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Understanding Social Immersion, Improving Instructional Design Are Vital to Keeping VR Around

Internationally recognized experts in virtual reality gathered at the 2017 Workshop on Virtual Reality and Immersive Learning.

The Immersive Learning Group at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education last month hosted the 2017 Workshop on Virtual Reality and Immersive Learning. International scholars, policy specialists and entrepreneurs convened at the three-day workshop to design a roadmap that will use virtual reality (VR) to improve immersive learning. 

During the event, the school signed an agreement with Beijing Normal University’s Smart Learning Institute (SLI) and NetDragon to collaborate on VR research. Now, the Chinese university can use and develop the school’s EcoMUVE software and curriculum, which utilizes virtual environments to teach middle school students about ecosystems and casual patterns.

Among the workshop’s attendees was Chris Dede, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and a Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, who began working with VR more than 25 years ago. He received a grant from the National Science Foundation and built some very early VR models for learning in the 90s. Then, he shifted over to multi-user virtual environments in 1999 and began building and studying those. In 2005, he started building mixed realities (MR). Having obtained quite a bit of field experience over the years, Dede was approached by NetDragon, a major online gaming company in China that started moving into the education market about four years ago.

For the last year, Dede and his colleagues had discussed the idea of hosting a conference to bring together some of the topics surrounding VR and learning from around the world to assess where things are right now, as well as to develop a research agenda for the future. With NetDragon’s sponsorship, they were able to bring in experts from Spain, Great Britain, Germany, China and other parts of the United States, Jan. 13-15.

A select few were invited to collaborate on an upcoming book titled “Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Realities in Education,” which will be published later this year. Among the key items on the research agenda, according to Dede, is understanding the social immersion that can come from VR and MR. Nicole Kramer, a professor at the University of Cologne in Germany who is an expert on the social dimensions in immersion, discussed the different ways that VR and MR can be socially immersive. Panelists also talked about pedagogical agents of different kinds that can be part of VR and act as digital mentors for students “who still feel a sense of social engagement even though they know they’re computer-based engagements, or people in avatar form,” Dede explained.

In addition, panelists talked about the advancements with virtual makerspaces. “We know that makerspaces are becoming very popular, both pre-college and for college students, but typically makerspaces are where people are physically co-located,” said Dede. “The concept of being virtually co-located but physically distributed I think is a very interesting one, and VR and immersive technology give people the sense of being in a shared space together even when they’re not physically there.”

He has helped develop a series of immersive ecosystems – from EcoXPT to to EcoMOD to EcoMUVE. Through the new agreement, SLI will develop the software to create a VR version of EcoMUVE, which at the moment is a multi-user virtual environment, not a virtual reality. The new version will be called EcoVERSE and will feature a blended environment where sometimes the student will use an avatar inside of a virtual ecosystem and other times the student is actually in a VR experience inside of a virtual ecosystem.

Dede said that he has seen a lot of social interaction in EcoMUVE, since students work together in teams of four and each member has an assigned role that encompasses part of the skills of an ecosystem scientist. In order to understand what’s happening inside of the ecosystem with each other. “They each have a piece of the puzzle,” he explained. “They need to put the puzzle together, and that builds a lot of collaboration that is authentic in terms of how scientists do their work.”

Additionally, a mobile version that compliments EcoMUVE called EcoMOBILE is a mixed reality where students go out in the real world with their mobile devices that provide digital overlays of different kinds. Again, the students work in teams, but this time they collaborate face-to-face in a mixed reality rather than virtually.

Students using EcoMOBILE learn in a mixed reality environment that provides digital overlays in real life.

According to Dede, EcoVERSE will be developed over the next few months. “We’re excited about contrasting what a blended VR experience would add over just a virtual environment for an avatar,” he said. “I don't think research like has been done and we’re excited to have that opportunity with NetDragon’s help to look at that contrast.”

When asked how VR is being implemented across higher education on a wider scale, Dede said that it is becoming increasingly practical to use VR, both technically and economically, citing an abundance of affordable headsets on the market with plenty of entertainment options available.

“I think most barriers are disappearing, but there are still barriers to understanding why you would want to use VR in higher educational settings,” Dede said.

He is seeing some of the same mistakes that happened in the 90s during the first hype-cycle for VR in education, when the popular idea at the time was to set up a lab with VR to make lectures better or use VR for homework to make students do better on homework, “which is actually pretty silly.” He explained that what VR is best used for in terms of learning is not replicating the real world, but doing a model of the real world that also includes some elements and actions that are impossible in reality. For example, in the School of Education’s ecosystems, students can shrink down to a really small size to see microscopic things and even travel backwards and forwards in time to see how the ecosystem is changing over time and why that might be true.

“That requires kind of an instructional design that really deeply understands why sensory immersion is important and how modeling can create not things that are hyperreal, but things that are models that help people understand that real world,” said Dede. “So, I think the major barrier at this point is really good instructional design that takes advantage of the capabilities of VR instead of just grabbing a 360-degree camera and banging the real world into a virtual reality and expecting magic to happen.”

Dede said it is beneficial to talk to people in the entertainment industry, since education seems to deal with hand-me-downs from entertainment quite frequently. “Education isn’t a big enough market to generate something as specialized as virtual reality on its own. It’s because the entertainment industry is so interested in virtual reality that this is becoming practical, in the same way that internet games lead to a lot of the multi-user virtual environments we use in education today,” he said.

He recommended talking to people in the entertainment industry about turning academic experiences into games that help to lay the foundation for academic understanding of some pretty complicated ideas that aren’t apparent in the real world, or that need a game, visualization or alternate reality to better understand.

“I think all of the experts at this workshop felt that the next 10 years is going to be very exciting in this area,” said Dede. “Things that have been dreams and visions for many of us for decades are now finally practical and starting to take place at scale. There’s a huge opportunity to transform education and help students to become excited about the relevance of what they’re learning and to be better able to apply what they’re learning once they graduate.”

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