Oculus Rift in the classroom: Immersive education's next level

The popularity of immersive education is growing. But as cool and cutting-edge as the technology is, is a virtual reality environment conducive to learning?

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Barbara Mikolajczak is an information technology professor at Boston College who teaches a 4th to 6th grade after-school “immersive education” class in which virtual reality, game-based learning and immersive environments are used as teaching techniques.

A year ago, she started adapting the popular video game Minecraft, in which players build things, to teach her students how, for instance, to make a torch, which they need in the game. They learn where wood, coal and flint come from and obtain them.

“They’re going through the scientific method, essentially — okay, now that we have all the ingredients, what amounts do we need to [make fire]? Can we create it? Will this work? Can we repeat the process? It’s a lot more fun for them, as opposed to a teacher saying, this is what the process is, and reading it from a textbook,” she says. The kids get so excited that they will holler across the lab “You gotta see what I created!” 

Since the 1990s, different forms of immersive education have crept into the classroom, with simulations being used in medical school and the military, and gaming, such as Minecraft, being used in K-12 to teach a variety of subjects ranging from American history to space travel to arts and culture. Such learning could soon reach another level with the arrival of headsets like the Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus, in which students don’t look at two-dimensional screens but perceive themselves to be in all-encompassing virtual worlds.

Aaron E. Walsh, director of the Immersive Education Initiative, a 7,000-member non-profit consortium of colleges, universities and companies developing standards and best practices for virtual reality-based learning, says though the first virtual reality headsets came about in the 1990s, “[for] every one of these immersive technologies, it takes decades of refinement and enhancement before it gets to a point where it’s actually viable.” He believes the arrival of the Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus, both expected to be priced at a few hundred dollars, signal the crossing of that threshold for headsets. Over time, they could be more cost-effective, than, say, field trips.

While there are multiple hurdles to adoption of headsets in classrooms — mainly bandwidth and price — educators are already thinking up new ways to take advantage of such technology. One Kansas City Public Library program funded by Google and Mozilla will launch as soon as its Oculus Rift headsets arrive at the three library branches selected, all of which are located in areas where resident youth tend to have little to no connectivity in the home.

Because Kansas City is one of the cities to enjoy Google Fiber’s 1 Gigabit-per-second Internet service, the library project is meant to showcase the capabilities of Internet that’s 100 times faster than average broadband. It uses the combination of Oculus Rift and Minecraft (unofficially dubbed Minecrift) to allow the students to re-imagine their neighborhoods. The idea for the project came out of a discussion between Marcus Brown, the digital youth engagement associate, and a student who was wondering why his neighborhood didn’t have the sort of upscale restaurants or shopping he saw in other areas of town. 

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Though the headsets haven’t arrived yet, the students are already using Minecraft alone to build existing aspects of the community such as the library and its environs, plus deciding on what new structures they want to include — from hospitals to roller coasters. The headsets will be “where they get that immersive component, so they can interact in a first-person experience with the world, so it’ll be a community where they’re building things up, where there’s game play involved, where there’s goods and services exchanged,” says Brown. They will also enable real-time interaction between remote participants in the three branches.

But as cool and cutting-edge as the technology is, is a virtual reality environment conducive to learning?

“To harken back to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message,” says Rabindra Ratan, a Michigan State University professor who studies the psychological experience of video games and other interactive environments. “So in the case of the Oculus Rift, there is a higher level of presence or telepresence in the psychological experience of the medium, which is good for learning because it makes people pay attention and directs attention in ways that are more deliberate.”

But a headset or any kind of hardware isn’t enough on its own, he says. Educational software must be designed to take advantage of the way the mind learns. For instance, will the software or the game capitalize on the concept of presence — making people feel as though certain objects or occurrences in the environment are important for their survival? If so, “you can use the mechanics in this world to induce attention which leads to learning,” he says.

Another aspect that could be built into such software is called transformed social interaction (TSI) which makes it possible for the players in the world to interact in ways that are impossible in real life. So for instance, to take advantage of the fact that people are more likely to pay attention if someone is looking them in the eye, the game can make each player feel like another player (such as the teacher) is looking right at them, when in real life, a teacher would only be able to hold the gaze of one student at a time.

To take advantage of the fact that people are more likely to pay attention if someone is looking them in the eye, the game can make each player feel like another player (such as the teacher) is looking right at them, when in real life, a teacher would only be able to hold the gaze of one student at a time.

Another way the software can use TSI is by having a teacher mimic the head movements of the student as the student is talking, or by making the teacher look slightly more like the student — techniques that have been shown to make the mimicked person like the other person more. “Social learning happens when people think they’re similar to the people they’re learning from,” says Ratan. So, a virtual teaching environment could use one audio track, but tailor the teacher’s movements or physiognomy for each student.

Ratan, who researches how avatars affect behavior, said that after the environment and social interactions, the self, in the form of an avatar, “the medium within the medium,” can also be used to cultivate learning. For instance, researchers have noticed what’s called a Proteus effect, which occurs when players engage in the behaviors associated with their avatar. For instance, people with taller avatars negotiate more aggressively, those with attractive avatars stand closer to people in the virtual environment, people with older avatars choose longer-term investment portfolios, etc. So students who choose a superhero avatar might exhibit selflessness, strength and pro-social behaviors. “We might expect them to help out their classmates more, post study guides for them, stuff like that,” Ratan says.

Though it’s too soon to tell, one open question is how well immersive education can teach abstract concepts. Ratan says some research suggests that the visual nature of virtual reality environments is good for teaching more concrete things. “But if the environment is focused too much on immersion at the concrete level, it might impede thinking at the abstract level,” he says. So a virtual world might be able to show the textures of various rocks in great detail, but too much sensory stimulation might detract from more abstract geological concepts like the rock cycle. However, he says some preliminary research shows that having the virtual environment switch back and forth between concrete representations of, say, a rock, to abstract representations of geological concepts could facilitate abstract learning.

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Indeed the inherent adaptability of virtual environments means they can be made useful for teaching rote and creative skills, says Ratan. For example, a virtual environment that has a tooth and a training tool is an excellent way to learn how to practice and refine a skill like performing a root canal. And so-called “sandbox” virtual environments, like Minecraft and Second Life, in which people create things and there are few prescripted rules of user behavior, are conducive to deeper, more creative learning. 

Although the Kansas City library is starting with this community-building project, Brown has personally experienced several other educational applications for the Oculus Rift, such as a Virtual Museum of Harlem in which he could hear poetry readings, go to music clubs and see artwork from the Harlem Renaissance period. Boston’s Mikolajczak has used Minecraft to teach aspects of American history like Boston Freedom Trail.

But ultimately, how well educators are able to take advantage of virtual environments remains to be seen. “I could imagine a dystopian world in which only the rich kids go on field trips, whereas the have-nots are forced to view things in virtual environments,” says Ratan. On the other hand, he can envision a utopian world in which virtual field trips make education more accessible to everyone. As technology advances and the obstacles of bandwidth and price fall away, we’ll see what happens next.

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