Taking teaching into the virtual world

Imagine sitting with a dozen other students in a classroom in Wellington, waiting for a lecturer in another part of the world to begin the class. This isn’t unusual by itself but imagine that all of you have Head-Mounted Display VR (HMD-VR) sets – headsets that allow you, students in Wellington, to experience a virtual lecture as if you are actually in the same room as the lecturer. This is the experience virtual reality can offer.

The first time around, wearing a high-quality HMD-VR set can be similar to being in a daydream, as if a person is transported to a whole new place and is removed from their body and current surroundings. Similarly, having someone join you as an avatar in VR is like walking into a dream, except this is a place where one can have real conversations, create memories and where emotionally significant interactions can take place. 

Science fiction has been talking about living and learning in virtual worlds for decades. With virtual and augmented reality headsets becoming more accessible to consumers today, universities across the world are poised to embrace the power of teaching in virtual worlds.

The first wave of teaching in virtual worlds was in Second Life, a tool that was merely a window into a game-like virtual world. Great for some, but not fundamentally different to video conferencing.  

HMD-VR sets, on the other hand, allow a lecturer to stand in an empty classroom and play catch with a student thousands of kilometres away. The interaction is no longer a window to where someone else is – rather, you are both present in a new, virtual space. And that sense of presence in a new space is remarkable. The tangibility of such an experience becomes more apparent in some of the current research involving VR – for instance, there is an ongoing study that explores how this sense of being removed from one’s immediate surroundings can help women manage pain during labour.

The experience of building, collaborating and teaching in such virtual spaces changes the way we think about connection and engagement. In fact, game engines like Unreal allow students and lecturers to create virtual classrooms. By creating the environment they study in, students have the opportunity to edit the code of the ‘classroom’ they are in. This feature, which allows students to demonstrate their coursework, is a unique experience.

As VR evolves into a reality in more classrooms, we, as the teaching community, would do well to remain cognisant of certain features of the medium.

A hundred percent of attention: of attention: In the modern world, attention is a scarce and valuable resource. When a student puts on an HMD you have all of their attention. This is a rare situation for millennials. Teaching staff must respect the value of that time and have targeted, high-throughput content for the students. The sessions must be short and impactful.

Great for some, not for all: By virtue of its format, the virtual world is fantastic for some types of learning and sharing. If the content is information-dense or requires people to manage complex information at their own pace, VR is not the optimal solution. As a tool, VR can be fantastic if used appropriately, but can become cumbersome if used without a clear purpose. 

Head and hands are enough: Often in user testing, players want more realistic avatars. However, using just the head and hands can be very effective in VR – with just these, you do not have the ‘uncanny valley’ of interaction, where things are very close to realistic but somehow disturbingly wrong. Seeing a head and hands is enough to recognise different students, aspects of mood and even see body-mimicking from traditional body language psychology. The ability to recognise people by the way they move is enough to trigger that sense of recognition of the person rather than merely a face.

We are in charge: The ability to choose what is rendered is very interesting from a creative perspective. We are not limited by the rules of the physical world. So a lecturer could have a talking stick that gives him/her priority rendering for all the students. No one can block your vision of the speaker, as other students can be made transparent. If the lecturer hands the virtual stick to a student, the student benefits from the special status and everyone can see them. There is no need for a stage or tiered seats to see over people’s heads. We can all stand close together without being in the way.  

VR can also play a key role in the sustainability challenge we face today, as it allows us to engage with New Zealand’s pronounced distance very effectively. With the ideal mix of creativity and technology required to create engaging, virtual worlds, Wellington has the perfect ecosystem to build on the potential VR offers.

Although VR may feel like a gimmick to many, it will continue to evolve as an important part of the future of entertainment and education. In reality, it can offer truly transformational learning experiences for students, so long as education evolves sufficiently enough to leverage its power.

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