Ep. 7: How Virtual Reality Could Transform Education

Ayanna Howard: Over the years, virtual reality has become a mythical new medium with promises of immersive gaming and enriched experiences. Novels and movies like Ready Player One have teased the potential and raised the expectations. In many ways, though, the technology is a largely untapped resource for reasons varying from usability to cost. In this episode, however, we’ll hear from former Georgia Tech student Aditya Vishwanath and current Georgia Tech assistant professor Neha Kumar. They have examined the potential for virtual reality — VR — in education and instruction. What are the affordances of the technology inside a classroom? How can issues of cost and access actually be overcome to ensure that it is truly a democratized medium.


I’m Ayanna Howard, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, and this is the Interaction Hour.

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Aditya received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, where he received the Outstanding Junior and Outstanding Senior awards — so, two years in a row he was like this amazing undergrad student. Currently, he’s pursuing his Ph.D. in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford, where he is advised by Dr. Roy Pea.

Neha Kumar is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech jointly appointed in the School of Interactive Computing and the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. Together, they founded inspirit Consulting, a design firm for virtual reality in education. Thanks for joining us.

Aditya: Thank you.

Neha: Thanks, Ayanna. Thanks for having us.

Aditya: Really glad to be here.

Ayanna: So, I’m excited about this topic. So, virtual reality — every time I think about VR, I think of like science fiction and science fantasy and this new world. I really want to find out more about this. Before I do that, I do want to give a quick plug. You and Neha, along with two colleagues, have the opportunity to talk about this topic at South by Southwest, which I hear is one of these amazing experiences. Is this correct?

Aditya: Yes, we’re super excited to be at this conference next week. Myself, Neha Kumar, Tamara Pearson of CEISMC at Georgia Tech, and also Sally Creel, who is the STEM director for the Cobb County School District. The four of us will be presenting a panel at 5 p.m. on March 4 in Room 11AB of the Austin Convention Center in Austin. Our panel is titled Virtually Real: Using Immersive Tech in Education, and we’re super excited to talk about our research in the Cobb County School District.

Ayanna: Ok, so virtually and real. I wish I could be there. Can I get a ticket?

Aditya: Yeah, absolutely (laughing).

Ayanna: Ok, I’m going to call you after this (laughing). So, how did you get interested in this idea of bringing virtual reality into the classroom?

Aditya: Sure, so this was in my second year as an undergrad when I came across this wonderful new thing that was just gaining a lot of traction in the market. This was the Google cardboard headset. The Google cardboard was this new 360-degree headset that would work with virtually any smartphone that you had out there to offer 360-degree immersive experiences. And, to me, this seemed a wonderful opportunity to really explore how we could integrate something that was potentially low cost, a low-cost alternative to the seemingly out-of-reach new technology, this new medium of instruction in a low-resource educational environment. I was very fascinated and very interested in learning about how we could bring in digital technologies and immersive experiences into low-cost and low-resource environments.

So, I actually reached out to Neha and together we came across Google Expeditions, which was another VR platform that Google had been rolling out back then. And so with the Google Expeditions team, the two of us took this entire experience into an under-resourced after school center inside of an urban slum in Mumbai in India in the summer of 2016. This was a research project where we really wanted to study what would be the infrastructural aspects of integrating a Google cardboard-like experience into a sixth grade, seventh grade classroom in an infrastructurally under-resourced environment. When we say infrastructures, we’re talking about the technical infrastructures. So, we’re looking at all the dimensions of electricity, internet, wi-fi, but also social infrastructures of student agency, teacher agency and also information infrastructures of curriculum and content and how you would align and bring these seemingly unrelated 360-degree tours of different places around the world and align this with the Indian curriculum that was being followed in the school.

Ayanna: So, amazing — you’re an undergrad at Georgia Tech.

Aditya: I was a sophomore, yes.

Ayanna: You know, Georgia Tech is in Atlanta. And you actually had the vision to think about an area that’s kind of far away — it’s not across the street — in terms of bringing this technology into this classroom environment. So, what were the takeaways?

Aditya: I guess one, I think one big takeaway that we really noticed that really was super interesting to us was just that when we had students watch 360-degree tours of different places around the world — these would be the seven wonders of the world. From something that was within India like the Taj Mahal to the Great Wall of China, the Machu Picchu civilization — we had students ask more deep and more engaging questions that very deeply engaged with the subject matter that they were studying in their history and geography class. So, these were questions that were no longer just “what” questions. “What is the spelling of the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal?” But more “why” and “how” questions — “why was this built? Why was the monument shaped this way? And how was this monument constructed at that time and what was the purpose and the use of this monument back then?” To us, that was a very compelling use case for really wanting to push more and study how we could bring in this entire experience into the classroom.

At the same time, one big aspect of our research was studying how we could work with the teacher locally to co-design a lesson plan that integrated these experiences in the classroom. So, for example, let’s pick the Machu Picchu story. With Machu Picchu in a sixth grade, seventh grade history class. Students are learning about the Indus Valley civilization, which is an ancient civilization on the banks of the River Indus that was one of the original civilizations in the Indian continent. And there was clearly no Google Expeditions or VR experience on the Indus Valley civilization. So, during this co-design process, the teacher identified Machu Picchu as an analogous ancient civilization that existed at a different era but in ancient history in a different part of the world. And she brought this in and had the students engage in a compare and contrast discussion. Ok, this is what we’re studying in our textbook on the Indus Valley civilization — let’s visit another civilization of that same era and let us try to look at how they were similar, different, and what were the discussions that she could provoke through bringing in another example. This whole process of co-design, of how you would align seemingly unrelated 360-degree tours and experiences with a mainstream curriculum was a super interesting finding for us. And it really prompted us to further study and further deeply examine how we could leverage and how we could support this entire process of alignment of VR experiences with curriculums.

Ayanna: So, let me ask a little bit about this co-design. I know sometimes as technologists, we like to throw things over the fence. Like, oh, we make this amazing technology and everyone’s going to use it. What were the challenges of co-designing with what I would say is a low-resource environment, which technically means that they probably weren’t computer science teachers. What did that process look like, of getting teachers to — maybe it’s getting us to hear the language? What was that process like?

Aditya: Exactly. I think that’s the biggest challenge of this entire process. The whole process of co-design that we went through, we would sit down with the teacher and we would essentially give her an entire list of all the 250 Expedition videos that were available back then. So, to give you some more context on Expeditions, these are Google street view images that have been pulled by Google into one platform. They’ve kind of organized this as a set, and we would have the teacher walk through the list a couple of times and try to distill out the sub-topics that she thought were either distantly or maybe two degrees away from a topic that she was teaching in a classroom over the next few months. It’s very interesting. The process really requires a huge amount of human agency. We had that in the teachers that we worked with. There was a huge drive both in the huge after school center that we worked with with the coordinator of the center to want to integrate. And this whole willingness to integrate, to go out of their way to take out time after class to sit down and to work on bringing in these experiences into the classroom. It’s these elements that made this entire study successful. Yes, the technology was immersive, yes the technology had a huge impact in the classroom, and yes VR as a medium afforded deeper engagement. But without participant agency from the perspective of the students, the volunteers, the teachers, the coordinator — this would not have been a successful study.

Ayanna: Ok, so, if you think about co-design and willingness of teachers — was this a one-shot deal? Is that something that you can replicate in other places? Or was this just you found a really nice school that was really eager and then we’re done?

Neha: Yeah, I’m happy to speak to that. So, again, with regards to co-design, the reason we don’t always do co-design is because technologists tend to have a view that the population they are working with may not know how to use the technology or may not recognize the affordances of the technology. So, that’s one thing, right? But the second thing is that the domain expertise is still with the teacher. And she or he is the one who really understands the students and where they’re coming from. And I think recognizing that we want to leverage the domain expertise as much as possible, but then minimize the handicap that they might have in terms of not knowing what the technology is. Finding that sweet spot is really what it’s about in terms of making co-design successful. And I think that they did a really good job of that, of really communicating what the technology was bringing to the table but also just really having the teacher decide what the classes were going to look like.

I think, you know, even abstracting out from that — if we look at other environments, where in order to decide whether co-design is possible or not we need to see how that domain expertise can be leveraged while at the same time making the technology super transparent. In this case, I think what helped was that we were essentially using mobile devices, mobile phones, which are widely prevalent now even in the most under-resourced of areas. So, even if they are not using the most fancy phones or not using smart phones, they’re familiar with mobile phones in general. The other thing about the cardboard viewer is that it’s not terribly threatening. It’s cardboard, so it doesn’t give the sense that this is something expensive that’s going to break if you use it. I think both of those factors really made it a lot easier to go through with the co-design process. I think that would probably be the same in other schools, as well.

Ayanna: So, have you tried it out in other schools?

Neha: Yes, we have. So, we did a follow-up study. After we did this study in Mumbai, we actually had the College of Computing put together a post about the study that we had done, and we were really surprised to get so much interest from local teachers and teachers even outside of Atlanta who were interested in replicating the same in schools here. So, we did a summer study, where we looked at the Drew Charter School students and how they could use these Google cardboard viewers and low-cost cameras to create content, and we also then went back to the same school in Mumbai that we were working with and did the same study there.

Ayanna: One of the things you mentioned is this aspect of cost, because you talk about cardboard and it’s not intimidating and it’s fairly low cost. So, I would argue, though, that all virtual reality technology is probably not created equal. I don’t know, my cardboard viewer — is it really the same in terms of the experience as, say, more expensive piece of technology?

Aditya: I can actually speak to that. That’s a very, very good point that you bring up. Especially where we are with virtual reality today is where we were with the smartphone maybe around 15-20 years ago. There is a huge, huge industry effort that is ongoing with research and industry to create different kinds of VR platforms, devices, headsets, both software and hardware platforms that are low-cost in nature, that are still highly accessible, high fidelity devices, and you have hundreds of different VR companies coming out building different kinds of hardware platforms.

For Neha and me, the goal was really not to kind of study how we could make these devices cheaper necessarily, but focus more on how we could build content that was more meaningful and that would sit on these platforms and to an extent remain agnostic to what platform we were working with. The two of us in my third year as an undergrad got together and said, “We need to take this forward as an industry effort.” So, we set up inspirit, a virtual reality company with the goal of positioning ourselves as a design firm that would study how we could create and also work with participants and local members of communities to leverage their agency to create meaningful human-centered VR experiences that are aligned with and contextual to environments, aligning them with curriculums and other learning outcomes that are desired by various environments. So, that’s how inspirit came out. Our research focus and my research, as well, right now at Stanford is specifically looking at how we can make more human-centered VR experiences and ask the question of what makes a experience worthy to be in virtual reality versus, say, video, given that cost of content creation from design to storyboarding to filming to post-production are really expensive.

So, we studied all of those things all across the board. How can we work with amateur filmmakers, photographers, train them in 360-degree storytelling and storyboarding, engage them in this content creation process and create movies that would then align with curricular outcomes or desired learning outcomes of classrooms.

Ayanna: So, with this human-centered viewpoint or human-centered experience of virtual reality, I understand it in eduction but what other uses do you have for this technology?

Aditya: Sure, yeah. The uses are really interesting. I guess we have been studying primarily how we can bring VR into formal and informal learning environments, but beyond that I think we discovered, as well — and this is the big push in industry too — that there are a lot of these verticals in education that exist in various industries. For example, and I can touch upon a few of those — health care is a very, very compelling space for virtual reality, where you could be looking at creating experiences that would train and also teach doctors and surgeons and other professionals in the space on various surgical procedures, on anatomical structures. One wonderful thing about VR is that you have the ability to both zoom in and zoom out into microscopic or macroscopic experiences. So, I could take you all the way inside of a cell or of a human body, or I can take you all the way out onto the surface of the moon, for example. Manufacturing, training in industry are also huge use cases for VR, how we can train engineers on various procedures that would be difficult to transport in terms of the bulkiness of equipment.

The other aspect of VR that is super compelling and interesting to us is this whole thing of perspective taking. The ability that I can put you in the shoes, potentially, of a different person, a different community, or a different group, and through that push forward very specific learning outcomes.

Ayanna: So, with any new technology — you mentioned surgery and perspective taking and all these aspects — typically, there has to be some grounding in performance. So, let’s get back to the education aspects, since that’s where it started, that’s where this vision came. If you think about the performance — we bring in cool things all the time, and kids say, “Yay, that’s so fun,” but they get the same experience and engagement. It’s really about performance. Are they learning? So, what have you seen in education regarding this improvement or engagement. You mentioned they were, at least in Mumbai, they were deeply engaged more so than in their books. In some of the other studies, like in the local schools you mentioned — how did you see engagement or improvement?

Aditya: Sure, so we ran a very interesting study last year in Cobb County, where we worked with the Cobb County School District to bring in a 360-degree VR biology experience that was co-designed with the Cobb County STEM director and some other teachers to align it with the Georgia state standards for introductory biology and freshman biology in Grade 9. We worked with a total of four schools in Cobb County, where we had three of the schools use a VR experience, a series of eight VR movies on an introduction to the cell. It’s a 360-degree animated tour that takes you through the cell, through the very organelles of the cell, talks to you about the DNA, RNA, trancription, translation, protein synthesis. It was a really interesting experience for the students. And in this entire experience was delivered at a time when the students were just being introduced to molecular biology and cellular biology. Our goal was to compare how this experience would fare against other forms of teaching. So, we ran a control study where we had three of our four schools use this VR experience in tandem with other classroom activities, the existing classroom activities. And we had the fourth school use a control, they were not given the VR experience. They had to just read an equivalent textual write-up of the same factual content that was delivered in this 360 experience. Through the study, we did a pre-test just before the study, students wrote a post-test right after the study, and there was also a retention test that was administered a month after the VR experience. We did find that the students displayed higher levels of confidence and engagement after having watched the VR experience.

These are very short 5-10 minute 360-degree tours over the course of a week delivered four or five times during the week. Students also displayed higher levels of inquiry-driven learning, which is very loosely the ability or the potential to ask deeper questions that engage multiple concepts or conceptual areas in the same question. Students displayed essentially deeper critical thinking on this topic. Those are very compelling instances for us to understand what it would take to bring such an experience into the public school infrastructures in the state while also how the learning outcomes could potentially be addressed in the future. We do not claim there to have been any improvement in learning. That requires much more investment of time and other energies. But this study we hope would be an aspiration to run future studies at much larger scale to see how we could bring this medium and make it democratized.

Ayanna: I like that. Democratize virtual reality, especially for public school systems, which would be great. So, what does that actually mean, though? What does it really mean to do that?

Neha: Yeah, it’s a great question. Democratization is a loaded word, so when we think of that democratization, do we really mean that this is now going to be in every single home and accessible by every single person? And that’s really what we’ve been exploring with the work that we’re doing and the many studies that we’ve looked into. I want to say even though it is a loaded word, we have been looking at what the affordances of low cost VR are. This was true for the work that we did in Mumbai and also for the work that we did with the Drew Charter School, where we were looking at really low cost technologies and seeing what was possible. So, in the case of the Drew Charter School study, what we were doing was a project around creating content as opposed to consuming content, which is the work that Aditya has talked about so far. We asked whether creating or documenting an experience afforded learning through a deeper connection with economic, cultural and social realities. So, the students that were part of this study were really trying to engage with social justice topics, in particular homelessness. What they did was they used 360-degree movies or created these movies as they were engaging with homeless populations within Atlanta to try to understand what their realities were. We looked into whether this built more sensitivity towards a homeless population, and certainly we found that that was the case. This was extremely apparent in the study that we did before they went out and engaged with homeless populations and then after to see how their perspectives had changed.

Many students noted that there were unconscious biases that had changed through the immersive experiential learning that they went through with this tool. Really kind of looking at it at a higher level, what we were interested in seeing was that when we think about VR, we think about resource-rich contexts. We think about contexts in which we have really high-quality content that’s been already curated and fed to us. But we’re not thinking so much about how that content is being created and what is really possible through the creation of that content. So, that’s what we were looking at in this case where we wanted to see how VR as a technology was seen as being useful in everyday contexts by teachers and students and such.

Ayanna: So, this is really a human-centered experience.

Neha: Absolutely.

Ayanna: I love this concept of building more sensitivity using technology, using computing. I wish that we could like put every VR cardboard contraption on every person in the United States and abroad and say, ok!

Neha: (Laughing) What would that look like? We would all be crashing into —

Ayanna: We would all be crashing, but we would do it with love! (Laughing) … So, this aspect of empathy and having more sensitivity — are you really saying that virtual reality offers this new perspective? Can it really help build empathy, especially with respect to marginalized groups? Is that what you’re really saying?

Neha: We’ve definitely found that using VR in this case was leading these children to take new perspectives, right? Do those perspectives always afford empathy, and do they always afford empathy in a way that other technologies might not? That’s still something that is yet to be determined fully. If we think about empathy — and Chris Milk, who made this VR film and then in a TED Talk in 2015, he had said that VR was the ultimate empathy machine. This has been said before for other technology, but did he really mean by that? Well, he was trying to say that if you do immerse yourself in this experience and you’re able to engage with your environment in a way that helps you see it differently and helps you connect with it at a deeper level. But what is then possible with that kind of an experience? That’s really kind of something that we’re interested in exploring.

You can see yourself in the shoes of other populations, you can think about what it means to be homeless, you can think about what it means to have beliefs or cultural values that you may not have. But there may also be such a thing as too much empathy, and that’s also something that’s come under question. So, those who are trying to build empathy, are they actually starting to believe that they are that person and so therefore they understand the entirety of their experience? Maybe not. At the same time, what are the limitations even in terms of building empathy, and, you know, maybe empathy is not what we’re after. Maybe what we want is compassion or other kinds of virtues that might be generated through these experiences.

So, the jury is still out on that, and this is something that we do want to explore more deeply.

Ayanna: This will be interesting. Because, of course, ideally whether it’s empathy or compassion, you want to be able to then promote change.

Neha: Yes, absolutely. That is the goal of our work, and also of our lab actually where all of this came into being.

Ayanna: So, virtual reality has some impacts in education. We see that, and you guys have shown that in your studies. You’ve also shown this linkage between this computing-based technology and actually making us better as people with empathy and compassion. I think if we can’t do that, then why are we doing this in the first place? I think you’ve started to show a little bit of that in your work, even though you claim it’s just a small pilot study, I think it has so much more impact.

I want to thank you, I think this was excited. I heard you said you’re going to give me a ticket.

Aditya: (Laughing) Absolutely.

Ayanna: I’m going to hopefully show up and be in the audience to listen to this.

Aditya: That would be fantastic. Thank you so much.

Ayanna: Thank you, I appreciate you guys joining us for this podcast.

Neha: Thank you so much, Ayanna.

Aditya: Thank you for your time.

Ayanna: (Instrumental) Once again, please join our guests and two others at South by Southwest EDU. They will be presenting a panel on this topic on March 4 in Austin, Texas. You can find full details on the panel in the description of this episode. And, as always, follow us for updates on Facebook and Twitter @ICatGT.

Thanks for listening.


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