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Learning in Virtual Spaces

This session plan introduces students to the experience of learning about language, culture and identity in virtual spaces, through the use of Head Mounted Displays.

Published onOct 28, 2021
Learning in Virtual Spaces
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Session Specifics

1 hour workshop - This session can be delivered as a combination of practical activity and discussion. It does require students to be able to access virtual worlds using Head Mounted Displays (HMD) and specifically access the application Altspace VR.

Instructional Partners

This session can be facilitated by disciplinary teaching faculty in language learning, critical cultural learning and any other area engaged in the study of language, culture and identity. It may be useful to include technical support in the planning and delivery of this session, particularly if there is a lack of familiarity with the headset technology or applications referred to below.

Audience

Students at all levels new to working in Virtual Reality (VR).

Curricular Context

This activity is based on a session delivered for the course Multicultural Immersion: Exploring your world in Virtual Reality. This is a course in the Department of Modern Languages, within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, that explores language, culture and identity through immersive storytelling. In this course, students explore the affordances of Immersive XR Technology (including Virtual and Augmented Realities) and produce 360˙ videos about aspects of culture and language using 360˙ cameras, smartphone apps and media editing applications.

A short session in a virtual world using HMD is included to help students gain a better understanding of what it is like to use VR and experience the feelings and sensations of being in a virtual world. Discussions are centered on the affordances of the technology and how it might potentially be used for learning. 

This session could be run in the second or third week of class, allowing time for students to familiarize themselves with the technology, and more importantly to provide some time for pre-discussion of the topics and learning outcomes proposed by this session. 

Some of these sessions have taken place remotely during pandemic lockdown when students have not been on site. We include some recommendations for working remotely and advise on managing the session via Zoom or other video conference tool. 

This session is adaptable to any project or course that can be taught in virtual spaces.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Learner is able to access VR chat and online virtual worlds using a HMD.

  2. Learner is able to articulate the feelings and sensations of moving through a virtual space.

  3. Learner can identify key affordances of the space and discuss potential for interaction, communication and learning.

  4. Learner is able to reflect on cultural aspects of meeting people in VR and apply an understanding of identity and the self to experiences in virtual worlds. 

Preparation

Prior to the session we asked students if they had access to a HMD. Although this activity can be carried out using a variety of different brands and types, the main condition is that the headset can access Steam or Oculus Platforms and install the AltspaceVR application. Those students who did not have immediate access were provided with headsets as part of a lending scheme run by the university and guided through the installation process. 

Instructors should remind students to ensure that headsets are charged and connected to broadband, that they have enough space around them and have at least some familiarity with turning the headset on and starting up applications.

When working remotely, we recommend that students join a pre-session via Zoom or other video conferencing tool to ensure that everyone is ready and able to move into the virtual reality space. 

AltspaceVR (owned by Microsoft) was chosen as an established platform with a series of useful features. Although there is a growing number of VR Chat platforms, we assessed the viability of AltspaceVR against the following criteria. 

  • Cost and availability - Altspace VR is available to download via the Oculus store for free, it will load into the headset and is accessible via the library menu. If students do not not have a headset or only have one for a limited period of time, the platform is accessible via windows or 2D desktop mode. 

  • Privacy and Safety - Altspace is supported by community standards and moderators who work to ensure that spaces are free from bullying, hatred and harassment. However, this can occur in any online space and this platform allows users to use nametags for privacy, as well as to block, mute or hide from other users in this virtual space. The instructor can create and invite students to exclusive class spaces. . 

  • Usability - AltspaceVR limits avatar customization and provides a series of ready-made rooms and spaces for users. New spaces are being introduced, the physics and dynamics of a space and the current functionality that the platform current provide, are consistent throughout the platform. Spaces are communal with areas for presentation (stages) and conversation (firepits and seating areas). There are sheltered spaces where small groups can gather and open spaces for larger groups.

Preparation in AltspaceVR

Instructors should create a room in the virtual world and set up a group that is open to an approved list of guests (the students). As the Host, the instructor can create a new room or meeting space. We suggest that the instructor invite students directly into the space via email. 

For more information about setting up a room and exploring the affordances of this platform, please visit - https://altvr.com/what-can-you-do-in-altspacevr/

Computer generated figure in a plaid shirt appears in a virtual reality room.

Figure 1. Screengrab from virtual learning session using AltSpaceVR platform.

Materials

  • Recommended HMD - Oculus Series Headsets, HTC Vive Series Headsets or similar with access to Steam or Oculus platforms. 

  • Students need to install "Alt-Spaces VR" or similar virtual worlds application into their headset prior to the session. If the student is not working remotely and/or the institution owns the HMDs, the instructor can complete and preload the installation onto the headset. 

  • Instructions for setting up AltspaceVR

  • Computer (with webcam, if working remotely). 

  • Paper and pen/pencil. 

Alternative Preparation

Many aspects of this session can be replicated using alternative platforms such as VRChat or Second Life (VR). However, as an instructor you should visit these ahead of time and have some familiarity with the different cultures and quirks of each environment. As previously discussed, this lesson focuses on AltSpaceVR because of its functionalities and manageability as an educational tool and privacy features.

Student wears VR headset in a classroom setting while other students look on.

Figure 2. Students using Oculus Rift Headsets in the Global Languages & Cultures Room at Carnegie Mellon University.

Session Outline

Introduction

10 minutes

  1. Provide a short overview of the session and its components.

  2. Discuss preparation and ensure everyone has HMDs that are charged and functional. 

  3. Talk though onboarding with the headset, how to put it on correctly (eyes first just like putting on swimming goggles and strap lowered over the back of the head). Ensure that each student has space around them and that they feel safe and physically able to participate. 

  4. Discuss what happens if the technology fails (see section) and provide reassurance that this is a common side effect. 

  5. If a student experiences motion sickness during the exercise, we advise that they take the headset off immediately, sit down and focus on an object in the distance. In severe cases, the student may need to rest or sit out the rest of the headset portion of the lesson. 

Loading and meeting in VR

5 minutes

  1. Students and instructors put the headsets on and enter the VR space. The instructor should invite students into the host space. This space will provide privacy from other AltspaceVR users and allow the students to become familiar with the controls, spatial environment and ways of communicating.

Familiarization with controls and moving through the virtual space

10 minutes

  1. Students may find the initial sensation quite overwhelming and it is important to provide time for them to get used to the controls, learn how to move around the space by "teleporting" and "jumping" through locations. 

  2. Students may also be unsure about ways to communicate. We suggest that the instructor  find an open space and gather the students to try the different tools on the control menu. These may include muting, speaking and communicating through emoticons. These are a feature of AltspaceVR and users commonly send strings of emotes as a non-intrusive way to react to a speaker. 

Playing in AltspaceVR

5 minutes

  1. As the students become more confident moving and communicating through the space, the instructor  should invite them to try the interactive features, for instance firing rockets or playing basketball. 

  2. As the students  wander around the space, they may want to interact with  items that have not yet been coded, such as  board markers, display screens and music features. However there is much that can be used and many spaces to explore. As students become more confident the instructor may take them through other spaces, such as outdoor or office spaces to give them a sense of different virtual environments. 

User etiquette and staying safe

5 minutes

  1. Students should discuss the boundaries of personal space, what it feels like to be close to someone or separated from the group, how these sensations translate the environment and inhibit or affect interactions with other users. Students should familiarize themselves with the Community Guidelines provided by AltspaceVR. 

  2. If the students are visiting public spaces they may encounter other users. The instructor may advise students on how to create a "bubble" around them (choose the option on the control menu) which will prevent them from hearing other users. As a part of their learning, students may gain the confidence to talk to other users and ask them about their experience  visiting virtual worlds. Just as in any forum or social media, students should be advised to avoid sharing personal or identifying information about themselves. The instructor should discuss procedures for reporting or blocking other users which can be controlled easily using the menu options on the handheld controller. 

Teaching & Learning in VR

10 minutes

  1. During the session you should take users into a private host room to discuss the affordances of learning in a virtual world.

  2. Discussion could center around a variety of topics, including ways learners can connect across locations to collaborate.

  3. The instructor may provide questions and discussion prompts on identity and the use of avatars, as well as privacy and safety concerns in virtual spaces, emotional connection and the feeling of presence. 

  4. Students should also have the opportunity to take the floor for a short pre-prepared presentation. They may prepare a short talk using a presentation or webpage linked to one of the many display screens in AltspaceVR. They may comment on the sensation of presenting in a virtual space and the challenges or ease in taking control for a few minutes. 

Two students stand in front of a screen and a project engaging in a virtual world.

Figure 3. Students guide and support each other as they use the Oculus Quest VR headsets.

Leaving VR and follow-up discussion

10 minutes

  1. Students should take a few moments to adjust themselves back to the "real" world once they have removed their headsets and the instructor should give them a few moments to reacclimate and center themselves. The sensation is similar to leaving a cinema when a film ends and the student may feel slightly disoriented for a few moments.

  2. Give students a few minutes to write their thoughts down on paper. This activity can begin with a simple prompt to list some of the sensations that they experienced in VR.

  3. Discuss contrasts and similarities between learning in a virtual space, remote learning (video conference) and the physical classroom space.

  4. Invite discussion on the potential for learning in virtual spaces. (Questions might include - If you were designing your own VR space for learning, what features would you include to ensure an effective experience for students?)

Learning about culture, language and identity in VR

Meeting people in virtual worlds is an interesting and fascinating experience. We can adopt avatars that are reflective of aspects of our identity, or make up new ones and experiment with how we choose to represent ourselves. Our avatars can be older or younger versions of ourselves, we can make choices about gender, personal appearance, including skin color, we can change our body shape or choose how we dress, whether formal, casual or even costume. 

This is an opportunity to talk to the students about the choices that they make and how they choose to express their online identities. Students might also consider how aspects of culture are represented and why it is problematic to appropriate cultural identities in avatars. We might also discuss the cultures of the worlds that have been created, whether they reflect a western mono-culture or what considerations should be taken into account given users from across the world. 

These aspects reflect ongoing discussions in technology. Location trackers are often used to choose a language or situate users from the same region together along with information that may only be relevant to a specific place. It is often revealing when learners from different countries share their experiences of using the web, for instance - where different languages may be used and when users are looking for information that is specific to a particular culture, rather than location. 

Many of the users in this session reflected on their choices of representation and used the opportunity to discuss the monocultural and monolingual bias of web-based and virtual technologies. These design choices suggest an assumed default user. This often results in inaccessible spaces and lack of representation for many users, including non-English speakers; Black, Indigenous and People of Color;  disabled users; and users who are not from Western European countries. 

Asynchronous follow-up

  1. Learners may wish to provide further reflection in the plenary at the start of the next lesson. 

  2. The instructors may encourage learners to explore similar virtual worlds and discuss the contrasts and affordances between them. 

When technology fails

Technology will fail on occasion. If the instructor’s or a student’s HMD fails, please provide reassurance and support. Although a failure is not intended for this lesson, it could form the basis of a further session or discussion, especially if the students have the opportunity to act as facilitators and instructors for first-time users. 

In the case of a student’s HMD failing, the instructor  can display the view from inside the headset via link cable or wifi casting. The student or students can continue to watch the session via their video conference display. If a student moves from participant to observer they can assist those wearing  the headsets to discuss the feelings and sensations, describe details and facilitate activities. 

If technical difficulties and headset issues occur in a remote setting, the instructor can continue to include student participants maintaining a live Zoom link or conference call. The instructor should budget extra time to troubleshoot or reset the headsets (including their own).

The instructor should also factor in time for proper HMD cleaning. Headsets should be cleaned regularly, usually with an alcohol-free wipe (to prevent the rubber coating from perishing over time). If students share headsets they may prefer to use a disposable paper cover for the headset. Due to COVID-19 precautions, we do not recommend sharing headsets during the pandemic.

Reflection

Our VR session initially occurred during the emergency remote learning period of the global pandemic. Students were asked if they had access to HMDs and by consensus we agreed to run sessions using these headsets in virtual reality. In this course, students studied the affordances of immersive technologies, in particular 360˚ documentary video, with the objective of creating XR stories using smartphones. Spending time in VR helped us speak to visual, physical and sensory elements of the experience. 

As this course was taught remotely, this was the first time we had all met together in the same room, albeit as virtual avatars in a 3D environment. We talked through the feelings associated with being in VR, played games and visited other spaces and the VR experience overall. The feedback was very positive and students provided thoughtful reflection, some included below, about the possibilities of VR. We have since run further sessions, and although we are limited by the availability of VR Headsets, we are keen to ensure that all aspects of the course are taught inclusively.

Student feedback VR

The class discussion was recorded via Zoom with the screen-casting capabilities of the Oculus Quest Headset. Transcripts of these conversations are transcribed below. 

Notes on student feedback

The Global Languages & Cultures Room has been supported through our Eberly Center for Academic Innovation, who advised and consulted on research-led teaching and reflective practice, and provided advice and suggestions included in our sessions. Students agreed that aspects of the course, including final outcomes, reflective journals and surveys could be gathered and shared publicly  to provide insight into the effectiveness of teaching in this setting. The following comments are anonymized and have been edited to highlight the key points of our session.  

I was trying to make sense. I had my phone in my hand and wanted to put it down but it wasn’t a real table. I kept bumping my knee on real furniture. - Kai 

I didn’t feel too disorientated. I think I really get into it, I really didn’t want to leave to be honest. It feels real because [of] the way it looks and the sound but it’s weird because so much is going on around you. You don’t get a sense of what’s happening in the room - My mom and brother were here taking photos of me! - Alyssa

I feel like it’s a very fun experience. The meeting looks real but I can stand on the table, which I can’t in the real world and grab the pen from table which I wouldn’t do in the real world. It made me more brave. Here you can break the rules! - Malik

It also makes me think about the possibilities, that people are recreating their campuses, you could make a space that is familiar to you. What if people recreated existing spaces?  You could exaggerate some aspects, make it more luxurious, add a skylight for instance. - Dylan

I think it’s one of the coolest things ever. I always through VR would be blurry and not worth watching but I was surprised by how clear it is and how close to reality it is. I also think that there is loads of potential and there are so many studies that show that you can do so much with it. There are so many different areas that you could evolve in. - Hope


Across the Cut - Education in VR

Articles

  • Birhan, Amare Tesfie. “Teaching Language and Teaching Literature in Virtual Environment by Maria Luisa Carrio-Pastor (eds)., Springer Verlag, Singapore, 2019. XXI+293 Pp. ISBN 978-981-13-1358-5 (eBook).” Journal of lanugage and education 5.3 (2019): 111–113. Web.

  • Chau, Michael et al. “Using 3D Virtual Environments to Facilitate Students in Constructivist Learning.” Decision Support Systems 56.C (2013): 115–121. Web.

  • Lee, Hyuck-Gi, et al. “Presence in Virtual Golf Simulators: The Effects of Presence on Perceived Enjoyment, Perceived Value, and Behavioral Intention.” New Media & Society, vol. 15, no. 6, Sept. 2013, pp. 930–946, doi:10.1177/1461444812464033.

  • Riva, G. (2008). From virtual to real body: Virtual reality as embodied technology. Journal of CyberTherapy and Rehabilitation, 1(1), 7-. Gale Academic OneFile.

  • Tsun-Ju Lin, and Yu-Ju Lan. “Language Learning in Virtual Reality Environments: Past, Present, and Future.” Educational technology & society 18.4 (2015): 486–497. Print.

Resources

  • Help and Community information for AltspaceVR.

  • https://www.lifewire.com/best-virtual-reality-headsets-4060322

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