I thought I was ahead of the times when I acquired virtual reality headsets and other
mixed reality technology via a grant award in late 2019. The pandemic shutdowns halted my plans to use the acquired virtual reality headsets for virtual field trips and other STEM investigations. Returning to in-person learning just six months later, the prospect of utilizing this tech for meaningful integration seemed more daunting and less appealing.
Feedback from my students revealed that they had already consumed hours of 360° views while gaming on their home computers and were well versed in digital travel because teachers frequently used video tours as engagement tools during the pandemic.
To overcome my discouragement, I recalled that in 2020, Natale et al. published a review of recent research related to learning with virtual reality and concluded that VR is not as impactful on learning when done with non-immersive tools such as the Chromebooks students were issued when they were forced into distance learning.
Holding fast to the prospect that the virtual reality headsets would be the key to pushing past the passive consumption of video and games by providing impactful immersive learning, I patiently awaited the opportunity to integrate this tool.
Shockingly, at the mention of being able to use virtual reality headsets this year, my students responded with something to the effect of “Yeah…like an Oculus? Eh…I’ve already played a lot with that because I have one at home.” Once a novel technology, the current mindset seemed to be that VR was just another toy used to consume games and other media. I was not looking to use VR to gamify my classroom. I wanted my students to be able to use virtual reality as a medium for developing the higher-order thinking skills that McQuiggan et al. (2015) described as critical for
thriving in today’s digitally connected society.
To push them past the consumption mindset, I developed an immersive design adventure that awakened and inspired the 4Cs of learning: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.
To begin our adventure, I presented students with the opportunity to create their own virtual world or space with no limitations (other than their own imaginations). They used a web-based mixed reality application called CoSpaces to create their worlds. Providing very little direct instruction, I encouraged students to play around with the tools and see what their creative imaginations could produce.
After a while, I unveiled some design challenges that would push their critical thinking skills and encourage them to use instructional resources. One of the design challenges was to create an object that makes sense in their virtual world. With this challenge, I introduced another 3D web-based design program called Tinkercad. The object had to be exported from Tinkercad and imported into their virtual world. Other project challenges incorporated the use of environment design, 3D building blocks, and coding tools within CoSpaces. To finish this project, the students used VR headsets to explore and play around in the virtual worlds they created.
It was clear that the project had engaged them creatively, yet there were lingering tones of consumption when the end result was “getting to play” in the worlds through the VR headsets. Other than opinionated reactions, I observed very little communication or collaboration between students during this part of our design adventure.
The second part of the 3D and VR design adventure centered around the concept of
design for a purpose. The learning goal in this design challenge was to invent something that did not already exist on Earth to solve a problem. The set of pre-written problems students selected from were similar to real-life problems. To unlock the potential for fantastical ideations, we pretended that people were trying to settle a civilization on a new planet and needed the help of our creative students to solve their problems. With this modification to the challenge, students were poised to engage in the human-centered engineering design process, and take on roles as inventors. Students were no longer encumbered by the physics or materials of Earth, but still needed to apply human empathy and critical thinking to fully understand the problem and ideate potential solutions.
After creating a prototype of their invention in the 3D design software, students uploaded them to a shared virtual space with others whose problems were of a similar social category (health, transportation, etc.). The shared virtual spaces served as an additional collaborative and critical thinking design challenge for the students. Students worked together to create a representation of the landscape of the new planet based on clues from their citizen’s problems.
After that was done, students viewed their shared worlds and prototype models through the VR headsets to evaluate the placement and scale of their models in relation to the landscape elements. The experience of viewing, manipulating, and rotating their invention prototypes through the VR headsets allowed the students to analyze their designs and understand what needed to be changed or improved. With that knowledge, students could return to the 3D design software or utilize tools within the VR design platform to change the size, colors, or other aspects of their prototypes without worrying about material waste.
The collaboratively-designed virtual worlds served as virtual invention presentation
galleries. To push past mere consumption through viewing, students needed to have a way to communicate the purpose and function of their inventions. Instead of having their classmate explain the design as the student explored it through the virtual reality headset, students created a sign next to their invention prototype to explain how it works and solves the problem. This communication method was selected partly because research by Huang et al. (2019) showed that it is difficult to process and retain auditory information during immersive visual experiences in VR. After viewing the galleries through the headsets, students engaged in peer reflection discussions. This time, I observed them asking relevant questions about each other’s creative processes and ideations.
At the conclusion of this immersive adventure, we celebrated the accomplishment of
pushing past consumption of virtual reality to find pride in becoming creators and designers with immersive technology. Students could now conceptualize the difference between just using or playing with virtual reality and being VR content creators. I was proud of my students and pleased with the successful integration of emerging mixed reality technology with the 4Cs skills that students need to thrive in today’s world and the world of the future