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Bridging the accessibility gap with VR

Derek Turner is a faculty member at Douglas College in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. In this blog post, Derek introduces us to his research as a 2019–2020 BCcampus Educational Technology Fellow, and his investigation of how new and existing technology platforms might be used for virtual reality (VR) field trips, bringing these experiential learning opportunities to those who haven’t traditionally been able to use them.

Field work is an essential part of the educational experience for students of environmental science, geology, and many other natural sciences. Yes, it’s important for learning concepts, but it’s even more important for connecting the content to their daily lives and inspiring them to consider these fields as possible career paths. A few years ago, when I started a post-doctoral position at UBC, one of the challenges we faced with field trips was how to continue to offer these valuable experiential learning opportunities in the face of decreasing budgets and increasing student-to-faculty ratios and liability concerns. We started experimenting with different technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality (VR), not as a replacement for traditional field trips, but as ways to help students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get outside of the classroom travel to places beyond the reach of most normal field trips.

First, let me start by saying that much of what I’ll describe here is not really VR. Merriam-Webster defines VR as being “an artificial environment … in which one’s actions partially determine what happens.” Some of the technologies that market themselves as VR do just that and allow fully immersive, interactive environments. Many others are more passive, letting users watch a 360odisplay with limited to no interaction. As we started experimenting with using these different technologies for education, we found that there are many more differences between the types of VR beyond the user experience. There are practical concerns for educators, such as the cost of more advanced VR technology and the challenges of having large classes interact with it, often one student at a time. Then there are also pedagogical questions, like what content exists for students to interact with, and if there isn’t much available, how easy is it to create new content designed for a specific course?

These choices have led me to identify two broad families of VR: “high tech” and “low tech.” High-tech VR, such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, offer highly immersive and interactive environments that, when well done, truly can come close to simulating the real experience of being in a remote location. However, they are also expensive, especially when factoring in the need for a computer with a good graphics card and the potential need for more than one unit if you want to have large classes interact with it. Perhaps a bigger obstacle currently is the lack of educational content readily available. There is certainly a growing number of pre-made environments, but unless you’re lucky, few if any of these provide high quality, discipline-specific content needed for a proper field trip. To help address this problem, I was fortunate to be a part of a large BCcampus-funded project to virtually recreate a field trip on the environmental history of Stanley Park. While the end product turned out great and has been a valuable tool for opening access to this field trip for my environmental sciences classes, it isn’t something that can easily be replicated by individual faculty members without an advanced understanding of photogrammetry and VR technology (and a lot of time to put it all together!).

The alternative, low-tech VR options (which admittedly are not actually VR at all by the definition above) offer a lower cost and more accessible alternative. These include phone-mounted basic VR headsets or online platforms viewable from a computer screen that show 360ovideos or photospheres (360oimages). While these technologies are certainly less immersive and limited in how students can interact with them, they provide one significant advantage besides the cost: the ease of creating new content. For a few hundred dollars, faculty can purchase a portable 360ocamera that can be brought to remote locations to capture images and video. These can then later be embedded with other multimedia, such as close-up photos, videos, website links, or narration. This also opens the possibility of having students create their own virtual environments. To use a geoscience example, students could create a 360otour stop of a potential environmental hazard in their community that could be shared with the class or the general public. It’s for these reasons that I’ve leaned towards this type of VR technology, but I continue to experiment with versions of both.

As these decisions started to guide my experience using VR in classrooms, I moved from UBC to Douglas College. With this change in educational contexts came new challenges for offering field trips. With smaller classes, some of the problems faced by UBC are less of an issue at Douglas. However, I also found that more of my current students were unable to come on field trips due to weekend jobs or family commitments. To bridge this accessibility gap, I started using similar technology that had helped deliver field trips to larger classes to instead open access to students who couldn’t experience a field trip because they had families or couldn’t miss a work shift. With the support of my colleagues in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, we have since built multiple low-tech VR field trips to increase access to field experiences for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate.

The more I’ve used these education technologies, the more two questions have bothered me:

  • If field trips are powerful tools to stimulate interest in and motivate students to pursue the natural sciences (i.e.,affective learning), what, if any, affective learning benefits do VR field trips provide?
  • Are there any differences in any affective learning benefits between different types of VR technology?

An increasing body of research has started exploring the cognitive benefits of VR in and outside of the geosciences (e.g., Freina and Ott, 2015; Billingsley et al., 2019), but few studies have explored the affective learning benefits (e.g., the interests, attitudes and values students have for a subject; Krathwohl et al., 1964), and none that I’ve found have looked at how these might vary between types of VR technologies. These are important questions to ask to help guide faculty like myself in choosing whether to invest time and money in high-tech VR, low-tech VR, or neither. These were two questions that were holding me back from expanding what we could build with VR.

This is where BCcampus has been a vital part of this journey. The leadership provided by BCcampus in education technology and open educational resources has helped shape my understanding of how best to apply and distribute VR field trips. The funding associated with my BCcampus Educational Technology Fellowship has allowed me the resources to begin to explore both questions. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the community that has grown around BCcampus both formally and informally has been an excellent resource for sharing ideas and stretching me beyond my comfort zone.

With this BCcampus support, our department is currently surveying our students before and after every field trip they take, whether they are traditional in-person field trips, high-tech VR field trips, or low-tech VR field trips, as well as tracking changes in students who don’t go on field trips as a control group to see how much affective learning takes place purely in the classroom. The literature on evaluating affective learning in traditional field trips is fortunately robust and well-developed, so we have been able to use existing surveys and experimental designs (e.g., Boyle et al., 2007; Glynn et al., 2011) with modifications to accommodate the incorporation of VR technology. Cognitive learning gains are also being tracked to compare to the affective learning benefits to get a more complete picture of how and if students are benefiting from different types of trips.

The preliminary results of this work are clearly showing that certain demographics benefit more from including the option to go on VR field trips. For example, international students and mature students show a preference for having a VR field trip option and experience greater affective learning gains compared to domestic students and younger students. Some of the qualitative answers to the survey questions suggest that international students may benefit from being able to hear field trip narration multiple times, rather than trying to hear a fast-speaking instructor talking into the wind in the field. Mature students may prefer a VR option due to the higher likelihood of having children, jobs, or other time commitments on weekends.

While I should highlight that these VR technologies have never been meant to replace the kinds of experiential learning offered by an in-person field trip, this early work indicates that the types of students who may benefit from them are exactly the types of students whom we are actively trying to engage with more in geoscience. The potential to open access to field work to demographics who are typically limited in our discipline is an exciting and unexpected outcome of the early stages of this research. This project started out about experimenting with new educational technologies, but seems to be evolving more into how to provide access to educational opportunities to students who were previously marginalized by field trips. To me, this is not only a welcome change, but one that inspires me to continue this work to find new ways of opening field trips to new students.

References:

Billingsley, G., Smith, S., Smith, S., Meritt, J., 2019. A systematic literature review of using immersive virtual reality technology in teacher education. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 30 (1), 65–90.

Boyle, A., Maguire, S., Martin, A., Milson, C., Nash, R., Rawlinson, S., Turner, A., Wurthmann, S., Conchie, S., 2007. Fieldwork is good: the student perception and the affective domain. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 31 (2), 299–317.

Freina, L., Ott, M., 2015. A literature review on immersive virtual reality in education: state of the art and perspectives. Conference eLearning and Software for Education. https://ppm.itd.cnr.it/download/eLSE%202015%20Freina%20Ott%20Paper.pdf

Glynn, S.M., Brickman, P., Armstrong, N., Taasoobshirazi, G., 2011. Science Motivation Questionnaire II: validation with science majors and nonscience majors. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (10), 1159–1176.

Krathwohl, D.R., Bloom, B.S., Masia, B.B., 1964. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook II: Affective Domain. David McKay Company, Inc. New York.

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