Monday, April 20, 2009

Supporting Videoconference-Based Learning Events with Virtual Reality

On April 2nd, MAGPI tried our first simultaneous multisite videoconference and virtual reality program. Students at seven schools participated in “Fleshing the Bones: The Art and Science of Drawing Dinosaurs” videoconference with The Academy of Natural Sciences. While students were interacting with one another and the instructor via video, they were also manipulating images and bones in a virtual environment that we provided to each participating school. Virtual environments were installed on computers that individual or pairs of students could access. We decided to this rather than having students access an environment from thirty different computers in a single location while the videoconference was happening; we were concerned about bandwidth limitations within individual classrooms.

Now, the virtual environment containing the digitized images was basic and students weren’t interacting with one another within the virtual environment - - they were only interacting with digital learning objects. But the advantages of structuring the learning experience in this manner were clear:
  • Students were able to clearly see intricate details and individually manipulate images of dinosaur bones on their own computer screens - - rather than view them via content sharing on a videoconference endpoint (which isn’t always ideal). Because students were interpreting the visuals and then drawing dinosaurs based on those visuals, details were very important.
  • There was multifaceted interaction throughout the videoconference, which kept students engaged. They were simultaneously interacting in a class-to-class video environment and an individual student-to-learning object environment. Negotiating both environments takes skill - - but our digital native students are fairly adept at this. How many times have you seen a high school student juggle several interactive technologies at once?
The virtual environment students used was created using Virtual Reality Development Lab equipment. MAGPI has partnered with VRDL and is going to be loaning this equipment to schools for 30 day project periods next school year. We’re excited to see what VRDL environments students and teachers design! As I mentioned before, the VRDL environment we created alongside the Academy of Natural Sciences for this program was fairly basic; however, I see a lot of educational potential for this technology - - especially when we put students in the 'driver's seat.' It’s also a great tool for building realistic immersive experiences for students they cannot experience in ‘real life.’ For example, the creators at VRDL often talk about how middle school students created a Japanese Internment Camp VRDL environment as a history project.

I believe the next challenge for combining high-quality interactive video with virtual environments will be to have students interacting with a more complex virtual environment. After that, we might be ready to try having students simultaneously interact with one another (and an instructor) via video while immersed and interacting with one another in a virtual environment like Second Life or Active Worlds. Of course, there has to be a compelling educational and pedagogical reason to do this - - and there’s the added challenge of finding schools that allow students to participate in immersive interactive virtual environments! However, I’m looking forward to exploring even more ways to enhance videoconferencing with other tools and would love to hear your stories.

Many thanks to Gail Barna at Western Wayne School District for sharing these photos of her students participating in the program!

Take a look at student comments from Keystone School District's Technology Blog! (added 5/13/2009)


Anthony said...

Fascinating post. I am now very curious to read more about the capabilities of the Virtual Reality Development Lab equipment. We have been doing Videoconferencing very a few years now and recently have been doing camps on Active Worlds in collaboration with Cornell. This article brings great insight on the possibility of merging the two for an ultimate technological learning experience for students.

Anthony Negron ( said...

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