[This is part one of a three part investigation AESTOLOGYY is doing into virtual reality and society]
For many years Hollywood has presented virtual reality (VR) as radically transforming the way people live and learn – reality sometimes pales in comparison.
Apple Chief Executive, Tim Cook, consistently touts VR as one of modern society’s most influential shifts, joining the likes of Microsoft and Facebook with heavy investment in the sphere.
Recognising that children are the future of tomorrow, AESTOLOGYY did a deep dive in our home of Australia, to uncover the people pioneering the uptake and integration of VR in schools and traditional education: what will the future look like, and what is being done today?
According to Oxford Dictionary, virtual reality involves computer-generated images that “appear to surround [a] person looking at them, and seem almost real.”
Virtual reality was introduced in Australian schools largely as an ’empathy tool’ – immersing students in visualisations – now these pioneers are using it to radically transform the way students learn.
Dusty textbooks, or interactive experience?
An immersive way to experience the concept of place in novels
Imelda Judge, (Rel.) Deputy Principal
Imelda Judge has been an educator for nearly 25 years, and is a mother of four grown children. She is passionate about teaching English in the most “interesting and innovative” ways.
Judge is one of Australia’s biggest pioneers for VR in schools, having integrated VR into curriculums, and in the process of writing a textbook for other educators to explore the “artistry behind the creation of texts” via the tech.
“VR has been around for decades, enjoying stages of death and rebirth completely at the mercy of market and investment into its development,” states Judge.
Ms Judge stumbled on the power of VR in the classroom after noticing how challenging it was for her students to ‘appreciate and understand’ how the novelist of Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje, relies on place to create meaning.
“Their experience of the world was very limited – I started to investigate ways I could show them the significance of the places in the novel beyond a simple slideshow.”
Judge became curious about the Google Cardboard icon that appeared on sites such as 360Cities, realising it could help immerse students in places she wanted them to see.
The door to ‘understanding place’ was opened, and has since been dubbed a “profound” experience for students.
“They started to consider the powerful impact that the selection of place had on meaning making, and how much [Ghost] relied on place and setting as part of his craft as a writer,” adds Judge.
“As its potential to be used creatively to share stories, and in the gaming world, it seemed more urgent to me that we taught students how these texts, within this medium worked.”
Treat text as they would a game – making choices, dealing with consequences
Leigh Morrisey, Head of Department (English/LOTE/Drama), Scots All Saints College
Leigh Morrisey has been an educator for over 20 years, and affirms we are on the “precipice of a new paradigm.”
As a leader of curriculum in their College, Morrisey decided built a unit that helped students focus on using technology to tell new and unique stories – VR being part of that.
“Visual literacy has become increasingly valued over time in English teaching, and the need to assist students in finding the best of these texts is paramount to building the best citizens of the future”
“VR allows a student to treat a text as they would a game, making choices and dealing with those consequences”
“It gives them a greater sense of ownership of the text and leads to a better understanding of the outcomes.”
Mr Morrisey tells says virtual reality helped them teach about the film Hugo in a more immersive fashion:
“Given that this film is about the birth of a significant cinematic voice, we found ways in which VR was using its technology in similar ways, notably re-creating some of Moliere’s film moments in the VR headset”
“The students then delivered their own debates and discursive writing on the value of VR in the classroom.”
A significant part of the way texts are shaped since the Renaissance of Shakespeare
Vanessa Refalo, Head of English, Thomas Hassall Anglican College
Ms Refalo is a mother of two and has been teaching around VR for six years, admitting at first she did see its full value of as part of the English curriculum.
“With the advent of Google Cardboard and VR filmmakers like Chris Milk and Gabo Arora, the form started to seem more substantial, relevant and here to stay”
“One of the key learning intentions of English is for students to understand how authors and poets experiment with, and innovate in their field, to create new meaning and different connections with their audience”
“Introducing the immersive world of VR was a perfect way for students to learn about this”
“I wanted students to get the idea of literary and textual innovation which has been a significant part of the way texts are shaped since the Renaissance of Shakespeare’s time and more significantly since the Industrial Revolution.”
She believes written text is paramount to a well-rounded education, but is passionate about students learning through digital multimodal text too.
She recounts the journey of moving from experimental lessons with unreliable tech, buffering smart phones and dodgy Wi-Fi to fully-fledged programs and integrated VR lessons rolled out across grades.
Virtual reality is used at her school in areas such as poetry and narrative worldbuilding, with the frequency of its use advancing every year: “the students absolutely love it!”
“The support of visionary [NSW] leaders has been pivotal in getting the word out and educating teachers on how to teach about VR beyond an interesting single-lesson activity, if at all.”
“I continue to find every opportunity to get the word out on the validity of VR by presenting at national and state English conferences.”
She warns that virtual reality’s immersive qualities are powerful, and to some potentially dangerous, especially as a highly moving and persuasive ’empathy machine.’
“We need to empower students to make informed choices about how they consume, are entertained by and impacted through VR.”
Body-swapping, building without code, going inside a ‘human cell.’
Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Emerging Technologies for Education (University of Newcastle)
Erica Southgate is a university Associate Professor of Emerging Technologies for Education, and the founder and lead researcher of the VR School Study – the first research internationally to embed highly immersive virtual reality in schools.
She has published a book called ‘Virtual reality in curriculum and pedagogy: Evidence from secondary classrooms’ (Routledge), the maker of award-winning literacy computer games, and has lead an interdisciplinary to author the Australian Government commissioned report on AI in schools.
“The potential to use the technology for student engagement and creative, collaborative learning is infinite.”
“I have researched the use of all types of VR in schools for learning science, ICT, drama and more recently Italian,” says Southgate.
“High end VR with ‘sandbox’ applications will allow student to create in the virtual world without needing to code, so that they can demonstrate content knowledge mastery and develop collaboration and problem solving skills.”
Southgate adds that there’s research on how virtual reality allows for body-swapping gender or ethnicity, by showing others what the world might look like from the perspective of someone differently-abled.
“While ready-packaged VR applications might be good for learning spatial concepts or transporting students to places that are impossible or unsafe to go to in real life, think travelling inside a human cell or going to visit a famous art gallery.”
Southgate states the biggest educational potential of the tech is to provide learners with their own tools to create realistic, or imaginative, virtual worlds of their own – collaborating inside and outside VR.
Whilst the possibility of VR becoming a ‘textual form’ is in progress, there are still conversations of privacy and misconceptions with educators.
Judge, who is currently writing a textbook on the professional learning of VR, believes this is a major challenge, especially as these texts “continue to change.”
“In order for teachers to feel confident using these texts in the classroom there is a real need for quality professional learning from educators who have tried and tested these texts.”
Inevitably, dependent on money for its success, it is deemed a relentless battle as the definition of VR continues to evolve.
Morrissey recognises the time and effort that is poured into introducing new technology within schools, admitting it has been difficult to garner the support of educators who are comfortable with the “dusty books from 1971.”
“The opposite of that spectrum is to ensure that what you are choosing to do has value and merit” – which is evergreen and ever evolving with the current day, adds Morrisey.
Similarly, Refalo credits misperceptions from other educators as a big hurdle to overcome, noting the cost involved.
“Teacher attitudes are the biggest challenges in unlocking the potential of form.”
However, passionate to uphold students’ love for literacy, Refalo desires to nurture those skills through relevant and enjoyable means.
“The tension between singular, multimodal and immersive literacy is a great challenge, but one worth fighting for.”
Similarly, to the eighties and nineties when film and media became prevalent, she deems VR credible to “occupy that space” now.
Whilst Southgate believes VR cannot simply be confined in a textual form, she still hopes it continues being used in classrooms.
However, her largest concern is privacy, as the latest VR technology has spy like ability, collecting information about users.
“Its sophisticated body tracking systems can collect very detailed information about our bodies including gaze tracking and pupil dilation, height and movement of the body and this is a privacy issue.”
This issue can easily impede on students’ human rights, a conversation that must continually be had with ethical governance and regulations.
Each of these educators are striving to combat these challenges by sharing their passions at conferences, writing books and winning awards, ultimately to etch a difference in education.
Whilst they adopt diverse yet similar perspectives of why and how virtual reality should be immersed in the classroom, they are paving the way to empower a new generation of movers and thinkers.