, was on the back-end of the development. Using special Unity plug-ins, the Marimba group developed a way to convert what is played on the virtual instruments into MIDI files that can then be exported into digital audio workstations (DAWs). This would allow for performers to play music on these instruments, edit it like any of the electronic artists today and ultimately create their own songs. To our knowledge, this sort of virtual DAW has not existed before.

Most usable in a classroom

This broad category covered both space and multiple-user engagement, tricky subjects for something like the Vive which engages a single person at a time and requires a minimum space of 10’x10’. However, the group that took this category developed a game that focused primarily on how to get multiple people involved when only a single learner is immersed. They called it oVRride.

The premise of the game is that the player is exploring an alien archeology site, and triggers a trap. Inspired by the hit game Keep Talking So Nobody Explodes, the player and their crew (who are back on the space ship) need to figure out how to disarm the trap. In the alpha of the game that was developed at the hackathon, the immersed player needed to communicate key information to the external players, who would then interpret it using algebra and return solutions back. All the while, the trap counts down, walls close in, smoke fills the room, or some other catastrophe looms nearby. The player can slow the trap, similarly using math, to buy time for the team, but the pressure is on.

In the future, this group wants to include more subjects and concepts as they only had a short time to develop a few algebraic functions. However, by leveraging high-pressure scenarios, communication skills, and exciting traps, the team was able to get groups of adults and students alike collaborating on solving math problems as fast as possible.

Most importantly, oVRride was able to engage about five people with just a single VR setup. This would be a big reduction in time, space, and monetary costs for schools over content that can only handle a single learner at a time.

Best blend of VR tech and learning

Presenting learning concepts in VR can be a challenge, as to really use the technology you need to find a way to get teens immersed and feeling a sense of “presence”. This can be difficult when expectations for learning are placed on the experience. The group that won this category created a piece of content called “A Way With Words” (AWWW) that used storytelling and aesthetic/audio beauty to draw players in, while still presenting grammar and writing concepts.

In our very brief interaction with this content, we were brought into an idyllic path through a forest. As the story played out and we met our in-game canine friend, we were presented with tasks that required literary and grammatical skills to accomplish. Better yet, the tasks were woven into the story, becoming a part of the narrative as we explored the aptly named world of “AWWW”.

Going forward, this group wants to build out the full narrative of AWWW to create an educational story experience for learners. While their initial immersive experience was focused on visuals and sounds, they recognized that this was unlikely to create presence over a long period or repeated exposure. To help with this, they plan to rely on the story and engagement, hoping to create a relatable set of characters and universe that would draw users through the lessons.

Altered Perspectives

One of the most exciting parts about working with any students (regardless of age) and cutting edge tech is the fact that the aspiring developers learning today will be the creators of content we consume in the future. As one of the teachers in our second VR-in-schools program stated: “They [High school students] are looking at VR with a more original approach to the space than I think any adult is going to be capable of for a while. We have to change our thinking, they only have to create.”

Additionally, they understand the challenges of being a student better than many of us since they are currently in that environment. This was the driving force behind our hackathon: that many of the students who got involved will now be cognizant of the hurdles that need to be overcome to see VR integrated into schools. 

We asked the participants directly, after the event, about how they were thinking differently about VR as a result of working on an education project, they had this to say: 

“It was a very fun and valuable experience. I learned a great deal and it has inspired me to delve deeper into working in VR and education.”

 “Being able to actually use the equipment gave me the experience to realize how these education experiences actually work, rather than just reading about them.”

“Hadn't thought about many uses of VR besides gaming previously, now that I have seen the brilliant ideas some students came up with I am much more open to the possibilities of VR. I think it has huge potential and I really want to learn more about what it can really do, in and outside of the classroom.”

Many of the participants had no previous experience with any VR, let alone developing for it, and the experience was as valuable for them as it was for us.

This hackathon addressed three of the biggest challenges we face on a regular basis with VR in classrooms. It was fantastic to see creative solutions and new ideas around what VR is truly capable of, rather than just repackaging old concepts in a shiny new technology. As we continue to explore this new(ish) media, we want to share what we have learned and talk with students, educators, developers, communities, whoever. Tell us about the challenges you face, the content you are developing, the ideas you have for using VR in school, and anything else that is interesting to you about this technology and education.

If you would like to learn more about foundry10 and the work they do, visit their website: http://foundry10.org

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