The 1992 sessions, for example, consisted of approximately twenty-five pupils between 10 and 15 years of age who were mainly drawn from the Seattle area, plus about a dozen staff members.
The daily timetable was organized around activities such as computer graphics, electronic music, and VR itself. The end goal, however, was to build a virtual world. Pupils worked in small groups on the process of world-building and were encouraged to work as teams. (Schroeder, 1996, p. 70)
The technology for this system consisted of both the developmental tools, the PCs and special plug in technology and an immersive system, not afforded to all program trials but very useful here, as can be seen by the outcomes and the engaged student body of the program.
The equipment for building worlds was Swivel 3-D software (see Kalawsky 1993:211-212), and the immersive system consisted of a VPL system with a glove or hand-held 3-D mouse (see Figure 4.1). 3
Several features of this project deserve to be highlighted. One is that the process of learning how to build virtual worlds was achieved in a relatively short time. Pupils put together their worlds in less than a week. They were given an "allowance" of polygons and within this limit could build any world they liked. A sense of the kinds of worlds pupils built can be gleaned from the names they chose, such as Moon Colony, Mid-evil [i.e., medieval] Spacestation, and Neighborhood. When I had an opportunity to fly through some of these worlds in the lab, they appeared imaginative and contained many outlandish features. (Schroeder, 1996, p. 70)
In another student driven program discussed itn the 1996 book there is and example of a program developed without the use of an immersive technology system. Yet, the program still garnered a large amount of success and the student driven outcomes were just as impressive, though much more applicable to educational curriculum, probably as a result of the school-based rather than experimental-based system being used for the experiment.
A two desktop VR systems: the Virtus Walkthrough software to run on an Apple Macintosh computer and the Dimension Superscape Toolkit (the firm Dimension has since become Superscape), which runs on a customized personal computer supplied by Dimension and includes a spaceball as an input device (see Figure 4.2). 4
Both suppliers, especially Dimension, supported the project with staff and expertise, and have, in turn, been rewarded with considerable publicity from the project.
It needs to be emphasized that both VR systems in this case were of the desktop type, using a desktop personal computer with a mouse or a spaceball input device. (Schroeder, 1996, p. 72)
It is also noted by the author that the desktop systems did not impeded the use of VR as a developmental tool and did not alter student or instructor's perception of the program as a success, regardless of the inability to apply their work to immersive technology. The applications, or outcomes of the programs developed into technical and trade oriented training devises consisting of art and design programs and even a safety application for training future factory workers with lifelike precision how to avoid injury in a moving factory setting.
West Denton also has a number of pupils pursuing postsecondary diploma courses (Business and Technical Education Council Certificate or BTEC) in art and design. These pupils made up a large proportion of those using the VR systems. (Schroeder, 1996, p. 73) VR was intended for use in several areas of the curriculum -- language, for which a French virtual city was developed, and art and design, for which students created a virtual sculpture gallery. Yet the main project to reach completion in the summer of 1992 was the Dangerous Workplace world, a factory with moving machinery and forklifts. This world was built in collaboration with NEI Parsons, the sponsoring engineering firm, and was created particularly with a view to learning about safety at work. The collaboration involved pupils visiting the firm's factory to get a sense of the relation between the virtual world and the model on which it was based. NEI Parsons employees, in turn, were able to visit the school and work to help design the "factory."
(Schroeder, 1996, p. 74)
Video Games and Learning Technology
The third application shows the potential of the use of VR for alternative learning, for students with challenges beyond the standard student. The final application is demonstrative of how VR can be used to help developmentally challenged students overcome difficulty and even excel at communication, they might never have been afforded in a traditional model of teaching.
The Shepherd School employs the Makaton system of alternative communication, authored by Margaret Walker (1987), which is the standard system used in British special needs schools. The system uses hand signs and iconic symbols that stand for objects to teach language and communication concepts. It aims to develop communication skills among people with very different abilities and can be used in connection with a variety of learning disabilities, such as autism, mental retardation, specific language disorder, acquired neurological problems, and multiple sensory handicap. (Schroeder, 1996, p. 77)
The system Design is much like that of an early video game with the exception of the inclusion of much more realistic graphics and visual representations. The demonstration of the successful use of other types of technology as learning aides for students with special needs has been seen in other areas. Garnering experience from the application of the use of realistic media and entertainment technologies is expanded here through the use of VR technology.
The system consists of vocabulary and is designed to be taught through a series of stages with increasing complexity. Thus it tries to develop not only language skills but also more sophisticated general communication skills. At the Shepherd School, as at West Denton, the VR system is integrated with existing teaching methods and with the existing curriculum. The virtual worlds in this case consist of roomlike spaces in which different objects -- such as a mug, a ball, and a television set -- are displayed. The Makaton symbol for the object is displayed in another part of the room. If pupils succeed in matching the Makaton symbol with the object by navigating through the room, the thumbs up sign appears (see Figures 4.3, 4.4). (Schroeder, 1996, p. 77-78)
The project created a sense of accomplishment for students, teachers and partners with the use of a promising new tool for the application of new psychosocial theories being applied to special needs students all over the world.
In the case of VR use at the Shepherd School, it is important to touch briefly on the theories that underlie the processes of human learning. In recent years, cognitive psychology has emerged as the most prominent approach within this field. Moreover, with respect to language acquisition, the Piagetian perspective, which stresses the interaction between the individual and the external environment, has proved particularly useful (Jones 1995:250-252). It is also worth mentioning the relevance of debates about language, which revolve around the question of how pictures may best be used to acquire language skills. Without going into these theories or debates, 11 the point to note for our purposes is that Shepherd School pupils were able to exercise a sense of control in the virtual environment, since they could interact with the objects and icons on the computer screen. (Schroeder, 1996, p. 77-78)
Students who are often lost to traditional forms of teaching are drawn into a comfortable state of virtual reality, not unlike other forms of technology they may have used or been exposed to, which allows them a sense of greater control over their environment which in turn assists them in their development of skills for learning and communication in the outside world.
It has been noted in other learning contexts that interaction with computers using graphics and animation enhances pupils' sense of control (Garland 1982). Furthermore, because the representation of objects in a virtual environment is more "realistic" than in a conventional picture, active participation also helps to overcome the limitations of other learning methods. This interaction and realism were made possible because of the way in which the Makaton system of hand signs and symbols could be translated into a three-dimensional virtual environment that could be manipulated (Schroeder, 1996, p. 77-78)
Within these three varied examples is a starting off point for further research and development of VR technologies and their application to education. Having pointed out three ways in which VR technology can be applied to a learning program should give the reader a base for the devolvement of further assimilative use in a traditional school setting.
Within the vast educational challenges of the day there are many worth further exploration, yet above any other, technology rises to a special need. The development of virtual schools and distance education programs have a base, for application through the…