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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Posted by Tyeron Hammontree

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