A $1.5 million virtual reality project has improved the test scores of deaf and hearing-impaired students by an average of 35 percent overall, according to the leaders of the Virtual Reality Education for Assisted Learning (VREAL) project funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

When hearing-disabled students start school, they’re already at a disadvantage compared to their hearing peers because they’re usually behind in acquiring language skills.

“They can often be one or two grade levels behind,” said Patti Schofield, a resource teacher at Lake Sybelia Elementary School in Maitland, Fla. “We have to give them a sign vocabulary in addition to writing.” Schofield approached Veridian, a company that does national security work for the U.S. Department of Defense, to see if their virtual reality technology could help hearing disabled students learn.

Schools across the country are now challenged by the No Child Left Behind Act to reach every child. Deaf or hearing-impaired students often get left behind by the education system, but VREAL’s developers hope the technology will help more students graduate.

“The average 17- or 18-year-old deaf student is reading at a fourth grade level,” VREAL’s Program Manager Bob Edge said, citing a study from Gallaudet University, a leading college for the deaf and hearing impaired. Sixty percent of hearing-impaired persons younger than 25 are unemployed, and 70 percent are dependent on someone for financial support, he added.

VREAL attempts to address such problems by helping hearing-impaired students improve their language skills early in their school careers. Funded by two education department grants over the past two years, engineers at Veridian developed an elaborate virtual reality environment to help address the gaps between hearing-disabled students and their hearing peers.

Veridian engineers created a true-to-life replica of the Florida elementary school in the virtual environment using photographs and the school’s blue prints. In addition to replicating the school, the engineers created a whole town—complete with a supermarket, a post office, a farm, and a fire station—based on real photographs.

In the first year, students used the virtual environment to learn life skills such as how to order food at McDonalds, dial 911 in an emergency, handle strangers in the school yard, and what to do during a fire drill.

“We felt life skills were most important first,” Schofield said. “They need to be safe…there are so many people in their life that they can’t connect with.”

Before using the virtual reality program, Schofield videotaped the students to find out what they would do during a fire drill. She found most students got lost or used the farthest exits. “It was a real eye-opener,” Schofield said. “Now the children can find the quickest route out.”

The virtual world allows students to encounter what would be life-threatening situations in the real world, but to do so safely. “They can make mistakes, and they can correct their mistakes without actually being hurt,” Schofield said.

The software has embedded video of the teacher signing the instructions to the student. When students do something wrong in the virtual world, a drop down box appears to explain what they did.

If the teacher needs to interrupt while a student is in the virtual world, the teacher can stand in front of a video camera and sign to the student. The image automatically appears in real-time on the student’s display screen.

Students each take a turn solving the problems in the virtual world. A ceiling-mounted projector displays what’s happening on the computer onto a large screen large in the classroom, so the rest of the class can follow along.

“Each student is learning from each other’s mistakes and corrections,” Schofield said.

Wearing a head-mounted display is not necessary to use the virtual reality program, but doing so provides a far richer experience, because the technology engages more of the senses.

“The head mounted-display fully immerses you, and you feel like you are in the computer,” Edge said. Wearing the head-mounted display, students can navigate through the environment just by moving their eyes.

In the fire drill simulation, for example, a scent generator produces a smoke smell so the children can detect danger.

“This mode of delivery is a multi-sensory approach. We’re able to maximize the senses that they do have,” Schofield said. Although some of the students can’t hear at all, the program nonetheless includes music and such natural sounds as footsteps, doors opening and closing, and the fire alarm.

The technology was so effective at teaching life skills, the developers applied for another grant to expand the technology to teach the students Florida’s third grade math and language arts standards as well. Deaf and hearing-impaired students, even in the fifth grade, are so far behind in their studies that third grade material is still appropriate, Edge said.

Before using the virtual reality environment to learn math and language arts, 60 K-5 deaf and hearing-impaired students took a math pre-test based on the state’s standardized test.

Over seven weeks, the students collectively completed 150 learning problems in the virtual environment. Students were taught, for instance, to help Farmer Bill figure out how many quarts of milk each cow gave by reading a graph shown on the wall.

When the students retook the standardized tests, their average score was 35 percent better overall. “We saw a 41 percent increase in math scores,” Edge said. Researchers from the University of Central Florida analyzed the test results.

Because of the success of the VREAL program, President George W. Bush recently authorized $800,000 for four additional virtual reality machines, one each at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., Ohio School for the Deaf, Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, and Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

The program will be expanded to meet each state’s standards, but adding new questions isn’t as costly now that the initial virtual town has been created. “The most expensive part is developing the software,” Edge said.

The technology needed to run the virtual-reality environment costs between $9,000 and $10,000, and the head-mounted display costs between $1,500 and $7,000 depending on the quality of the headset, Edge said.

For schools, the head-mounted display is probably not worth the extra cost, according to Edge.

“With the head mounted display, we found there is some motion sickness,” Edge said. “For the younger kids, it doesn’t fit their head, it kind of slips forward. It’s heavy in the front because that’s where all the electronics are.”

In addition to helping deaf or hearing-impaired students, Schofield said children with autistic tendencies became intensely engaged with the virtual-reality program.

“It appeals to any student. I have yet to see a student not enthralled with it,” Schofield said.

Considering the effect virtual reality had on the academic performance of deaf or hearing-impaired students, Edge said, virtual reality could also help mainstream students improve their performance.

“With deaf and hard-of-hearing [students], we had a sign box. Just do away with that, and [the program] would work for mainstream students as well,” Edge said.

Links:

Virtual Reality Education for Assisted Learning (VREAL)
http://vreal.orlando.veridian.com

Lake Sybelia Elementary School, in Maitland, Fla.
http://www.lakesybelia.ocps.k12.fl.us/

Gallaudet University
http://www.gallaudet.edu/

Ohio School for the Deaf
http://www.ohioschoolforthedeaf.org/

Florida School for the Deaf and Blind
http://www.fsdb.k12.fl.us/

Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf
http://www.wpsd.org/index1.html

Veridian Information Solutions
http://www.veridian.com