Reflections on our virtual reality projects - part 2

In this second part, we continue with the first part of our reflections on virtual reality (VR) projects in the previous blog post.

Google Expeditions

Students looking at the Google Expedition of solar system via Google Cardboard, a Virtual Reality viewer

Students looking at the Google Expedition of solar system via Google Cardboard, a Virtual Reality viewer

The desktop-based and graphics-intensive virtual reality applications that we discussed in part 1 (previous blog-post) have given way to smartphone-driven virtual reality (VR). Smartphone-driven VR has democratised the use of virtual reality as it has become accessible.

Virtual reality apps such as Google Expeditions run on a smart phone. You need viewers of the kind shown in the picture above called Google Cardboard. The virtual reality viewers such as Google Cardboard and Daydream have two lenses, and just as it with our eyes, these two lens combine the images together to give the stereoscopic effect.

In Google-funded project, we have conducted research on Google Expeditions (GEs) to investigate the role that this virtual reality app could play in education. 

Google Expeditions (GEs) are guided field trips to places that students experience on a smartphone through a VR viewer called Google Cardboard. The GE app (available for Android and iOS platforms) has more than 500 expeditions. An expedition comprises of 360 degree photospheres of a location (e.g. Rio de Janeiro). GEs enable visualisation of locations which may not be feasible or easy to visit in real life (e.g. Great Barrier Reef or Tolbachik volcano). 

Further, GEs have simulations to envision concepts and systems such as the human heart, the respiratory system, or the process of pollination.

Using a Tablet and via the GEs app, the educator guides the students to look at the scenes of an expedition. The students use the app in the ‘follower’ mode and experience the GE/VR through the smart-phone embedded within the VR viewer. Based on our feedback, Google went onto to modify this mode of operation. Now students can look at the expeditions on their own via the VR viewers without having somebody to guide them through an expedition via the Tablet.

We investigated whether GEs could support inquiry-based learning in science and geography education; and whether GEs, as virtual field trips, support fieldwork education.

We found that students felt the sense of presence while experiencing virtual field trips - as if they were there. There is a sense of realism when you can look around. The effect of phenomenon such as coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef was quite evident and strong - where students enquired higher-order questions - which are more towards investigating phenomena rather than just asking what it was. It is not possible to view the process of pollination - but you can do so in a simulated environment in Google Expeditions. Human anatomy and systems that students may not experience - you can see them in a  360 degree view and they were able to ask questions and see the inter-relationships between the circulatory system and the respiratory system. 

The project web-page has links to blog-posts related to our research on GEs.

Ana-Despina Tudor and I, with support from colleagues in Google, Field Studies Council, Association for Science Association and Geographical Association, carried out this project and continue to reflect and publish our results.

Virtual inclusion via 360 degree videos

A scene from one of the 360 degree videos in the Virtual Inclusion app

A scene from one of the 360 degree videos in the Virtual Inclusion app

The project ‘Virtual Inclusion: Tackling Hate and Extremism in the UK Using Virtual Reality Technology’ received funding from the partnership between Google and the London-based think-tank Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

We have designed and developed 360 degree videos - 360 degree videos have a great power of story-telling. We have three scenarios depicting three non-British children and from different backgrounds. The scenarios show the somewhat bullying nature of other students towards them - either because of the colour of their skin, or they can’t speak very good English. The scenarios ask the viewers about the path they would choose at the end - some resolutions - and the viewers are expected to reflect on the scenarios and propose a way forward. These scenarios highlight elements of hate but sensitise the viewers about the significance of empathy and understanding towards others. These scenarios are lessons in citizenship and promote social inclusion and tolerance together with a positive message of anti-hate and anti-extremism. 

The 360 degree videos are an example of experiential learning - learning by experience but also reflective learning - where you are reflecting on what you have seen - why there is hatred? why the bullying and learn how you would not treat others the way that you have seen it.

Although these 360 degree videos have been developed for UK schools of 9-11 years of age, they are in the process being posted on Open Learn, our university’s site that hosts free educational resources for all. We are hopeful that these scenarios will be used in other countries, at other levels of education for students higher/lower than this age group.

Youtube 360 playlist with spatial sound of this project is here. The app is currently in the process of being approved before it can be made available for iOS and Android users. A WebGL browser version of the app will also be made available.

Our colleague Peter Bloom in the Department of People and Organisations at The Open University leads on this project. Other team members are Evangelia Baralou and me.

Reflections on the role of virtual reality in education

Being involved in projects such as that of Google Expeditions and Virtual Inclusion that involve emerging technologies, we realise their educational potential. This enables us to come up with applications of these technologies for our students. So, it leads to evidence-based teaching for us.

Which ever technology we employ in our curriculum, it is critical that it has a definite role (over and beyond the current ways of learning and teaching) in the curriculum. So, for social care workers who study with us at the university, we are developing a simulation in an avatar-based 3D environment where they experience several risks that they may encounter when they visit people’s homes. Through this simulation, they will learn how to address those risks - so, it is a training environment for them.

To simulate risky scenarios is expensive in real life and are difficult to set up - and they can only be used once or twice while they are set up. However, in a 3D simulation, students can practise as many times as you would like. This repetition is particularly useful in procedural learning - so, if a medical student has to learn using an instrument - they can practice repeatedly in this virtual environment. So, when they go to the lab, they will use the instrument for whatever experiment they need to conduct rather than learning how to use the instrument - saving on the otherwise expensive lab time.

VR will increasingly become a mainstream technology and will be particularly useful for these training applications:

  • Simulating risky environments - e.g. after-fire investigation, accident investigation

  • In forensic science education

  • in medical education - e.g. 3D models of human anatomy and physiology

  • in nursing, nurses can learn to interact with patients; in midwifery

  • for skills-development - e.g.presentation skills, interviewing skills

  • to understand processes - such as visiting places that may not be able to visit in real life - e.g. bottom of the ocean floor to study the effects of climate change on oceanic life; to study environmental change in Borneo rain forests - affected by palm plantations, clearing of forests for creating infrastructure for tourists

  • fund-raising - for creating empathy via 360 degrees videos such as people affected by floods; 360 degree videos and VR can help in raising the plight of children in war-torn areas.

VR will soon become a norm in learning and teaching applications and in marketing.