Global Change, vr and Learning

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The Impact of Three Dimensional Immersive Virtual Environments on Modern Pedagogy

Global Change, VR and Learning

A Report of Workshops Held in:

Seattle, Washington and at the University of Loughborough, England,

in May and June, 1997

Prepared for the National Science Foundation

Thomas A Furness III, PI,

Director, Human Interface Technology Laboratory

William Winn, Co-PI,

College of Education and Human Interface Technology Laboratory
Rose Yu, Manager of Special Projects,

Human Interface Technology Laboratory

at the University of Washington

January 30, 1998

Table of Contents

Executive Summary 4

PART 1: Overview

Introduction 5

Workshop Objectives 6
Workshop Focus 6
Workshop Assessment 8

PART 2: Workshop Deliberations and Recommendations

Organization of Part 2 9

Learning 10
General Principles 10

Experiential Learning 11

Points of View of Knowledge 11

Symbol Systems 11

Global Change 13

Natural Processes Relevant to Global Change 14

Human Influence on Global Change 14

Assessment of Change and Predictions of the Future 15
IV. Attributes of Virtual Reality 16
Autonomy, Presence, Interaction 16

Dimensionality 17

Egocentric and exocentric perspectives 17

Other attributes of VR 18

V. Learning and Global Change 19
Conceptualizing Relevant Processes 20

Importance of Scale 20

Natural Variability, Human Impact and Global Change 20

Predicting Global Change 20

Common Misconceptions 21

Global vs. Local and Personal Perspectives 21

VI. Learning and VR 22
General Principle 22

Other Principles 22

VII. Learning, VR and Global Change 25
Summary: Cognitive requirements for learning about Global 25


Summary: Relevant attributes of VR 26

Using VR to Learn About Global Change 27

VIII. Recommendations for Research 29

Research Questions: 29

Can We Increase Motivation? 29

Can We Help Students Make Sense of Real World? 29

Does VR Help Students Build Mental Models? 30

Can VR Develop Ability to Synthesize, Abstract, Predict and 30


Can VR Increase Retention Rate? 30

More General Questions 30
Sample Testable Hypotheses 31

Independent Variables to Manipulate Across Technologies and 32


Other Issues Affecting Research and Implementation of 32

Technology in Schools
Seattle Workshop Participants. 33


The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITL) at the University of Washington to hold a three-day workshop on “The Impact of Three Dimensional Immersive Virtual Environments on Modern Pedagogy” in Seattle, Washington, and a three-hour mini-workshop at a Virtual Reality in Education and Training (VRET ‘97) Conference in Loughborough, England. These workshops were held in May and June, 1997, respectively.

The HITL invited people with backgrounds in educational technology, cognitive psychology, global change and K-12 education. Relevant industrial participants were also invited but only one was able to attend. The workshop brought together 35 people from across the US and it was held at Battelle Conference Center. This informal format provided opportunities to exchange ideas in and out of sessions. There was a mixture of general plenary discussions, individual and group presentations, and small group break out sessions.
Overall the feedback from the participants was positive. There was a sense that bringing together representatives from the four groups of people at the Seattle workshop was an effective way to get at the issues, though some problems did arise--namely the lack of time to draw more concrete conclusions among and between the groups. Introducing some of the concepts presented in the Seattle workshop to European counterparts at VRET ‘97 showed that there were more similarities than differences between the problems faced by researchers and developers working with VR on both sides of the Atlantic.
This final report primarily is our effort to synthesize, distill and summarize the discussions and comments made by participants in the Seattle workshop. Where relevant, comments from our European participants are also included and noted. No clear consensus was reached regarding the recommendations to NSF. Hence, the recommendations are not listed in any priority order and merely reflect the various points brought up during the discussions.
We would like to thank Janice DeCosmo at the University of Washington, who provided significant input on the global change content areas. Bev Lynds and Ron Kantor also provide helpful insights on prior drafts of the final report.


I. Introduction

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITL) at the University of Washington to hold a three-day workshop on “The Impact of Three Dimensional Immersive Virtual Environments on Modern Pedagogy” in Seattle, Washington, and a three-hour mini-workshop at a Virtual Reality in Education and Training (VRET ‘97) Conference in Loughborough, England. These workshops were held in May and June, 1997, respectively. The Seattle workshop brought together 35 educational technologists, teachers, cognitive scientists and specialists in global change from across the United States. A list of those in attendance is p[rovided in the Appendix to this report. The VRET mini-workshop brought together approximately 50 people who’s background were primarily in educational technology. This report is based on the discussions, comments and recommendations that arose at both workshops.

The purpose of the workshops was to identify the key questions surrounding the use of advanced immersive and desktop computer technologies to teach complex science material, exemplified by global change, in K-12 education. From these questions, the workshops were charged with developing an agenda for conducting research on the relative merits and effectiveness of these technologies.
To date, virtual reality technology has been used primarily in the military, training, and entertainment markets. Now, however, the means to produce immersive, interactive virtual environments have developed to the point where it is feasible to use virtual environments in schools to help students learn. However, there has been no careful and systematic study of the capability of virtual environments, relative to other often cheaper technologies and their attendant pedagogies, for helping students learn. Part of the challenge of research focusing upon the development and testing of such environments is finding ways to integrate them within existing school culture. The adequate testing of such technologies requires an approach that synthesizes VR technologies with new theories of learning.
There is a concern that children graduate from high school without an understanding of science that is sufficient for them to enter the workforce or to continue their education in college. This is largely because arriving at even a rudimentary understanding of the true complexity of natural science defies traditional teaching strategies that oversimplify natural phenomena to make them teachable and emphasizes decontextualized assessment and declarative knowledge.
Global change was chosen as the science content because there is a consensus that children need to understand the ramifications of continued misuse of the Earth's land, air and oceans. The complexity of the processes that affect the world through global change meet the criterion of complexity of the science content to study.
No single laboratory can be expected to have all the expertise in virtual reality, instructional technology and science content to be able to develop and execute a program of research into the characteristics of the most effective ways teach science. An interdisciplinary and collaborative approach is needed, especially at the planning stage, and a model of research and development, recently referred to as “design experiments”, should be adopted that places researchers in vivo, inside classrooms on an ongoing basis.

II. Workshop Objectives

The objectives of the workshops were to:

  • Identify characteristics of immersive 3-dimensional virtual environments and non-immersive simulations that can be used to improve children's understanding of complex material in the science curriculum.

  • Determine basic concepts and principles that children in need to learn in order to understand some fundamental cause and effect relationships in the global change phenomenon. (Seattle only).

  • Develop testable hypotheses about which pedagogical strategies are most likely to succeed in teaching basic global change concepts and principles in a variety of learning environments. Develop testable hypotheses about the relative advantages of immersive environments and 2-dimensional simulations versus traditional methods for supporting these pedagogical strategies.

  • Provide researchers approaches to test these hypotheses, thereby identifying the advantages and disadvantages of immersive virtual environments and their attendant pedagogies, relative to 2-dimensional simulations, for teaching this kind of material.

III. Workshop Focus.

To give focus to the workshop, participants received two documents before arriving in Seattle. The first was a list of questions designed to draw attention to the key issues the workshop was expected to address. The second was a “White Paper”, prepared by Bill Winn, that elaborated on the questions and provided more context for the workshop’s deliberations. (This paper may be found at HITL’s web site, as document R-97-15.)

The questions for discussion fell into five groups:

Attributes of virtual reality

1. What particular attributes of virtual environments, desktop multimedia programs and simulations and other strategies for teaching about global change are likely to be the most successful?

2. Is immersive VR sufficiently different from its precursors to permit entirely new learning experiences that might lead to large improvements in students’ understanding of Global Change?
If VR is to make innovative and unique contributions to learning, it is critical to start by identifying what the technology is uniquely capable of offering to educators.

Global change as subject matter

3. What concepts and principles of Global Change are important for students to understand while at the same time serving as good learning tasks for research.

4. What common misconceptions do students have about Global Change? Which of these might the various technologies and strategies we discuss be best suited to correct?
5. What new misconceptions might VR, or other technologies, create in students’ understanding of Global Change?
Although it is to be hoped that research will identify the usefulness and pitfalls of using VR for all subject areas, Global Change is a particularly useful domain to begin with. It is topical and helping students understand how it works is of critical importance to preserving our standard of living for suture generations. It is sufficiently complex to provide a rigorous test of the capabilities of VR for learning. It is a content area that lends itself well to students learning by exploration and by applying the scientific method.

Approaches to learning using technology

6. What teaching and learning strategies are best matched with which technology to be most successful in helping students understand Global Change?

7. Are strategies based on constructivist theories of learning particular effective for teaching about Global Change using technology?
It is likely that new technologies will not attain their maximum potential in education if they are only used to implement current strategies for teaching and learning. It is reasonable to expect that VR is capable of supporting innovative pedagogy (as well as existing pedagogy). A starting point for pedagogical innovation is likely to be emerging theories of knowledge construction by students.

Student characteristics

8. Is it possible, or necessary, to match strategies and technologies that teach about Global Change to particular student characteristics?

9. How much knowledge of Global Change and basic skills in Math and Science must students have before working with virtual environments, simulations and other modes of instruction?
Past experience with computer-based education has shown that learning with technology is not the best road for all students to follow. It is likely that VR also will be more effective with some students than with others. It is also possible that that effectiveness of VR will vary according to how much knowledge of the subject students bring to their learning experiences in virtual environments.

The risks of advocacy

10. What research methodologies and designs should be used to provide rigorous and objective tests of the relative merits of the various technologies and strategies to teach about Global Change?

11. How much can we generalize from research findings about Global Change to other areas of science and other disciplines?
VR has caught the public’s imagination and has raised expectations among some that it will solve a number of educational problems. Such advocacy has, in the case of past technologies, led to disappointment and to the dismissal by educators of even those technologies that can be effective. It is therefore important for us to use appropriate methods to study VR’s effectiveness and to determine the subject areas to which it can make the most contribution.

IV. Workshop Assessment.
The most important products from the Seattle workshop were the deliberations and recommendations that are reported in Part 2 of this report. The quantity and quality of these attest to the overall success of the workshop. Formal and informal feedback showed that participants were generally positive towards the activities, although some felt that there had not been enough time to complete the work and one or two felt that they had not been able to integrate with their working groups. However, most judged the collaboration of scientists, cognitive scientists, teachers and educational technologists to have been a productive feature of the workshop.
The mini-workshop, conducted by Rose Yu and Bill Winn at the VRET Conference in Loughborough, was, likewise, well received and judged a success. The interaction among European and North American scholars working on educational applications of VR led to some insights that would not otherwise have arisen. While it is somewhat risky to generalize, the greater pragmatism of several European colleagues led to some interesting discussions during the group sessions.

I. Organization of Part 2

This part of the report summarizes of the discussions and recommendations from both workshops. The information that follows is organized around three themes -- Learning, Global Change and Virtual Reality -- and, more importantly, around the intersections of these themes, shown in the following diagram.

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