WE ARE VR PART TWO: EDUCATION
Schooling stands to benefit greatly from virtual reality. Given what was said about the effectiveness in reducing the costs of treating phobias in VR, one might conclude that the same thing would be true of doing education in VR. It is no doubt true that, once physical buildings are replaced with virtual classrooms and lecture halls, substantial reductions in the cost of providing venues for education would be possible. But the benefits go much further than simply saving money.
When education is tied to physical buildings, there is always a limit to how many people can attend. Only a certain number of students can be packed into a physical classroom or lecture hall, which is why access to the best schools and universities is a competition for a limited number of places. But a virtual classroom or lecture hall could comfortably accommodate student numbers of a size that would be totally unmanageable in a physical space. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of pupils could easily fit into a virtual classroom.
The idea of a classroom of a million students may bring to mind an image of a comically oversized room, with the poor students at the back looking across a vast sea of fellow students to the tiny speck that is the teacher, far, far away at the other end. But, of course, we can always negate this problem by using VR’s ability to bend reality. In a physical lecture hall there is a ‘sweet spot’. It is in the centre of the room, a few rows in front of the podium. Those that occupy this sweet spot learn what is being taught better than those positioned elsewhere. Obviously, in a physical hall or classroom only a few can occupy this ideal position, but as we saw in the example of sharing the same space as an expert instructor, in VR everybody’s POV can be rendered to ensure they occupy the best seat.
If there were a vast lecture hall of a million students, it would not only be those learning who would struggle. The teacher, too, would find it very hard to effectively deliver a lecture to so many people. Dozens of eye-contact experiments have shown that when a teacher looks at a student, that increases the chances of the student learning what is being taught. A well-trained lecturer will take care to spread his or her gaze around the audience rather than focus on some while ignoring others. But when you are dealing with an audience of a hundred or more, spreading your attention evenly means that, on average, each student has eye contact with the teacher for only one percent (or less) of the time.
A teacher’s avatar, though, can devote its full attention to every single person simultaneously. How? By tailoring the information being sent to each student’s computer that is rendering the avatar they are learning from. From the perspective of student A, it is as if he has the best seat in the room and has plenty of eye-contact with the teacher, while simultaneously students B, C and so on have precisely the same experience. Blascovich and Bailenson have tested whether lectures given by teacher avatars with ‘augmented gaze’ really can teach more effectively and found that, as a group, whose attendees whose lecturer had the ‘magic’ ability to devote his or her full attention to many individuals simultaneously retained more information compared to those learning from an avatar with no such ability. It may also be worth noting that not a single student has ever detected that the attention they were receiving was not genuine.
VR can not only be used to give teacher’s avatars superpowers of attention, but also to help the person behind the avatar lecture more effectively. The hardware tracks where your gaze is being directed and therefore, and can therefore in principle alert you should you be ignoring sections of the audience for too long. Blascovich and Bailenson achieved this with an algorithm that caused students to literally start fading from view if they were being ignored. Using this visual aid, teachers ignored those attendees at the far edges of the room for ten percent of the time. This was a substantial improvement compared to teachers who did not have their behaviour brought to their attention by a visual aid: They ignored people on the periphery for approximately forty percent of the time. What is perhaps most encouraging is the followup study lead by Peter Mundy who studies autism at the University of California Davis. When autistic children attended virtual classes which used ‘fading classmates’, they looked others in the eyes in a similar manner to non autistic children.
Another academic, Albert “Skip” Rizzo (who is a psychologist and researcher at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of California) uses the data gathered by the tracking technology of VR to identify children with ADHD. “Skip” created a virtual elementary-school classroom in which several distracting events occur during a lesson. Children with ADHD exhibit head and gaze movements quite different to those without the condition (their gaze wanders frequently, whereas people without ADHD mostly focus on the teacher). With VR tracking tech monitoring movements and highlighting behaviour, it takes only a few minutes to diagnose pupils with ADHD.
The ability of VR to track and record every action, utterance and gesture made by a student could potentially be used to provide useful information pertaining to how well he is she is learning lessons. No teacher could possibly subject a person’s facial expressions, tone of voice and micro expressions to the level of scrutiny that VR tech can, and if the student were to find themselves being examined so closely it would probably negatively affect their concentration. But VR tech can collect orders of magnitude more informative data points compared to standard midterm and final exams and do so in a completely discrete way. Using such data, it would be possible to determine with much greater precision what aspects of a lesson somebody is having difficulty with. People do not all share the same learning styles and it would probably be very much easier to tailor virtual classrooms to complement individual’s’ specific strengths and weaknesses compared to physical classrooms.
So far, we have been discussing classrooms in VR, but it would hardly be using VR to its full potential if all students did was attend virtual classrooms and lectures. With VR, history lessons need not just consist of listening to an avatar lecture about life in Tudor England, but actually experiencing it for oneself by spending time in the court of King Henry VIII or a hamlet from that period, designed to be as authentic as our best historians and archeologists can make it. Students learning about biology could be shrunk to cellular or molecular level and take a ‘fantastic voyage’ through a body, witnessing events like cell-division, again represented as accurately as our best scientific knowledge will allow.
The potential for VR to make use of learning methods beyond the traditional classroom was highlighted by Chris Dede at Harvard, who has created several VR learning scenarios. One of these, River City, required students to figure out why people were getting sick. Discovering the cause entailed talking with townsfolk, hospital staff, university scientists and other virtual inhabitants, and sharing the information gathered with fellow students. According to Dede, when students have first-hand experiences provided by being immersed in a virtual town with a disease outbreak, they reach a much more full understanding of the relationships among causes and effects compared to traditional classroom settings. One reason why is that students find the virtual experience much more immersive and engaging.
A branch of psychology known as ’embodied cognition’ takes the perspective that knowledge is aided by peripheral bodily actions such as postures and gestures. To give one example of this phenomenon, Professor Michael Spivey at Cornell determined that a set pattern of eye-movements focused learners’ attention more efficiently and this aided them in solving a particularly difficult brain teaser. If we go with the assumption that VR tech will one day interface directly with the brain and body, during any learning task avatars’ peripheral movements could be purposefully controlled with the human learners feeling those movements as if they were actually performing them. According to Blascovich and Bailenson, “if repetition of movements is crucial, then learning could be improved automatically and unconsciously. Learning could take place… even during naps, because the machine is controlling one’s motor movements”.
COMING UP IN PART THREE: HOW VR MIGHT CHANGE WORK.