Tyeron Hammontree

Your turn to change the world Pt. 1

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Did you know that “attention” learns on its own? Attention, over time, learns what to focus on and what to let slide. So as we mature, we may often let little things slip by us. That’s why it's hard to do magic for little kids: they haven’t been conditioned to look at what the misdirection is pushing them towards. Children don’t know the focus shorthand many adults take for granted and, as such, kids pay attention to everything. If I can pull off a back palm and reveal for my 6-year-old, then I know it's ready to try in public.

I learned this while talking with a memory researcher studying virtual reality PTSD therapy. This is one of my favorite things about virtual reality at this time. Everyone involved is still very passionate about what they do and each is pushing into interesting spaces. I tend to run at the mouth when talking about VR but, when I get to speak with someone that already knows all my VR evangelism verbiage, we get to look up and dream a bit.

At some point, they find out I’m a high school teacher, and then we usually start talking about use cases for education. In the course of talking about VR learning, nine times out of ten, a publicly funded show about an arcane bus usually comes up. Yes, I speak of that well-loved paranormal contraption that would rocket students and their maniacal teacher into dangerous crusades with nary a parental release in sight.

VR PE research 2018 Cedars International. Students competing in Creed by Survios

Ms. Frizzle did what most teachers really want to do. We want to put our students in the “thick of the action” as they learn. If you’ve taught for enough time, you’ve seen a lesson take on its own life and from mere sparks of experience, a fire of curiosity crackles in each student that consumes the knowledge all on its own. No prodding, no reminders; just typical human curiosity, critical thinking, and play. That kind of interaction takes time and experimentation with each new group of students. Even with the proper context of a well-appointed classroom and a seasoned teacher that can still be difficult, especially early in the year.

Now that we find ourselves without the context of a classroom, we are speaking to 20 small screens that may have a face but may also have memes from Reddit or a live video of someone’s ceiling. Some of us also find that we, as educators, are relying on our in-person relationships to keep students involved at a distance. At the same time, some also see those relationships wither slightly at a distance. How do you engage those that are already de-prioritizing something that feels more like a strange memory each day they are away? I can see how this forced way of interaction is causing their learned attention to get skewed. Most students I interact with as an educator are having new issues with focus, space, and in some cases self-image because of their surroundings. All these hurdles put even more distance from students and the “thick of the action”, something Ms. Frizzle would not stand for.

Thankfully for the Frizz, cosmic forces have put us at a time when we can explore together without being physically next to each other.

Welcome Slide for the 2nd annual VR Showcase at Cedars International

For the past 5 years, I’ve been working with students in VR at high school campuses. I’ve seen where VR outshines a traditional American classroom and where it adds little. I’ve run VR physical education classes, VR development courses, cross-curricular VR development, evangelized through my yearly VR education showcases, and I advocate for any way to test or promote VR in education. I believe in the impact VR has even when the option to interact in person is still available.

When we were all sent home to re-tool for distance learning, I would not pass up the chance to work with students in VR at a distance. Since mid-March, I’ve been working with a small group of students in VR during the shelter in place order in Travis County, Texas.

The first time we met for a make-shift sociology class was in the middle of March. We met in a space I’d put together in RecRoom. If any of you have visited RecRoom through any of the myriads of ways available these days, you’re familiar with the simple but expressive avatars and the friendly well-loved look to everything.

Students started showing up at the door materializing in orange blocky smoke. Each waved “Hi” as they appeared and then started zooming around exploring the room. We went over some vocabulary for the lesson using a whiteboard I materialized for us. We talked about ideas by tossing a basketball around to denote who was “holding the conch”. It was also just fun playing catch as we discussed sociologist Emile Durkheim’s ideas of organic and mechanical solidarity. We quickly came up with the social fact that in online communities it is completely normal for anyone to approach you out of the blue and ask questions. With that idea in mind, we went into the giant shared space of the RecRoom RecCenter to ask players questions to establish social facts and the type of solidarity we found in RecRoom.

VR Pilot student group assessing distance learning using virtual reality from Cedars International

We parted ways to gather data and I popped in to check on my charges as they went into the maelstrom of players. They seemed to be working well and having fun so after some time I went to a deserted island. Well, I copied an island template from RecRoom and shrunk it down to a more intimate size. I put some conversational couches on the beach facing each other and set the sun to be just a smidge above the horizon to denote it was the end of the lesson. I sent an invite for them to meet me on the beach and soon each student showed up in a poof of orange blocky smoke. They took in the space, heads swiveling and hands pointing at various features.

As I watched each materialize and take in the space, I really started to focus on what they were doing. A student teleported over to the couches, materializing seated on the cushions while sighing-groaning deeply and throwing her head back. If I didn’t know who that student was from the name floating above her head, I would have known it now because I’d often seen her do the same thing in class. Two others zoomed around the island to explore. I could see their arms up and their heads leaning forward as they zoomed away. I knew it wouldn’t take them long to search the place, I’d made the island small just for that reason and in a moment they were back at the couches. These two are explorers and also my quality assurance guys. They are the ones to let me know something is out of place even when they were the ones who “out of placed” it. I saw that same body language from class in the explorers now as they looked for anything funny I might have added to the space. I could even tell them apart at a distance from how they arranged themselves and snapped around the island.

We were all standing except for the sighing one on the couch. We all felt like doing the same and relaxing a bit. On campus, I used VR as a chance to get my students out of their chairs so we had developed a habit of standing most of the time in VR experiences. We had also talked to a bunch of people rather quickly in a typical chaotic high school style. Those kinds of interactions can wear you out as well. “Are you sitting down at home?”, one of the explorers remarked to the sighing girl.

“Oh, you know it, I’ve been sitting down this whole time”, said Sigh-y the sighing girl.

I added my two cents, “I’m gonna grab a chair and a bit of this couch.”

quick template island in RecRoom

The explorers’ avatars looked at each other then started staring up into the air. Sigh-y and I could tell in the physical world the explorers were looking through a little gap between the bottom of their VR headset and their nose to find a comfy spot in the physical world to take a load off. Each avatar grabbed something invisible about waist high and then lowered themselves down onto a couch. I adjusted my chair to be the right height so I wasn’t sitting inside the graphic of the couch and the others did the same. As we settled in we noticed our avatars were grinning but, back in our own little spaces we remarked that our corporeal selves were smiling too. We were all going through these simple natural actions like sitting together, feeling we were near each other and things felt lighter.

From the conversational assessment on the beach, we had: learned a small intro about sociology, spoke critically about how we felt social solidarity may need to be updated for digital communities, showed curiosity about social facts, and played as we moved through the entire class. We felt near one another and for a short time, we had left our homes. That feeling was like a cool breeze as most things had felt very insular for quite some time.

I had thought about it before but after this meeting, I became sure VR would be crucial to maintain and push learning momentum as we move to decentralize many aspects of society including education.

See how we can change the world in part 2

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Your turn to change the world Pt. 2

Your Turn to change the world pt. 2

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Many of you may already know the acronym RIDE that was developed by Derek Belch of StriVR. What RIDE helps us remember is

Quarterback Training built by StriVR for NFL and College football.

that good VR content comes from something that is Rare, Impossible, Dangerous, and/or Expensive to experience. When my classes evaluate VR experiences, we would think about RIDE as we looked at what the experience itself provided. The good ones usually had one or more aspects of RIDE running through them. However, right now, that RIDE acronym finds a place outside of VR. It is rare, impossible, dangerous, or expensive for many of us to do much outside of keeping ourselves safe and healthy in one place. We need VR to have more natural experiences that a flat video screen is not giving us.

Forbes, USA Today, Psychology Today, and the WSJ (as well as many others) have pointed out our hard time existing on video conferences, especially when we are trying to decode body cues from multiple windows and keep our focus while working in the same space we live. Context is where I see many students and teachers begin to check out. You might begin your day talking to your relatives, then to students, then friends you would normally video chat with due to distance, and it may have felt oddly draining. Then, other contextual oddities start to pop up. You’re at home, so why not pop over to the bathroom real quick during a meeting since you can turn off your camera? Why wouldn’t you do this, you’re probably at home? The mix of familiarity with outside responsibility can cause dissonance that often promotes frustration.

Zoom with everyone talking at once.

Personally, I felt more tied to my desk and more detached from others when working through video meetings. That lack of context for interactions is causing stress amongst people as well. Gianpiero Petriglieri is an associate professor at Insead that researches workplace learning and development. Petriglieri offers, “Most of our social roles happen in different places, but now the context has collapsed.”

We are having to change that context in our minds instead of having it changed around us. That contextual change is not available to us in video chats as Petriglieri continues.

“Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. Our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” Petriglieri stated.

That lack of context for educators and learners can create a wall for direct teaching. Most direct teaching is collaboration or guided interaction. If you’re working through examples on a board as the students follow along with you, I wouldn’t consider that direct teaching. Those aspects of a lesson could be flipped into a video or even just workbook assignments that can be handled outside of class without the teacher’s presence. Direct teaching requires an instructor to debug issues with students. You are working through their misunderstandings so that you can unravel their little tangle of Christmas lights that are keeping them from moving forward. This is where VR direct teaching shines against video chats. Since VR allows us to socially arrange, posture, and speak as we would naturally, we are able to operate with a much smaller disconnect.

“And since the buildings were just pieces of software, their design wasn’t limited by monetary constraints, or even by the laws of physics. So every school was a grand palace of learning, with polished marble hallways, cathedral-like classrooms, zero-g gymnasiums, and virtual libraries containing every (school board–approved) book ever written.” - “Ready Player ONE” Ernest Cline pgs 31-32

Future VR schools taught by real and ideal STEM legends. Here showing Leonardo Da Vinci, Tony Stark, and Hedy Lamarr

In “Ready Player ONE” when the O.A.S.I.S. comes online, it provides free school for everyone in a massive VR online community. The O.A.S.I.S. also provided a medium for creating context that was previously out of the hands of 99% of people in the world. As teachers, we know there are districts that get to do some amazing things because the bonds and tax brackets of the citizenry allow for a more robust educational experience than other places. VR can bring that same top tier experience to everyone without the issues of location.

VR can give us a level playing field for every student, a more natural way to connect at a distance, we can curate the context for every individual, we can cultivate personalized learning in a way never truly available before. We can be anywhere acting as any element of an experience when our classes are in VR. We can create a never-ending amount of digital content allowing students and teachers to own their “classroom” and make an experiential learning space that puts them in the “thick of the action”.

Here’s the thing, I talk to educators of every stratum and when I get to demo VR for them I get a few different reactions. Often they think it is amazing where the tech is and how we can get a great experience for the same cost as a chrome book or iPad. I’ll get a few that automatically lock-up at the thought of trying to get funds. Then others look up and dream a bit about how they could use it in their classroom. I can often offer them some ideas of how they could make that happen and they might entertain the idea over a little conversation.

Then, I’ll see them shake their heads. I know why they do that. They look back at their myriad of responsibilities, their special cases they want to help, the training they have to go through, parents they need to contact, figuring out where the money will come from and that all comes together for the day time workload, we haven’t even talked about what happens when you go home. I know the workload. I’ve had stretches of 5 to 6 different preps and then new students come in or leave; the whole thing gets turned upside down at least once a month. There’s quite a bit that goes into the regular day and night of a teacher. So asking a teacher to take on something new, that they may really enjoy, and add it to their curriculum will need help.

I can tell you that today any subjects can be taught through self-authored content in VR and then hybridized to include studio created VR content with your own. Varsity VR is working on woven experiences with students and we're developing some example classes for teachers to pull from.

Image from page 255 of "The underground railroad" From the internet archive

In one experience students can interact with linear equations as they repair a faulty power grid for a town. Then they bring their historical research to build a depiction of slaves escaping with the help of the underground railroad escape. Students would script the experience, produce logic for environmental interactions, create massive sets and costumes with 3D modeling, and digitally produce all the elements that will bring the experience to life. An entire class could dissect a gigantic frog so every organ is easy to identify and just for fun, turn it into a Double Dare style game show. Then for an assessment teleport to an archery range for team assessment of today’s content as they shoot the correct answers out of the air. This can all be created right now, with off the shelf elements but you may not know where to start, how to get those early victories that help you keep going, or simply find what you need as a teacher in this new space. This where Varsity VR will help you.

VarsityVR is a growing team of K-12 educators from around the country that believe virtual reality is where the next group of creative, empathic, and future skilled students will emerge from. We want to open up our findings and experience to help others create a learning space that will be immersive at a distance.

Varsity VR will be testing and adapting VR pedagogy further while working to help educators move the best aspects of their physical classrooms into VR experiences. Varsity VR will be creating RecRoom centric VR Ed tools, demos, classes, and tutoring around how to move your lessons and the amazing things you do in your classroom into RecRoom. The reason VarsityVR has chosen RecRoom over the growing number of VR multiplayer collaborative environments will become evident through our content. One thing to keep in mind is that RecRoom allows everyone in a class to create, make, design, develop, invent, and share with any 6 degree of freedom headset. That includes everything from a Hot Rod Valve Index on a spec’d out desktop to a Sporty Wireless Oculus Quest. While we are focused on VR RecRoom also allows players to interact over PC and iOs devices. I’ve popped into RecRoom briefly on my iPhone to easily spot check projects. The platform has shown to be very versatile.

Varsity VR will have weekly video tutorials and meetups to help teachers integrate their physical classroom into the VR space. We want educators to demonstrate how teachers can use VR authoring tools to create content on their own and alongside students. We’ll cover use cases for different subjects (core/elective/physical education) as well as differentiation, personalization, and classroom management.  Physical education at a distance is

Along with RecRoom integration, we will be providing data around digital learning; specifically focused on VR but also hybrids and any issues to be aware of as new information materializes about each. We will be providing our own data as well as links to other sources that have done their due diligence to provide the best information at the time. We aren’t completely dismissing the use of other VR experiences. On the contrary, we will be offering reviews and methods you can incorporate current educational VR experiences alongside your self authored content so you can expand your cache of tools. We even have a few reviews from students from before the pandemic. We want to make sure everyone has the leading information available to make the best decisions as we move to make one of the largest shifts in education.

We look forward to helping educators make their move into VR and create new vistas of learning.

If you would like to be contacted when new articles, tutorials, demos, reviews, or anything else exciting that is happening with VR and education; leave your contact information in the provided form and we'll keep you up to date.

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