Across the country from Abraham Lincoln School, researcher Randy Jackson is studying the effect of collaboration and learning in a virtual reality environment on both sixth- and ninth-graders for his dissertation at the University of Washington.

Jackson said he “looked at how people communicated and collaborated to solve the problem of global warming.”

Wearing a head-mounted display and holding a joystick-like wand, students entered a computer-generated model of Seattle to accomplish the task of ending global warming.

“We don’t try to model the real world,” Jackson said. Instead, students at the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Lab created a functional environment in which they could get the meaning of the lesson across. A few of Seattle’s major landmarks are represented in the virtual model, but it’s not all-inclusive or to scale.

Jackson said he tested about 90 students from three separate science classes at Seattle’s Redmond Junior High School and is still processing the data.

He had students in the first class work on the problem individually. The second class worked together in pairs. And students in the third class worked on the problem one-on-one, with Jackson acting as an advising expert.

Jackson said he noticed individual learning differences among the students, but nothing significant about the learning patterns of the different groups. He found some students had a difficult time learning to control the equipment.

“It’s like driving a car—you have to get used to using the tools,” he said. Adjusting to the experience and equipment takes time.

Students who were comfortable with computers and video games fared better than those who were not. Students with limited computer history tended to be overwhelmed by the whole experience. “It provides an emotional experience more than anything else in education,” Jackson said.

He estimated that about 5 percent of the students got motion sickness.

The virtual reality equipment Jackson used in his study is an older, more affordable model. Though it’s out of production, one unit cost $50,000. The users wear a 12-pound helmet, which is fairly heavy for children, and use a wand to navigate their way in the virtual world.

In a virtual laboratory, “students have a first-person experience with the subject matter,” Jackson said. The experiences are more realistic and students learn by doing.

“The technology is to a point that it can do what a good teacher can do,” Jackson said, although the technology is delicate. The software crashes the system frequently.

Despite its problems, he said virtual reality is a technology worth pursuing because of its many possibilities.

A zoo in Georgia has set up a virtual reality exhibit that demonstrates gorilla behavior, he said. Participants can interact with computer-generated gorillas and feel what it’s like to get too close.

“Those are experiences you’re not going to get unless you charter a plane to Africa,” Jackson said. Virtual reality makes it possible to experience things that are otherwise too expensive, unsafe, or—like time travel—impossible.

University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Lab
http://www.hitl.washington.edu/

Randy Jackson’s Research Paper
http://kn.cilt.org/cscl99/A32/A32.HTM

Redmond Junior High School
http://wwwrjh.lkwash.wednet.edu/NatCause1/index2.htm