XXV.5 September-October 2018
Page: 64
Digital Citation

It’s getting real. Virtually real.

Neha Kumar, Aditya Vishwanath

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Virtual reality (VR) is no longer solely the stuff of science fiction. As VR headsets become increasingly mainstream and affordable, thanks to major industry actors such as Google and Samsung, a slew of companies have surfaced to explore the more and less understood affordances of this emerging technology. With much of this activity focused on technology-rich parts of the Global North, we were curious to understand what VR might offer a world less saturated by technology. In this article, we describe our experience of introducing immersive, 360-degree VR to a resource-constrained learning environment in Mumbai, India. We also discuss some of the challenges and possibilities of going mainstream with VR, reflecting on the narrowing digital divide and the questions it raises for technology transfer.

back to top  Insights


Our focus established, we embarked on an ethnographic engagement with Vikas, an after-school learning center in Mumbai that caters to children from nearby slum communities. Our collaboration with this school commenced only after an extensive survey of several schools across the country. At Vikas, we found a uniquely enthusiastic response to integrating learning technologies into the classroom; the coordinator of the center had equipped it with WiFi, desktops, and tablets, all so that teachers and students could engage with online knowledge repositories as needed. Vikas was also small and autonomous enough, compared with other formal/government schools, for us to have sufficient flexibility to explore co-designed instructional activities with the teachers and staff.

back to top  Co-Designing to Augment, Not Replace

Our larger research goal at Vikas was to understand emerging uses of technologies for learning in this and similarly resource-constrained contexts, so we could ensure that any learning experiences we co-designed augmented existing infrastructures instead of replacing them. Amid this engagement, the school staff asked us if we could experiment with designing immersive VR experiences for the students to enhance learning. A staff member shared that he had seen an advertisement for a Samsung VR headset on local television, adding that this headset worked with smartphones that were widely available (also in the students' homes) and could be used to offer Vikas's students a novel learning experience. This recommendation, along with the awareness that engaging with VR was becoming more affordable, led us to explore the value that low-cost VR might contribute if and when it was integrated into learning environments such as Vikas.

Shortly after, we found ourselves collaborating with Google Education to understand how VR might be used in a setting like Vikas [1]. Prior research indicated that, for addressing the reality of limited budgets for public education, VR could be useful in "transporting" learners to tours of cities and monuments of global significance—all without leaving the classroom. Learning about remote settings could be especially impactful for those from underserved communities with limited mobility or access to learning opportunities. We decided to explore these possibilities using Google Cardboard, a VR headset that could be used in conjunction with smartphones, and Google Expeditions, a free mobile application that has a large repository (around 250 virtual field trips) of 360-degree content on landforms, natural ecosystems, landmarks, and the like. The Expeditions app runs on WiFi and can work offline. Teachers can use their tablet or smartphone to select content, which is then downloaded to every student's smartphone. Students can insert their device into a viewer (Google Cardboard, in our case) and experience the tour immersively. Through our partnership with Google India, we were able to secure Cardboard headsets and recycled Nexus 4 smartphones for students to use during the study.

ins02.gif Seventh-grade students at Vikas using Google Expeditions during their history lesson.

back to top  Ensuring the Right Fit

During our formative research, we worked closely with different stakeholders at Vikas, conducting extensive interviews and participant observations. We were intent on gaining a deep, situated understanding of the center's learning activities, as well as establishing trust and rapport with stakeholders such that they saw value in committing to co-designing and piloting VR-augmented lessons with us. With the help and support of the school coordinator, we identified a teacher, Ms. Meera, who was interested in helping us out, given her own positive attitude toward technology-enhanced learning. We went through the content available on Expeditions with her, co-designing lesson plans along the way. This co-design exercise lasted a week, during which time we put together six lesson units (approximately 13 hours of content), sufficient for 15 classroom sessions. These sessions took place with sixth and seventh graders at Vikas over the following two weeks.

Given that Vikas was already equipped with tablets, computers, and the Internet, students had adequate exposure to these technologies. Meera routinely streamed YouTube video lectures to supplement her lesson plans; she was keen to ensure that her students could visualize what she was teaching in geography lessons, such as when discussing Mount Everest. Instead of conducting all the Google searches herself, she would ask students to play an active role, getting them to look up images specific to the lesson. For example, Meera had students Google an image of India's map, after which they discussed the bodies of water surrounding the Indian peninsula.

back to top  Staying with the Curriculum

This prior experience helped in two important ways when it came to students engaging with Expeditions and the Cardboard. First, figuring out how the phones would be charged and readied for each session was uncomplicated, since some of the staff were already used to taking care of this with the other devices. Students were comfortable with sharing devices as well, since there were typically not as many devices as students. Second, students were familiar with lesson plans that involved engaging with these devices. This meant that in their initial VR-viewing experience, students could focus on the content rather than the technology itself, as they asked about the Colosseum in Rome and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro: "Why is the Colosseum shaped like that? I can see its walls are broken in many places. What happened?" and "Why did they bring this huge statue of Christ on top of this hill? Why did they do this? Do the people worship this statue?"

Meera was careful that the new VR content she was using did not require her to diverge from her curriculum. In our first pass, Meera shortlisted 60 Expeditions tours that were of interest and relevance to her. In our second pass, she identified tours for 28 topics that could be used to supplement her teaching in the following six lesson units:

  • Manmade Monuments Around the World (6th- and 7th-grade general knowledge)
  • World History (6th- and 7th-grade history)
  • The Harappan Civilization (6th-grade history)
  • The Living World (6th-grade science)
  • Economic, Social, and Cultural Life (7th-grade history)
  • Propagation of Light (7th-grade science)

In sum, Meera's lessons highlighted four ways in which VR could be integrated into a curriculum. One, she used VR content to show real-world phenomena, such as how body parts work. Two, she used it to illustrate abstract concepts in the syllabus. For example, she used a virtual tour of Varanasi to illustrate concepts such as trade and economic growth. In this case, content was appropriated for topics it may not have been designed for originally. Third, she used the Expeditions content to compare and contrast; the Egypt tour did so with the Harappan civilization, for example. Finally, she generated interest in ways such as showing them the tour on South Africa's Kruger National Park, when the content did not directly address learning goals.

back to top  Taking Ownership

Compared with Meera's classes that we had observed before the introduction of VR, we found that the number of questions and the length of class discussion time had increased. Questions also reflected a deeper level of curiosity, engagement, and reflection. Students showed that they could relate what they saw in the virtual tours (e.g., Mount Everest) to their lesson topics (e.g., where Everest is situated on India's map). Their comments about VR were also quite positive: "When you [Meera] showed us the giraffe and the polar bears, and oh my God those sharks! I got scared—they looked so real! . . . Tigers! I would love to stand near the animals . . . Also, show us more things that we do not know of—like new places in the world." While some of this positive response to VR appeared to be on account of the property of "presence" often associated with highly immersive VR experiences, the photorealism and representational fidelity of the places, animals, and objects in the virtual environments seemed to be stronger factors. Most important, students assumed ownership of the VR experience, which was essential for the long-term viability of using VR in the classroom. For example, a few students helped to recharge the phone batteries and set up the viewers before each class. Other students took responsibility for maintaining the viewers. This included spending a weekend to craft three viewers out of plain cardboard and other recycled materials, once they learned that they could craft viewers on their own. They encountered setbacks initially one morning but showed persistence throughout the rest of the afternoon, including going online to search for tutorials they could use.

back to top  Lessons Learned

The lessons we learned from our study were illuminating in multiple ways. Most critically, we learned a great deal from our engagement with all the diverse stakeholders present. Understanding how things were was crucial for understanding how things could be, and how we might target sustained integration of the technology. In Meera's willingness and creative inclusion of VR into existing lesson plans, we saw that VR did not have to be a standalone element; it could be engaged to target various preexisting learning goals. Generally speaking, there was a high level of agency and willingness to engage with VR that made the observed integration possible in Mumbai. Due to the coordinator's enthusiasm to innovate, Vikas was well supported to integrate technology into the curriculum, compared with many schools that cater to resource-constrained communities. The staff members and teachers were excited to bring VR to the classroom, and the teacher we worked with spent time with us (even after hours) for a week to design lessons that integrated the Expeditions field trips. All these contributors worked in tandem to enable the integration of VR at Vikas.

We saw that VR did not have to be a standalone element; it could be engaged to target various preexisting learning goals.

Second, while Meera and her students were quite positive in their response to Expeditions, they were also eager to tap into the potential for VR content creation. Much more work needs to be done in this regard—to explore how to leverage VR as a form of communication rather than as a standalone technology. Also, while short-term studies might provide support for engaged and enthusiastic learning experiences, only time can tell whether these experiences will also lead to improved learning outcomes, once the novelty and charm of VR has faded. One of our takeaways, however, was the recognition that VR could be employed in many ways within curricular standards toward creating new and meeting existing learning outcomes. Despite the non-alignment of Expeditions with the Indian state board curriculum, our participants at Vikas appeared to draw significant value from the content offered by the platform. This motivated us to explore how we might create content aligned with curricular standards, and possibly also engage the participants in the content-creation process. This has been the focus of our ongoing research.

Additionally, we recognize that environments such as Vikas are not located in so-called developing countries alone. Upon concluding our study in Mumbai, Georgia Tech's College of Computing wished to share the results of our work with its computing community. Georgia Tech's Daily Digest also circulated this article a few days later—we learned that its readership extended beyond campus when we got requests from schools across Georgia for more information on our work. In talking with schools outside of the Atlanta metropolitan area, we learned that many of these areas were not significantly better off than Vikas, in the students' challenging backgrounds, a techno-optimistic outlook among teachers, and teachers' desire for the students to see beyond their daily worlds. Focusing on learning environments thousands of miles away, we had failed to realize that many of the constraints Vikas grappled with were present in our neighborhoods as well. Expanding our own outlooks and the scope of our research, we launched inspirit, an entrepreneurial effort that focuses on VR integration into learning environments, with a strong focus on schools and teachers that cater to students from low-income families.

back to top  Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

At a higher level, this study made us aware that comparable infrastructures are now available across the Global North and South, which was not the case even just a few years ago. This raises compelling questions around the much-critiqued undertaking of technology transfer across countries and cultures, particularly from the North to the South. While it is easier now in many ways (for example, we see applications such as Uber being used around the world), we also need to be much more careful as we pursue such transfers. This erstwhile technology-poor world is changing rapidly. Notably, leapfrogging was a term commonly used for new technology users of the Global South. Without much engagement with the laptop or desktop, many of these users embraced the mobile platform—first for making phone calls and staying connected in parts of the world without landlines, then consuming personal audio/video content, and more recently for getting onto the Internet, as data plans become more and more affordable. Today mobile use in the South nearly mirrors that in the North, in spite of inevitable differences in pricing structures and the popularity of different device brands and models. Given the ever widening reach of smartphones and the affordability of cardboard headsets, it is not hard to imagine that we will be seeing greater adoption and use of VR in the near future. Ultimately, the onus is on us as designers to ensure that we target the adoption and use that aligns with cultural and societal specificities.

We emphasize that our study above represents a mere drop in the ocean for what might be possible in the world of VR and learning. Extensive research is required to better understand the affordances of low- and high-cost as well as more and less immersive VR that might bring instructional value, in formal and informal settings, through content creation and consumption, and for more and less traditional learners around the globe. Current research initiatives do explore some of this landscape, but more dedicated efforts will be needed to ensure that VR is able to inclusively reach and be of value to populations across geographic, economic, sectoral, and disciplinary borders.

back to top  References

1. Vishwanath, A., Kam, M., and Kumar, N. Examining low-cost virtual reality for learning in low-resource environments. Proc. of the 2017 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, 2017.

back to top  Authors

Neha Kumar is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, researching human-centered computing in global development. She received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. She is a member of the ACM Future of Computing Academy, where she works toward making computing a globally inclusive discipline. She is also editor of the Human-Centered Computing across Borders blog:

Aditya Vishwanath, a recent Georgia Tech graduate, is a Ph.D. student at Stanford University in learning sciences and technology design. His research takes a human-centered approach toward providing universal access to meaningful digital-learning platforms and content. Along with Neha Kumar, he is a co-founder of inspirit, an enterprise that focuses on the design and implementation of VR-based learning environments.

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