Recently, I had the opportunity to try out a new collection of STEM-centered virtual reality learning experiences, Xennial Digital‘s XDVR Learning Portal. The Learning Portal contains roughly 10 different VR experiences touching upon topics across physics, chemistry, and biology. All of the learning experiences have some form of built-in tutorial that new users can follow but the real potential lies in how users can freely explore science within VR. By allowing users the freedom to experiment without the worries of cost or consequence, Xennial Digital is providing an opportunity for diverse populations of students to have fun scientific experiences. From conversations with Xennial Digital’s CTO, Lorenzo Vallone, the company is intent on providing engaging and effective learning experiences for students of all ages and backgrounds. Already they are piloting their Learning Portal with HTC Vive setups in Miami schools and have experimented with exporting it to rural locations in Guatemala.
To give you a more detailed view of the experiences, I have short reviews of the four I tried below.
Optics and Laser Table
The XDVR laser table is a polished experience where the user can play with lasers, mirrors, and lenses. These different objects “snap” to locations on the table and allow the user to reflect and refract laser beams while accurately measuring the different angles of travel. Adding many objects in succession sometimes causes funny and unnatural laser behavior but on the whole the rays move in physically appropriate ways. Changing the rotation of objects is a bit counter-intuitive at first but easy once you get used to it. As a former physics teacher, I would definitely have used this with my students as another tool to introduce them to optics.
Snell’s Law Refraction Pool
This is very interesting experience and provides a good example of an impossible learning situation made possible by the affordances of VR. As you can see from the video, you can control a laser that is shooting into a very large pool of liquid. You can change the angle of the laser, walk around (even into!) the pool, and change the liquid from water to oil. The important angles are shown and allow the user to manipulate different variables while quickly being able to see how the angles of the laser beam change.
The chemistry lab experience centers around reactions with different substances and chemicals, with a voice-over giving you instructions. Has nice special effects that embellish real-life effects and it definitely gives the user the feeling being a “mad” scientist. I personally would have liked a little more freedom to interact with more glassware and equipment.
The Doppler Effect
This experience replicates the train station situation where you hear a train horn blowing as it moves towards or away from you. Its a well-constructed simulation but some design issues (i.e. haptics are distracting) detract from the learning potential. In case you want to delve into the math of the Doppler shift, there is a big board that shows important numbers for measuring the actual change in frequency.
Research Study Note: Currently, I am finishing the data analysis stage of a comparative research study with XDVR’s Laser/Optics Table experience. In the study, there was a total of 50 graduate students learning the physics topic of optical reflection and refraction through four different conditions (freely exploring the XDVR experience, a guided XDVR experience, watching a 20-minute video, and interacting with 2D physics simulations). Then they were tested on how well they learned content and on any changes in motivation. Informally, of the students that used the VR experience versus 2-D simulations or Video, 77% reported higher motivation to learn more and 85% had an increase in interest in the subject. With respect to the science content test, results were mixed and showed the VR conditions possibly being advantageous for some types of problems but not for others. More detailed results to come soon!
So while not perfect, these experiences are excellent examples of weaving together constructivist learning methods with thoughtful media design. To that end, if one was to use these in a school I would highly recommend scaffolding them well. As is true of almost every learning tool or experience, giving students some pre-knowledge about what to focus on or debriefing them after the experience can greatly increase learning and retention. Just as we should never throw a student into a real-life chemistry lab, tell them to “do some chemistry”, and expect great learning to result, it is similar with VR experiences. To support students, Xennial Digital provides some experiences with a one-page guide that contains scaffolding questions. Overall, Xennial Digital’s XDVR Learning Portal is a promising example of an implementation of VR into schools. With minimal training, a teacher could easily get the XDVR Learning Portal ready for students to experience science in a new and exciting way.
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