For many educators, the term “virtual reality” may seem like an oxymoron—a tantalizing idea with promise and potential that has yet to materialize in the classroom. But last weekend, the Immersive Storytelling Symposium at the Parsons School of Design in New York City offered a glimpse of the possibilities. Attended by roughly 200 virtual and augmented reality enthusiasts, skeptics and curious wanderers, the event offered an up-close exploration of new projects, candid shortcomings, and worthwhile lessons.
Virtual and augmented reality are described as the 3rd media wave, following the web browser and the mobile phone. Others are calling it a break from the information age and dive into the experience age. Regardless of how it is defined, it’s an emerging, young space. “If you have been in the virtual or augmented reality space for 18 months, you are the experts,” says Justin Hendrix, the executive director of the NYC Media Lab at Parsons School of Design’s Immersive Storytelling Symposium.
We broke down the core conversations at the symposium into five ways educators could begin conceptualizing, teaching and using new reality in the classrooms—possibly making you the new ‘expert’ on virtual and augmented reality in your school.
1. Ask Yourself: Why VR or AR
Many at the symposium agreed VR can enhance opportunities to experience and empathize with the world in ways other mediums have not. However, not all stories or experiences are best translated through new media. Colleen Macklin, a game designer, Parsons assistant professor and co-director of PETLab, noted how the game, Spent, created to help people understand what it was like to be poor by taking them through some spending decisions, actually backfired. It made players less empathic to the poor as they boiled down their poverty to a series of bad choices. According to Macklin, that meant the game was an inefficient medium for the purpose.
Greg Climer, an assistant professor of fashion design at Parsons, echoed Macklin’s sentiments, noting how the message was just as important as the medium. “Educators must break down their motivation for using virtual or augmented reality,” he said. “What is the story you want to tell? How do you best tell that story? Maybe it turns into a VR or AR production, or maybe it turns into a novel,” he said. His students tell their stories through augmented textile pieces, some of which are aimed to promote discussions around challenging subjects like pornography.
He insists that AR and VR are mediums for the transmission of information, and many people will judge these mediums by the content that is produced within them. For educators seeking to gain buy-in from administrators and other colleagues, he explains, it is critical for them to justify the reasons their content requires new reality media.
2. Just Dive In
VR isn’t new. But according to the experts, it is heading into the Gartner Hype Cycle’s “slope of enlightenment”—meaning the technology is just entering public acceptance. “If you think about it, we are back in the days of the emergence of television. Many people are thinking about how to relate to this new media and creators are just now figuring out what to do with it,” Hendrix explains.
Given the newness of these mediums, it is no surprise that few curricular resources exist to support courses around VR and AR. Professional development sessions on new reality tools are almost non-existent, which means educators seeking to use virtual or augmented reality simply need to dive into the subjects.
Gabrielle Kelly, a filmmaker, author, and an associate arts professor at New York University in Singapore, plans to teach a VR screenwriting course next semester. Her preparation process is simply to learn as she creates the course. “How do you teach something you don’t know,” asks Kelly. “We use what we know about film and extrapolate from that, but even the vocabulary will be different. I am gathering information together before I create a syllabus. I plan to get a lot of the people who work in the field on Skype, and then you will have to contact me in May to learn how it went.”
Kelly is no VR expert but insists that for the medium to thrive more people like herself have to be involved. She will soon be writing a ten-page one-minute VR script.
3. Go Beyond Storytelling
So far, educators who have adopted the VR and AR find most of their lessons focused on storytelling. For example, Parsons offers virtual reality journalism and documentary courses.
However, there are other kinds of educational materials. Macklin notes that the physical nature of VR allows teachers to move beyond thinking about a new way of storytelling to exploring new ways of being. “Studies using VR demonstrate the ‘Proteus Effect’—taking on the psychology of inhabiting a different body and unconsciously changing our behavior to conform to it,” Macklin wrote for her session’s introduction statement. “If we can inhabit other bodies and adapt to new ways of acting and being, can we learn what it’s like to be another?”
One of the more provocative examples Macklin cites is a VR documentary called “Use of Force” by Nonny De La Pena. In the experience, users enter the body of Anastasio Rojas, an undocumented immigrant who was beaten and killed by border patrol officers while trying to sneak into the United States. Macklin explains that this type of immersion has the possibility to allow scientist, psychologist, and philosophers to study post-human being—the effects of humans embodying other people. “Could VR not only let us experience the effects of different bodies but actually be the first step to inhabit difference beings—if temporarily?” Macklin asks. She says explorers should use VR push the boundaries of experience.
4. Master the Machines
However, before pushing any boundaries, it is important for teachers and students to master the equipment first.
“The equipment matters. If there is a latency between the computer and the VR set that can cause a lot of problems,” says Chia Liao, a student from Parsons who demoed her VR project, Cerebral Evidence. Her project, which her team worked hard to set up, explored conscious and subconscious reactions to being surveilled on a daily basis.
However, other students expressed ease at their ability to learn the new technology. “The biggest barrier is definitely access,” says Alex Gerald, a journalism and design student at Parsons, “I was not expecting this [his VR documentary] to be so easy, but if you have access to the equipment, that is really the hardest part.” ‘Easy’ is a relative term: his 10-minute documentary took his team of five people two months to create.
With VR equipment ranging from about $15 to $600 educators will have to check the budget or start writing grant proposals to gain access to the higher quality machines.
5. Understand Your Student's Needs
Kyle Li, the program director of Parson’s BFA Design and Technology program, described his VR teaching experience at a design lab in the Institute of Play, a public New York City middle school that built its entire curriculum around analog games. “We created a safe environment for students to make mistakes because they can reset and try again,” Li says, “But what we found was that students did not connect their VR experiences to real life.”
Kyle suggests that when teaching young students with VR or AR, it is important to root the alternate reality experience with class discussions so students know what to expect and can connect the information they receive to the real world.
For adults who will be experiencing and creating VR content, “it is important for them to unlearn and relearn,” says Melanie Crean, an artist and assistant professor at Parsons. "Creating VR content, unlike film, is not linear," she shares. VR users have more options— they can choose to face the characters, or they can look around. They are free to create their experiences. Students who write for VR must go beyond the linear script to consider all the agency users have. For Crean’s VR documentary students, who were conditioned to think in a linear fashion, changing their way of thinking took some adjustments. “What something feels like or the meaning behind an experience is a different kind of writing,” explains Crean.
This list is just the beginning of what many exhibitors described as a “quantum shift” in the way we interact, learn and experience. What have been your experiences with virtual or augmented reality? Are you one of the pioneers that have already begun using new reality media in your classrooms?