MIT’s Dan Roy on the Research Behind Virtual Reality in the Classroom
Welcome to the xR in EDU podcast series. EdTech Times and Boston University have joined together to co-host xR in EDU, an event to explore augmented and virtual realities’ impact on learning across the full spectrum of education. Listen in to our interviews with featured speakers from the event in this series, and join us October 22 to learn more about augmented and virtual reality in education and training today. Visit edtechtimes.com/xrinedu for details.
As the technology behind virtual and augmented reality becomes more advanced, the possibilities of use expand in an exciting way. Now, virtual reality is becoming a realistic option for classrooms. According to Dan Roy, research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers are looking into how to make VR a realistic and helpful option for students.
“We’re exploring now what VR is good for, specifically in the context of education. And some initial thoughts about that: increased engagement, a better way of experiencing environments that rely on spatial sense, so something where size and scale are important,” he says.
“So like the very big, like outer space, or the very small like the microscopic things that you couldn’t see very well in your day to day life, you might be able to experience in a way that makes it feel more real, more relatable, more compelling.”
With VR’s capabilities, students can learn subjects in an immersive way like never before. But aside from the ‘cool’ experiences, Dan says utilizing VR to learn can help students develop school-related skills, as well as skills that could benefit them throughout their lives.
“The way that we’ve set up the collaboration, people actually have different sense of information and different abilities within the environment,” he says.
“So they actually have to work together, which encourages the people who maybe are familiar with school and with learning being more of an individual experience, it encourages them to take a step out of that and learn some of the collaboration skills will be critical of once they enter the workforce.”
Listen in to our interview with Dan Roy to learn how VR has become a useful tool for teachers and students, and to get a sneak peek of what Dan will be speaking about at xR in EDU.
Hannah Nyren: Hi, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. And today I’m speaking with Dan Roy from MIT. Hi Dan, how are you doing?
Dan Roy: Hi, I’m great. How are you?
Hannah Nyren: I’m fantastic. So Dan can you tell me a little bit about what you do at MIT: what division you’re in, and your area of expertise.
Dan Roy: Sure. I work with a couple of research labs at MIT. One is the Education Arcade, which makes video games for learning. And the other is the Teaching Systems Lab, which thinks about how to support teachers.
Hannah Nyren: That’s really fun. I like that you call it an arcade because all of these things that we’re talking about with virtual reality should be seen as very fun. I think people get really excited about VR, no matter what the purpose is for the virtual reality programs.
Dan Roy: Yeah, it’s really exciting for us. And my role is research scientist, and day to day I do a lot of game design.
Hannah Nyren: So can you tell me about what kind of outcomes have you had from the research you’ve done? Like what are the the biggest things that you’ve worked on and things that you’ve discovered?
Dan Roy: That’s a great question, and there are a couple of different outcome categories that we think about. We use a process called design-based research, which means that as we’re doing the research, we’re designing a solution that we think would work, in this case, a game. And we’re testing how well the game meets our goals. And then we’re iterating on it and we’re doing some usability testing, some qualitative efficacy testing, some quantitative testing. So we have all different tools in our toolset. But at the end of the day we end up with an intervention, a piece of software that hopefully is useful for people.
Hannah Nyren: So why do you think educators should be using virtual reality?
Dan Roy: I think often with a new technology or a new medium, people do ask a question of that variant, of like, should people be using this new technology? And the answer is never yes or no. It’s more of, how should people be using this technology. So there were lots of schools that got computers and then had no idea what to do with them. Because they had a sense of, ‘oh, we should be using computers.’ But they didn’t know really how to teach in a way that took advantage of the importances of computers.
Dan Roy: So I think we’re at the same point with virtual reality, where it’s a new medium, we’re figuring out what to do with it. And there are some people who think, ‘oh, I should use it because it’s new and therefore better.’ And if they don’t have a clear plan for how to use it effectively, they may end up using it ineffectively. And then we get a bit of a backlash. So there’s this initial euphoria of ‘new technology is the silver bullet that’s going to solve all our problems.’ Followed by the trough of disillusionment of, ‘the new technology did not solve all of my new problems.’ Followed by hopefully a more well-balanced and realistic sense of what the technology is good for.
Dan Roy: So I think we’re exploring now what VR is good for, specifically in the context of education. And some initial thoughts about that: increased engagement, a better way of experiencing environments that rely on spatial sense, so something where size and scale are important. So like the very big, like outer space. Or the very small, like the microscopic things that you couldn’t see very well in your day to day life, you might be able to experience in a way that makes it feel more real, more relatable, more compelling.
Dan Roy: You can use so-called embodied cognition, so you can think with your body like, ‘oh, my body’s a certain size. Do you think I could fit in and around that specific thing.’ In our case, we’re working biology. So like a channel protein going through a cell membrane, do you think you could fit through that? And then there’s the sense of presence, of just being there. It’s social presence, being there with someone else. So I think that is really compelling as well. One of the aspects of our projects, which I’m sure we’ll get into in a bit, is around collaboration, working together. We’re exploring how VR can support that.
Hannah Nyren: I think you made a really good point that, you know, schools for the past couple of decades have been quickly purchasing new technologies without putting the time into PD or figuring out the best way to implement these new technologies.
Hannah Nyren: And I think that many teachers have seen this in different cycles and are a little wary of virtual reality because it is that new, flashy, shiny technology. So what would you say to educators who are a little wary of virtual reality because they think it’s a large expense for little outcomes.
Dan Roy: I would say educators are almost always right. They have an intuition that something will be complicated to make work in their classroom, or they don’t have the time to fully explore how to use it well. And I think that mostly is true. But the way we’ve set up the teacher role, they have so many responsibilities. They have the classroom management. They have making sure people get through the right amount of curriculum to meet the standards. They have motivating individual students and making sure they have individual educational plans. And so many more things. And so then to add on top of that, hey, there’s a new technology and a new medium that even the experts don’t quite understand. Here, you figure it out in all of your free time.
Dan Roy: And I think educators are naturally skeptical. They’re like, ‘what free time? When am I going to think about this?’ So I do think it makes sense from an educator’s perspective, unless they feel like they have a little bit of slack in their day, to take more of a wait and see approach. Of like, ‘alright, well I’ll let other people kind of explore and figure this out.’ And then I would say my advice would be just keep your eyes open and see what other people are trying. See what new uses of that technology are coming down the pipeline, and whether any of those look compelling. I will say, if you do end up using virtual reality in a context that is engaging, you might find that you see massive gains in areas that have been troublespots for you in the past.
Dan Roy: So often, and we found this with game-based learning generally. And so VR is not a one-to-one with game-based, but there’s a lot of overlap, where teachers will say, ‘it worked for most or for all of my students. But the students that I saw the biggest gains in were the students for whom what I was doing before was not working.’ Like these are the students who were disengaged, they were in the back of the room, they weren’t paying attention, they weren’t doing their homework, whatever. And suddenly their eyes are lit up and they’re engaged, they’re excited. So I think that’s the kind of thing that’s a potential pay off. But I also don’t want to oversell it, because I know we’re in the initial hype phase. So yeah, just keep your clear eyed eyes open.
Hannah Nyren: So we have you speaking at xR in EDU, coming up in a couple of weeks now, it’s really close actually. And I want to know what are you going to be talking about at xR in EDU?
Dan Roy: Sure. So I’m working on a project. The code name for the project is CLEVR, it stands for Collaborative Learning Environments in VR. And the first context that we’re tackling is biology. It’s high school intro Biology, learning about cells, learning about cell processes. And we chose it partly because we thought it would be a good batch for the affordances of VR, which we hypothesized were: better understanding of size and scale, and cells are things that people notoriously don’t understand very well in terms of size and scale, and the representations that they encounter in the classroom often introduce misconceptions.
Dan Roy: Biology, for most introductory students, it’s really a language class. They’re learning vocabulary, but they’re not necessarily getting a deep understanding of the structure, the processes and all of those nuances of the subject. So what we’re trying to do is use VR to create a much more authentic representation of a cell. Where there’s the right number of things, they’re the right size, there’s the right density. And suddenly you’re in the space and people often come away saying, ‘wow, I never knew that there were so many mitochondria! They’re just all over the place!’ Or, ‘I had no idea that a cell could be a shape other than a circle or a sphere.’
Dan Roy: And that kind of representation does support the next level of questioning and understanding in the topic. So research question one I think is just about size and scale and understanding what cells look like. And then question two is around the collaboration. So making this into a game, and using discovery learning, inquiry-based learning. We’re challenging pairs of players to go through a process that actual biologists would go through, which is diagnosing a genetic disease and selecting the appropriate therapy. So it’s almost like a scavenger hunt, they’re exploring the cell, looking for clues about what’s wrong with the cell. And of course, in order to figure out what’s wrong with the cell, you have to have some idea what all should look like, or how it should be moving or operating.
Dan Roy: So it begs the question, which is exactly what we want people to be thinking about, which is how should cells look, how should they work and noticing flaws in that process. And then we’ve picked a genetic disorder that is relatively simple and there are some clues that you could find in different parts of the cell at different scales even. We have a micro scale and a nano scale and you can switch between between them to see like organelles, and then DNA and RNA. And so we’re hoping through this process, people will start to ask and answer the type of questions that biologists ask and answer, which is, ‘What’s wrong? And what can we do about it?’ And then they’ll get a better sense not only of biology as it is today, but also where it’s going. And have a better, a more informed take on whether this is a field they might want to enter.
Hannah Nyren: Wow, I think that’s a really great example of one of the ways that augmented and virtual reality can really bridge a knowledge gap. I don’t think that what is taught in typical biology textbooks, especially at a younger level like in high school, is comprehensive enough for someone to really understand that. And as someone who enjoyed biology more than other science classes and really loved biology because I’m a visual learner and biology is very visual, I can see how someone who is a visual learner or even a kinesthetic learner could understand the concepts better by being able to actually, you know, get an idea of the size and shape of individual cells.
Hannah Nyren: So that’s a really interesting use and I definitely see how that could be a way to do something that can’t be done any other way.
Dan Roy: And another aspect of it is, by giving the authentic representation, it is a little bit overwhelming. There’s a lot of detail. There’s a lot that you won’t understand when you first see the representation and interact with it. But that’s true of science in general. There’s so many things that we don’t know. So starting to get students comfortable with living with that unknown, with the uncertainty. But still in that environment being able to pose questions like, ‘Alright, well what is it that we can learn out of this? And what would I look for or what are my hypotheses about what’s going wrong here and how can I test that?’
Dan Roy: And so it’s more of an environment that can respond to deeper thinking and support that. And that’s where the collaboration comes in as well. Because in a messier environment, it can be a bit daunting. But then if you have a conversation partner, someone who can think with you about what’s going on here. And you could voice out loud your hypotheses, and sort of come to deeper understandings bit by bit. And then the way that we’ve set up the collaboration, people actually have different sense of information and different abilities within the environment. So they actually have to work together, which encourages the people who maybe are familiar with school and with learning being more of an individual experience. It encourages them to take a step out of that and learn some of the collaboration skills will be critical once they enter the workforce.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah, that’s really cool. What do you think is the next big thing in virtual reality? What do you think is an application of it that we haven’t done yet?
Dan Roy: Well, so I just came back from the Oculus Connect conference last week. They announced the Oculus Quest, which I’m pretty excited about. Which is this standalone VR headset with the affordances of the Rift and the VIVE and those kinds of platforms. It has six degrees of freedom both in the headset and it has two hand controllers. And also it’s inside out tracks so then it’s expanding the boundaries. Whereas historically VR was either a three degree of freedom experience, where you’re sitting in like a stationary or standing but turning around but not walking. Or room scale where you could walk in like a few feet in either direction.
Dan Roy: But it’s exciting now to think about larger spaces. And to think about for education, what would that then mean if the whole classroom were an environment where everyone could be together in VR and experiencing the same thing. That could be interesting for bringing VR outdoors. And then blurring the boundaries even more so between VR and AR and MR, and sort of that whole immersive computing spectrum.
Dan Roy: So we’re already starting to see VR headset that have cameras on the outside of them to facilitate tracking. And that of course is also what AR headsets like the Hololens have. And so then you have the ability potentially to decide how much of the outside world you want to let in, versus how much you want to shut it out, which is one of the key differentiators right now between VR and AR. So I think this whole spectrum will become much blurrier as technology evolves. And people will be able to integrate the technology into the environments they’re familiar with, that they’re comfortable with. Whether it’s the classroom, whether it’s the home, or whether it’s some third environment. Either outdoors or in a gym or a bigger warehouse-type setting. So I think that’s really exciting.
Hannah Nyren: That is exciting. Well I can’t wait to see what happens next. And I also can’t wait to see what you talk about at the event. I know this is only a slice of what’s to come. So thanks for speaking with me today.
Dan Roy: Oh sure, happy to do it.
Want to learn more about the benefits of virtual reality in education? Come to xR in EDU.
Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.