Somehow Cael Hansen missed the series of virtual reality demos on campus. The Massachusetts native enrolled in Landmark College planning to major in computer science, and he decided to witness virtual reality in action for himself after hearing fellow students talk about it.
Inside the college’s innovation lab, where the virtual headset is housed, students can play around with a suite of high tech gadgets, including a 3D printer, an eye tracker and infrared image technology. The equipment assists in groundbreaking research conducted in college’s Institute for Research and Training, which is dedicated to improving teaching for students with learning disabilities
The college exclusively serves students with learning and attention challenges such as autism or dyslexia. Students are strongly encouraged to work with technology, as the institution is determined to get more students with invisible disabilities working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.
Dr. Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki is a senior academic researcher who oversees the institute. His research centers around teaching STEM to struggling learners, and he is one of the masterminds behind several the institute’s projects which are often designed as hands-on collaborations with students. Past projects have involved students creating mobile apps and building computer programs.
When Hansen came to his office, Dahlstrom-Hakki became absorbed with the idea of developing a pilot statistics course for learners with disabilities using data visualization software. Earlier, Dahlstrom-Hakki and a colleague had tossed around ideas for a virtual reality project but nothing stuck until Hansen appeared. He immediately asked Hansen about designing a virtual reality game for statistics.
“It was something we sort of shelved and put on the back burner. When Cael came, I sort of ran this idea of teaching statistics through virtual reality by him and asked if he’d be interested in working on a project with us,” he said.
From that conversation, the virtual reality game Passage to Hunza was born. Five Landmark students, including Hansen, spent a year developing the game-based learning experience that does away with specialized terms, symbols, and formulas of a typical statistics course and replaces it with a Pokemon-like first-person adventure that exercises statistical thinking.
“Those [terms] are major barriers to learning,” said the professor. “And if we can help [students] grasp the concept by interacting and experiencing rather than reading and listening to lectures, we felt that we could engage [many] more learners, and make it easier to convey the concepts to a broader range of learners”
Inside the game, which can be instructive to all learners, students hunt down a variety of evil spirits with different attributes, power levels and abilities. In the process of capturing these oni (as called in this virtual world), the players must distinguish and correlate features that make the monster harder or easier to catch. By capturing each oni, students are sampling attributes and determining which attributes signal certain abilities.
“As you capture, you are essentially sampling. You start to develop an understanding of sampling from a population,” said the professor. “You have to experience a range of interactions with these oni before you decide what feature seems to be the source of their power, which is what we tell students to figure out in the game.”
“It engages them a lot more,” said Hansen. “A lot of people have a hard time reading through textbooks and really understanding the concepts inside them and we thought we could create a fun kind of monster-catching game that would help teach concepts in statistics [to all students,] not just for people with dyslexia and ADHD.”
Virtual reality in the classroom is a nascent area of education. The hook in virtual reality learning lies in the ability to immerse learners in a variety environments regardless of scale. The technology used in virtual reality is also affordable and relatively easy to operate.
Hansen also recruited art student Caroline Hubley to the project. Hubley discovered, after speaking with Hansen, the free animation software called Blender 3D and she threw herself into learning the software. She helped figure out the color schemes, find sound effects, and design the monsters.
“I just got warped in this world of creativity,” said Hubley.
Today, game-based learning has shifted, with the rest of the world, to online and digital mediums and generally refers to digital games or e-games. The field had a troubled infancy. In the early computer era, digital learning games, called edutainment at the time, were poorly designed and struggled to both teach and be entertaining games. Still a glut of bad games were branded with wild claims of efficacy and were rushed onto consumer shelves.
“I remember walking into a software store at the time and there was a wall of edutainment titles and all the boxes were variations of primary color schemes and some animal plastered on the front and they all made big, vague claims,” said David Langendoen, who has worked in education and game-design space since the mid-1990s.
Langendoen is the founder and chief executive of Electric Fun Stuff, a company that specializes in bringing game design to educational technologies and classroom learning. He says game-based learning began a comeback in the early 2000s when academics started to recognize the implications for teaching and learning.
“Ultimately learning is fun. When learning isn’t fun you probably are bored or frustrated. and the goal of games is always to keep you in that zone of proximal development,” said Langendoen. “The reason people play is not just because games are fun but also people get addicted to that sequence of mastery.”
Game-based learning and design is making commercial comeback. Parts of renaissance have been funded by millions from Education Department’s Small Business Innovative Research Program. It’s annual ED Games Expo spends up to $1.05M on the development of new, commercially viable technology products to support students, teachers, and school administrators. According to the department, millions of students have used technologies out of the program.
Every game-based learning tool has to be designed with the classroom in mind. One of the biggest challenges of virtual reality is how to implement it at the classroom level. Regardless, the field seems to be asking the right questions and its influence is growing.
“I think we're going in a generally good direction now,” said Langendoen. “I think most folks are past the phase of we're going to solve the world's problems and make a game for everything,” he said.
“We can now can go beyond just a static game for specific learning objectives and have more exploratory classroom so it's not just about history or math but brings together more holistic learning.”