VR forest field trip Image credit: Dr. Tara O'Neil and Mid-Journey
As part of our programmes we develop Design Sprints focused around a driving question - that enables learners to explore ideas, follow their interests and learn skills in a practical, hands-on manner, where participants can directly experience and apply their skills within the context of real-world challenges. Our sprints are also developed as co-research / work experience, with our most recent, May 2023, being a three-day sprint with 20 young people aged 16-19 to begin exploring the challenge of designing virtual reality immersive learning environments.
We know from our research that while the Metaverse may have been a hot topic for a minute - it is still quite a vague concept for many. While many may have experienced virtual worlds, these are not necessarily immersive and mostly the experiences have been social or for entertainment, e.g gaming or multi-player sims, not learning environments. We are lucky to have the benefit of almost 30 years of SMARTlab research into inclusive, experiential Virtual environments by some of the world's global Virtual Reality (VR) experts, many of whom are SMARTlab PhD alumni.
We are currently collaborating with our sister site SMARTlab Niagra and its Chief Innovation Officer, Dr Tara O'Neil to explore building immersive learning environments integrating biophilic design principles based on our last five years of research working with young people. Tara works at the intersection of design, strategy and foresight. Her own work in VR explored overcoming cognitive bias (a subjective rather than rational, misinterpretation of information) and connecting and utilising our creativity; whether for finding innovative solutions to climate change or understanding and gaining empathy to build foundations for equity.
What are the benefits of virtual reality in inclusive learning environments?
Personalised and individualised learning has been gaining traction for a number of years, based on an awareness that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to knowledge acquisition and application is ill-adapted to many individuals and, increasingly, the needs of society in the 21st Century. This not only means more holistic and person-centred approaches are necessary, but it will also involve blended, synchronous / asynchronous, practical and systemic approaches to learning and an agile ability not possible within the current system and its aims.
Virtual Reality platforms are adaptable to individual student needs through customisable learning paths that can tailor content, pacing / difficulty levels based on user performance and analysis. Gamification, using challenges, reward systems, and leaderboards (where appropriate) can not only track progress but also contribute to a sense of achievement. Further, enabling learners to demonstrate success and mastery creates a more enjoyable learning experience, and is easily embedded in virtual environments. While aspects of this can be offered using analogue methods in standard learning environments this can be created through Virtual Reality in ways that are not possible in traditional settings due to physical, financial, safety or access limitations.
VR learning possibilities Image credit: Dr Tara O'Neil and Mid-Journey
Using virtual reality to provide immersive, hands-on experiences allows students to actively and safely learn through trial and error. Interactive scenarios, simulations and virtual labs can all be designed to facilitate and enhance different learning experiences. As technological advancements become more accessible; visual, auditory, and haptic feedback (realistic 3D visuals, spatial / surround audio and tactile interactions) are all ways to create multi-sensory and memorable learning experiences which can feel embodied and therefore aid memory retention.
Narrative and story-telling have also been shown to enhance engagement and increase retention as learners can become more emotionally invested, which leads to a deeper understanding. The inclusion of multiple narratives also enables learners to empathise by connecting with experiences beyond their own and enabling complex problem-solving that is systemic rather than simply symptomatic. This also facilitates collaborative, communicative learning experiences with students interacting with multiple perspectives and, where possible and appropriate, other learners, working together and learning from and with their peers in shared virtual spaces.
Beyond the Classroom
The OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) ongoing research and programmes such as New Millennium Learners and Schooling for Tomorrow have all considered the necessity to reimagine education and its purpose to meet individual and societal needs. Their 21st Century Learning: Research, Innovation and Policy (2008) stated how knowledge-based, creative economies in the 21st century meant not only changes to both learning methods and the learning environment were needed but that the individualisation of teaching and learning strategies would also require a different interaction between educator and learner. This also has ramifications for education professionals and their continuing professional development (CPD) which is generally fragmented and dispersed across the country (OECD, 2020learners') and only responsive to systemic change, e.g. introduction of new subject matter or exam subjects and processes as in the Junior Cert.
Virtual, immersive learning environments that enable agile adaptations that are in line with a rapidly changing world and the ‘needs and challenges an Irish learner is facing in the 21st century’ (OECD, 2020) as well as societal needs, have much to offer. The recent NCCA review and the OECD review, both refer to enhancing CPD in line with the Senior Cycle's future developments. Virtual Reality / Immersive worlds offer a range of opportunities for CPD at all levels, e.g. entry level within career exploratory pathways, apprenticeships, augmented learning scenarios or within the world of work.
Working across research and post-primary contexts we can see the value of real-world contextualisation through realistic simulations of professional environments and professions. This enables students to apply their skills in safe, practical scenarios as well as explore situations that offer more realistic understandings of different disciplines and their implementation in real-life situations.
VR work experience / training possibilities Image credit: Dr Tara O'Neil and Mid-Journey
Understanding young people’s experiences through a co-design sprint
Despite the multiple benefits of immersive virtual learning environments it is important to understand young people’s experiences and our design sprints are developed both as work and learning experiences. Led by Dr Tara O'Neil and Dr Anita McKeown, our VR co-design sprint gave learners the experience of working with an interdisciplinary STEAM research team focused on a design challenge - to begin the process of developing an effective VR immersive learning platform. The sprint is framed by a driving question that focuses the participants on the purpose of the sprint. For this sprint, the driving question was
How do we create an immersive learning platform using virtual reality to enhance educational experiences and maximise student engagement?
We develop this together with participants early in the sprint after the ‘Welcome’ and ‘Introduction’ sessions. Deliberately designed to be open-ended and allow multiple avenues for exploration, our question being product-orientated can be broken down into two aspects - the ‘how’ we do it and ‘what’ it needs to do - the product’s purpose. Additionally, the sprint is structured in a way to give them real-world skills in solving the product-orientated design challenge. To do this we integrate circular design thinking and methods from project-based learning, specifically developing a driving question that sets the purpose and frames the sprints challenge. Our question also has a role-orientated aspect subtly embedded within it -
How do we as designers ‘create an immersive learning platform using virtual reality to enhance educational experiences and maximise student engagement?
Embedding this role-orientated aspect into the sprint is what inherently develops skills that enables the participants to have a meaningful ‘work’ experience beyond photocopying or running errands while developing transferable skills e.g. teamwork, time management, collaboration, critical and systems thinking design skills and presentation / pitching skills. The activities we use to structure the week balance the product orientation with the role orientation of the driving question. The week’s experiential and structured design activities lead the students through a research and development process that defines the problem from an empathic perspective to ideate and prototype possible solutions, which they present for feedback and input from their peers.
Virtual Reality Design Sprint Overview
Welcome / Icebreakers
Outlining the purpose of the Sprint / Driving Question Development
Metaverse marketplace Exploring values / aims, theming and ranking to make selections to focus on
World Café Gallery - reflection Exploring 1st and 3rd person perspectives
The MetaVerse - what does it mean to you? Exploring Virtual Reality Experiences- Tilt Brush, Gadgeteer, National Geographic, Kingspray Graffiti, Spheres
Introduction to Empathic Design. Working with user profiles to create a user journey and prototype and environment
Circles Agile thinking exercise Adapted Design Thinking Boot Camp
VR Immersion linked to learners' own future interests and Future of Innovation, Enterprise and Work
World Café on VR - gathering ideas and opinions about VR, User needs / interfacing
Presentations from bootcamp 321 Evaluations / Wrap
Virtual Reality Design Sprint Day-by-Day Overview
Learnings from the week
For many of the young people, it was the first time they had experienced virtual reality and it was insightful for us as a research team to hear their concerns and fears about what it could / should do. They also discussed this with each other and the small team format meant they voiced their concerns and opinions as well as considered solutions / ways of mitigating this which they shared with their peers who also fed back to them. This is an important aspect of the learning process as many of them have not experienced peer review or addressing complex problems that have no easy right or wrong answer.
We use a simple but effective 321 method as one of our evaluation tools - 3 things they think they learnt, 2 things they would like to know more about and 1 is their opinion of the sprint / the exercises if they liked it and if they didn’t, how would they improve the sprint, which helps us improve the process. The highest consistent response in any of the categories was they wanted to know more about VR / metaverse, e.g. how it works, how to build it, and how it can change schools.
This is consistent with our findings from our other research that shows that while young people are considered to be technologically proficient, in reality, this is often within very specific user experiences, e.g. social or gaming contexts. There are gaps in their knowledge, e.g. using software / tools for learning or productivity or having awareness of the latest developments and innovations, which often stems from access issues and their learning environments. They are not exposed to the latest developments and do not have the opportunity to experience them, even if they are aware of them.
In general, the participants enjoyed the week, particularly working in teams in a positive environment and atmosphere. Having the opportunity to discuss ideas in their group and as a class was also identified as a positive aspect of the week. Along with learning about VR and the Metaverse, the other aspect the participants identified they learned was to be open to other perspectives, ideas and thoughts from their peers. They also valued the opportunity to be creative and think in new ways and beyond their own perspectives. The participants also offered useful insights for improving the sprint including more time working on each question / task, more discussion together and simplifying concepts as well as more tangible outcomes.
Our sprints are usually 5 days whereas this was three, with shorter hours per day - so some of this could be mitigated as we would be working with less time constraints and enable more practical VR build activities. While these responses were low in number and not a generalised opinion of the sprint they are still useful and important to consider when designing the next stage.
During the sprint, we used their personal progression routes (college and career path interests) as a way to help illustrate the possibilities of VR, given their lack of experience with VR. This is something we will explore further in our next VR co-design sprint; using the group’s interests as themes for designing the environments and the skills objectives of the environment, e.g. Healthcare, Engineering, Climate science, specific teams will work on.
As a research team, we are also looking at the environmental impact of such a platform and looking to see where the greatest impact is and how this can be reduced through design and infrastructure. We will also be looking at the following two questions and begin to engage our next group of co-designers with them:
What are the most effective instructional strategies, content formats and design principles to incorporate within a virtual reality learning platform to enhance educational experiences?
How / what do we need to think about designing the user interface and interaction elements of the virtual reality platform to optimise student engagement and facilitate accessible navigation and interaction with educational content?
You can find out more about the next stages in our Winter Newsletter Dec 2023.
The Future is Now.
It is time to prepare today's students for today’s world.
Please get in contact at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in using our resources with your learners.
Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM uses a transdisciplinary, STEAM-based pedagogical approach. Returning to SDG 4, Target 4.7, one of the core missions of the Muinín Catalyst Sustainable STEAM programme is to ensure an arts / design and culture-led approach to learning that is transdisciplinary and transformative. Learning that supports the development of informed citizens, that are systemic, critical and creative thinkers who can apply their knowledge in agile ways that are sensitive, generative and appropriately responsive to context, in relevant and meaningful ways.
This is done through placed-based learning, which enables individuals to experience learning in local, real-life scenarios. Place-based approaches to learning grounded in local communities and contexts are relevant, engaging and inquiry-based. Students gain confidence and competence in affecting change, learning to manage risk, and develop creative, real-world solutions that are eco-socially just and restorative.
Cros, F (1999), “Innovation in Education: Managing the Future?” Innovating Schools, (Schooling for Tomorrow series) OECD, Paris, pp. 59-75.
NCCA (2019), Senior cycle, https://curriculumonline.ie/Senior-cycle (accessed on 20 February 2019).
OECD (2020) Education in Ireland : An OECD Assessment of the Senior Cycle Reviewmarketplace
OECD (2008) New Millennium Learners “Initial findings on the effects of digital technologies on school-age learners”
OECD (2006b), Personalising Education, (Schooling for Tomorrow series), Paris.