Wolsey Hall Oxford
Wolsey Hall Oxford (https://wolseyhalloxford.org.uk) has been offering distance education since 1894. Learning material was delivered originally via post but is now primarily online via the Canvas platform. Students are home schooled through Wolsey Hall Oxford for a range of reasons; they may live abroad (or be travelling) but prefer a British education. They may find accessing a traditional educational setting difficult due to travel times, psychological or neurological conditions, interpersonal problems or a host of other reasons. Home schooling allows flexibility in a way that a traditional school cannot.
However, home schooling does come with some disadvantages. The literature is at odds as to the effect home schooling may have on the socialisation of the learners. Feelings of ‘restriction and isolation [can be] intense’ (van Schalkwyk & Bouwer, 2011) while other sources suggest that home schooled children have ‘higher scores on self-concept measures, appear socially and emotionally well-adjusted, and have opportunities for interaction with other children and adults’ (Grubb, 1998).
The team at Wolsey Hall Oxford, however, perceived a need for a different way of interacting with learners. At present, all learners will have an initial video call meeting with their tutors, and from then onwards the majority of communication is via e-mail or through the on-line learning environment. It was perceived that e-mail alone can lead to feelings of isolation whereas video calling can feel over-formal, difficult to arrange and, due to tutors being paid on a time basis, relatively expensive. Their particular concern was a supposed lack of socialisation from home schooling.
Recently the team at Wolsey Hall Oxford have been developing a customised version of VirBela (www.virbela.com) a desktop-based VR system. Within this system learners can navigate an island as an avatar (a 3D humanoid figure). The island provides a range of opportunities to enhance learning and the learning experience, as well as opportunities for social engagement including an interactive owl hunt, movie nights in a virtual cinema and a planned interactive chess club.
VirBela includes a gallery in which students can share their work. While this is a common event, both formally in terms of showcases and informally in terms of classroom displays in traditional schools, it is something that is considered less within a home-schooling environment. Along with the multi-user nature of VirBela, this adds a feeling of community to the application and, it is hoped, will give learners a feeling of belonging.
There are open and private teaching areas within the island. Allowing tutors to teach via VirBela has a lot of the strengths of using video calls but reduces the social anxiety that many students may feel from being in front of a video camera and/or having to communicate through a microphone (avatars can communicate either through voice or through typed commands). Given the make-up of the school’s students, including many who home school due to anxiety issues in main stream schools and many who are have English as an additional language and may not feel comfortable with the clarity of their spoken communication, this is perceived as a strong benefit. This also avoids overuse of forums, which the author has seen within adult online learning environments such as the Open University, but Wolsey Hall Oxford have identified as less appropriate to young learners.
There are also added opportunities for learners to work interactively, with virtual rooms available not only for learners to meet and communicate, but also with virtual smart whiteboards and built-in web browsers to allow collaboration.
The opportunity to tutor a number of students at once reduces the financial impact for the school (and hence for the students). It also increases the potential for group learning opportunities and opens up more avenues for students to collaborate. Currently this is primarily through a forum infrastructure which is very adult-oriented in comparison to the instant communication that many are used to and is the norm in traditional educational environments.
PrimeVR (www.primevr.co.uk/) is a British company providing VR workshops to schools. The equipment used are low-end (and so cost-effective) head mounted displays running on mobile phone type technology. The workshops are focussed primarily on Key Stage 2 (7—11 years old) and link in with the National Curriculum.
PrimeVR saw the opportunities provided by Google Expeditions and similar software along with low-cost headsets. They are firm believers that experiencing something first-hand is the best way to learn about it, but that when this is not possible VR can provide a close second. The workshops are designed as multi-area experiences, with related discussion topics and on-going lesson plans to extend the learning outside of the workshop.
One workshop offered is entitled ‘climate change’. Learners will have the opportunity to visit the Arctic and Antarctic and experience the impact of melting ice caps on the flora and fauna both locally and world-wide. From there students will take a journey under water, experiencing the impact of raising sea temperatures on sea creatures, learn about coral bleaching and see the wide-ranging impacts. Finally, students will travel to the Borneo rainforest and see the impact of deforestation.
As mentioned elsewhere in this chapter, permeation through the curriculum has not yet happened. PrimeVR believe that ‘for VR to have a meaningful impact, it should be planned alongside the requirements of the national curriculum and embedded into your scheme of work’.
There is a tendency for VR to be used in a primarily experiential way. If students are studying World War 1, VR could be used to show students what the trench warfare system looked like. However, PrimeVR have gone one step further by linking the experiences with specific learning intentions and opportunities. The World War 1 bundle they provide is developed into a literacy lesson, including example letters from the front, writing checklists, and other useful links to encourage the teacher to focus on learning and use the VR as a tool, rather than focussing on the VR and using the learning as a reason to use the VR.
Caroline Chrisholm School
One of the most exciting case studies the author has come across was run by a school in Northampton, UK, and spearheaded by their faculty lead teacher for Computing and IT, Kay Sawbridge. The school applied for and received a partnership grant from the Royal Society7 (https://royalsociety.org/grants- schemes-awards/grants/partnership-grants) to investigate whether Computer Science could be made more engaging with the use of VR. Working in partnership with a University partner, the students (in Year 12, 16—17 years old) developed and produced a VR application using the Unity 3D software environment. The application was devised to introduce the CPU cycle, showing how different clock speed and RAM can affect the speed of processing and how the data flows through the components on the motherboard.
The application was trialled on 100 students in Year 8 (12—13 years old) who were queried before and after the trial. Some of the qualitative comments received were heart-warming:
- • ‘It’s cool because you can see all the parts and it feels real’.
- • ‘It’s awesome, it would help teach classes a lot and everyone would be
able to engage’.
- • ‘It’s the coolest thing ever, it’s a fun way to learn since kids of our age have a lot of interest in devices like XBoxes. The technology would therefore be an appropriate way of learning’.
- • ‘It really shows you how things work that you do not get in normal lessons’.
The final comment in particular resonates with the feelings of the author; XR has the potential to not just teach what is already being taught; it also
has the potential to extend teaching to a new level and teach things in
a whole new way that is not currently possible. This could then extend what it is possible to teach.
The quantitative data was through self-assessment and was collected by the students and analysed along with their class teacher. The VR system improved the enjoyment of Computer Science for all students, but the most impressive gain was a change from 6% to 24% of girls ‘really enjoying’ Computer Science.
Other improvements were seen in perceived difficulty of the subject with an improvement of 20% for boys and 16% for girls not perceiving Computer Science as difficult as they did before the trial. An incredible 38% of both boys and girls found Computer Science interesting post-trial (up from 16% of boys and just 2% of girls).
Thinking back to some of the challenges the author has made earlier in this chapter, the author is delighted to see that the department are thinking ahead; as they ran the investigation, the school is able to keep the equipment and are hoping for future grants to purchase more. Future year 8 students will continue to use the application in its current form, but the Year 12s will continue to develop it further, increasing the pervasiveness within the current curriculum. Planned improvements include adding new hardware to the model (such as a network card and hard drive), showing interactions between hardware components (such as simulating network interaction, printing, CPU/RAM interaction), and adapting the application to become an ‘escape room’ game to enhance engagement.