K-16 instructors perennially face the challenge of helping students understand complex processes and relationships, especially those that make sense only after they are explored in more than one frame of reference.

The differences between a partial and total solar eclipse on the Earth, for example, are best understood by visualizing observations not just from the surface of the Earth but also from the position of the Moon. The outcomes of historic battles may be better understood by exploring the relative ground positions of each opposing force. The full metaphysical message being conveyed by the frescoes in a cathedral is better understood with respect to the pieces’ locations relative to each other in the building.

Field trips or physical models can help immerse students in some topics’ different perspectives, but often budgets, time, or modeling details limit these tools’ usefulness. Thus, instructors are investigating Virtual Reality (VR) as a means for bringing students into interactive, immersive contact with their subjects.

At Villanova University my research team in the Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology is part of this effort to understand VR’s strengths and weaknesses for classroom use.  A brief overview of VR technology will help put our findings in context.

A Brief Overview for Reference

The process of immersing viewers in another frame of reference has a technological pedigree going back at least to the cycloramas of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These 360° paintings of major battles or historic events were installed in circular buildings or rooms with circumferences of 60-100 feet and wall heights of 15-40 feet. An audience seated in the cyclorama would hear a narration of various elements in the painting to help immerse them visually, aurally, and intellectually in the scene.

Developers of devices such as the Sensorama in the 1950’s started a technology lineage from the cyclorama that sought to give individual viewers immersive experiences. Viewers sat in a semi-enclosed booth in front of a stereo viewer with audio speakers on the sides of their enclosures.

Through the 1970’s this lineage produced heavy Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) that were suspended from the ceiling and worn like a diver’s helmet over the head. As the viewer walked around, a stereo display in the device produced the illusion of moving in a virtual space. Modern HMDs now weigh about a pound or less. They fit snugly on the viewer’s head, with a display over each of the viewer’s eyes to give the effect of viewing depth.  In many places VR is being investigated as a classroom tool via HMDs connected to laptops.

During the last half of the 20th century, IMAX and 3D theatre technology developed along another cyclorama lineage that focused on immersive group experiences.

In 1992 another technology called CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment) was unveiled at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  CAVEs use rear-projected screens to create an enclosure within which a person wearing lightweight 3D glasses sees a virtual world based on stereo projections on the screens. A viewer wears infrared tracking markers that enable the displays to reflect changes in the viewer’s head orientation and body position. Viewers place infrared tracking markers on their hands, allowing them to manipulate virtual objects.

CAVEs can have from one to several screens, depending on the desired degree of enclosure. With a single-panel display viewers always face forward, but if the screen is wide, several viewers can see VR material simultaneously. The figure below shows a typical CAVE layout.

(Next page: VR strides in Villanova’s CAVE)

The CAVE

In October 2014 Villanova opened a large CAVE, with an enclosure 18’x10’x7.5’, with an extendable ceiling screen for use when overhead views are desired. It can accommodate 20 viewers. The lead viewer’s position is tracked, while the other viewers “ride along” with the lead viewer’s movement in the virtual space.

The first two pictures show the Villanova CAVE being used in a materials science course presentation on the structure of silicon crystals:

The third picture shows the CAVE’s ceiling extended, and helps convey an idea of the facility’s size.

The past three years have seen the CAVE used as a classroom for exploring subjects from Biology to Engineering to History. These explorations include taking students into the structure of silicon crystals in electronic circuits, placing students in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to better understand the Bard’s plays, and walking students through ancient Jerusalem to appreciate the context of Gospel passages.

Interesting Findings from CAVE

We have found that students appreciated not only the immersive aspect of their experience, but also the group learning dynamics. They can see each other within the virtual world being projected, and they can watch and verbally interact with the lead viewer as that student performs tasks in the virtual world.

The same 3D content that can be viewed in an HMD can also be viewed in a CAVE, and vice versa. But there are differences between these VR technologies. All students cannot wander independently through virtual worlds in a CAVE.  They are tethered to the lead viewer’s position and motion in the virtual world. A set of HMDs and laptops can permit each student in a class to explore the same world independently. On the other hand, students using HMDs cannot see each other or gesture to one another.

Based on my center’s work we have come to see these VR technologies as complementary. Each one offers support for different aspects of the total learning process. CAVEs support collaborative, social aspects of learning, while HMDs support individual, probative aspects of learning.

At Villanova, I encourage instructors to use our CAVE for its collaborative learning strengths but to make the course’s VR material available for students to check out an HMD and use it to study what they saw in the CAVE from a laptop.

I believe that the process of adopting VR as a teaching tool at any school involves decisions about more than just which particular VR technology to use based on cost. It requires planning about how VR will impact an entire class as well as individual learners within it.

When educators choose to adopt VR for courses, they need to be careful not to lose any benefits from collaborative learning strategies they were using in those courses. The process of embedding VR in a course must answer questions not just about what frames of reference we need students to see in a world, but also about what we expect students to reinforce with each other in that world.

When the total learning experience is considered, it will be crucial to bring students along with their classes into the VR era.

About the Author:

Dr. Frank I. Klassner is the director for the Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology, and a professor in the Department of Computing Sciences, at Villanova University.


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