The Virtual Reality and Education Laboratory at East Carolina University
The Virtual Reality and Education Laboratory (VREL) was created in 1992 by Dr. Veronica Pantelidis and Dr. Lawrence Auld in response to a perceived need for a laboratory to study the implications of virtual reality for kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) education. VREL is administratively attached to the Department of Broadcasting, Librarianship and Educational Technology (BLET), one of eight departments in the School of Education at East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina. This paper looks at what we have accomplished during the last seven years and considers a few of the things that we can expect in the future.
VREL began in 1992 with a monochrome Macintosh computer set on a desk in the corner of a departmental computer lab and a donated piece of virtual reality software. Immediately, we began expanding an earlier bibliography that had been compiled on virtual reality and education and putting together a group of handouts on the topic. When VREL moved to a small room of its own, two used computers were added, and the growing number of handouts was now displayed on shelving. The next move, into a classroom, provided seating for 25+ students, and additional computers and pieces of peripheral VR equipment were added. Additional relevant handouts were created, and books and periodicals on virtual reality were displayed. Building renovation forced a move to another, slightly larger classroom. Then, in the fall of 1996, VREL moved into its present space of approximately 875 square feet. Additional computers have been acquired and connected to the Internet, a mid-sized video/computer monitor has been installed, and more examples of hardware and software have been added. An expanded shelving area provides space for more books and periodicals as well as selected files on virtual reality.
We deliberately equipped VREL with an eclectic collection of hardware and software, since one of our objectives has been to provide a variety of types for demonstration. In this way, we can show educators and others what different hardware and software can do, and allow them to compare the relative capabilities, costs and benefits. This is important, because another goal is to assist educators in selecting affordable and accessible virtual reality hardware and software.
Currently, VREL has fifteen desktop computers (both PC and Macintosh) with varying speeds and capacities, mirroring to some extent what is found in schools. Peripheral equipment, used for demonstrating different aspects of virtual reality, includes head-mounted display
units, shutter glasses, anaglyphic glasses, a 3-D mouse, a wireless mouse, and gloves. Examples of VR software include MindRender VREK, PC Blox, Superscape VRT-5, 3-D Website Builder, Virtus WalkThrough Pro, Vista Pro and VR Creator, as well as other less well-known software, some free for download from the World Wide Web. Visitors to VREL can quickly see the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various types of VR hardware and software for particular applications.
From the beginning, we adopted an operational definition of virtual reality, a definition that describes our particular area of interest. In this definition we attempted to embrace all possible variations of virtual reality, since we particularly wanted to avoid being limited to a single type of equipment, a single software package, or a single application. After seven years, we find that this approach remains durable and useful.
In our original brochure, we asked, "What is Virtual Reality?" and gave this answer:
The Virtual Reality and Education Laboratory at East Carolina University is dedicated to finding ways to use virtual reality in education. Virtual reality is the computer-generated simulation of a real or an imagined environment or world. It can be graphics-based (e.g., a walk-through of a building) or text based (e.g., a description of a city where participants can interact with one another). V irtual reality has the potential to change the way we learn. The question is: How can this new medium be incorporated productively into the learning process?
In 1992, when that statement was written, "virtual reality" was a popular term. By 1996, too many overly ambitious headlines had caused some to wonder whether other terms might be preferable. Now, in 1999, the term virtual reality seems to have regained some of its original respect. We recently revised our statement, keeping the same basic ideas but, we think, expressing them better, as follows:
VREL (the Virtual Reality and Education Laboratory) at East Carolina University is dedicated to the exploration of three-dimensional, interactive, computer-generated worlds, known as virtual reality. Through the scientific visualization of educational objectives, this new medium can be incorporated productively into the learning process. The computer-generated simulation of real and imagined environments or worlds can be graphics-based (e.g., a walk-through of a building) or text-based (e.g., a description of a city where participants can interact with one another). Both forms have the potential to change the way we learn.
In the process of creating VREL, we identified a number of relevant projects, and several were begun. We have maintained some projects on a continuing basis, a few have fallen by the way, and others have been added. Here are some of the principal projects:
Clearinghouse on Virtual Reality and Education
As one of our first projects, we set up a clearinghouse on virtual reality and education. We wanted to disseminate information on projects around the world, so we began our publication, VR in the Schools. This is a quarterly, refereed journal with an international readership, devoted primarily to reporting on virtual reality applications in K-12 schools. The first issue appeared in June 1995, in both printed and electronic (e-mail) formats. Beginning with volume 3 (June 1997), distribution has been only via the Web, and all earlier issues have been converted to this format. For access to issues of VR in the Schools, see http://s'e.eastnet.ecu.edu/vr/pub.htm. The Clearinghouse also sends out printed material on VR and education and maintains our Web site.
We have attempted to identify relevant print and nonprint materials on the educational applications of virtual reality and, to a lesser extent, to collect these materials. As a part of this clearinghouse function, we receive questions from around the world asking for information on a wide variety of topics relating to virtual reality and education. It is interesting to note that, as the Web grows, the number of requests for information is declining. Based on the number of visits to our site (over 10,000 in less than two years) we believe this is due to many questioners finding their answers there.
VREL Web Site
Our Web site for VREL is located at http://s'e.eastnet.ecu.edu/vr/vrel.htm. It includes links to materials produced in VREL, including VR in the Schools and many of the handouts created for free distribution, publications produced elsewhere, other sites relevant to virtual reality and education, and Internet-based virtual reality courses offered by East Carolina University.
VR and Schools
In 1995 we initiated the VR and Schools Project. Classroom teachers, self-identified as wanting to use virtual reality in their classes, were each given a copy of Virtus WalkThrough. Except for some demonstrations, most of our work has used versions of Virtus Corporation's WalkThrough virtual reality program. We have found that this flat-screen or window-on-the-world type of virtual reality software is well suited for work in the K-12 area. It is affordable, can be viewed by more than one person at a time, and avoids the largely unanswered health questions that are associated with some more immersive VR software and hardware. A total of seventeen teachers participated: 14 in North Carolina and one each in West Virginia, California and New Zealand. Reports by several of these teachers appear in the June, 1995 issue of VR in the Schools at http://s'e.eastnet.ecu.edu/vr/vrits/1-1vrsch.htm.
We worked on two projects with the Young Einstein Club, a group of students in grades 3 through 5 in a local school who had been identified by their teachers as having above average problem-solving skills. The first project, in which the students designed a space colony on a faraway planet, was reported in VR in the Schools (Volume 2, Number 4, March 1997), which is available at http://s'e.eastnet.ecu.edu/vr/vrits/2-4so-gr.htm. In the second project, students studied structures and created models of the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon and Stonehenge.
VR Software and Hardware for Educational Use
Identification, evaluation and demonstration of appropriate virtual reality software and hardware for use in grades K-12 was one of our first objectives. While we continue to demonstrate the hardware and software that we have, we have been unable to systematically gather all appropriate hardware and software or to evaluate and demonstrate it as much as we would like. Publications at our Web site provide links to software and hardware that we believe are relevant to K-12 educational curriculum objectives.
North Carolina Competency-Based Curriculum
Objectives and VR.
North Carolina has developed a comprehensive set of Competency-Based Curriculum Objectives that may be seen at http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/Curriculum/CrrclmMtrx.html. We have worked at identifying objectives that can use virtual reality as a method or means to attainment. Examples for Communication Skills, Science and Social Science are published in an article at http://s'e.eastnet.ecu.edu/vr/vrits/2-2Pante.htm. Mathematics examples are listed in an article at http://s'e.eastnet.ecu.edu/vr/vrits/2-3Pante.htm. We are continuing to work on the identification of objectives in other curriculum areas that can use virtual reality.
In the Department of Broadcasting, Librarianship and Educational Technology, the Master of Arts in Education degree program in Instructional Technology Specialist-Computers includes a four-course concentration in virtual reality. The Department has submitted a proposal for a fifteen-hour graduate Certificate in Virtual Reality in Education and Training, which would lead to a certificate but not a graduate degree. At the undergraduate level, the Department offers eight courses on virtual reality, plus an internship. This cluster of courses can be used to fulfill the structured-electives alternative to a formal minor in certain programs. Each of the courses, both graduate and undergraduate, is Internet-based except the internship. Educators around the world have taken our online courses.
We have consistently said that virtual reality is an instructional tool, one of many that effective instructors use. The choice of an instructional tool depends on the specific lesson objectives, the student(s), and the teacher - the decision to use VR is the instructor's. We feel that grassroots interest is more effective in generating interest in the use of VR than mandates from others. Busy classroom teachers do not want another instructional tool forced on them without appropriate provisions for training, preparation, implementation, and so forth.
A project we have thought about a great deal is a teacher/student interaction simulator in which student teachers can experience a variety of classroom situations. We envision a modified CAVE in which a student preparing to become a teacher can experience simulated situations, some life threatening (e.g., a student with a knife or a gun), and practice different ways of handling these situations. Simulators are already being used in training for law enforcement, medicine and fire fighting and could also be used in many other teaching and training environments, including counseling (e.g., role playing), agriculture (e.g., crop protection and management), social work (e.g., exploring low income and crime ridden neighborhoods) and science education (e.g., conducting dangerous experiments).
Where will virtual reality be in ten years? What new and different educational applications will be available to teachers? The term "virtual reality" may be used less often as 3-D interfaces for operating systems and applications become more common. With faster, more-powerful, more affordable desktop computers, we can expect greater use of computer-based simulations and computer-generated visualizations by teachers and other educators.
In 1992 we identified a new and nearly empty corner in the virtual reality niche. The Virtual Reality and Education Laboratory is engaged in a variety of activities, including presentations at conferences, demonstrations and workshops, publication of VR in the
Schools, maintenance of a World Wide Web site, teaching courses, consulting and answering questions. Through these activities, we have helped to fill the virtual reality niche, gaining recognition in many parts of the world in the process. We are looking forward to continuing to address the educational aspects of virtual reality.
Dr. Lawrence Auld and Dr. Veronica Pantelidis co-direct the Virtual Reality and Education Laboratory in the School of Education at East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina.
Selected VREL Publications
"Virtual Reality and Education: Information Sources," Veronica S. Pantelidis. 1991; last revised 1997.
"Virtual Reality (VR) As an Instructional Aid: A Model for Determining When to Use VR," Veronica S. Pantelidis. VR in the
Schools vol. 3, No. 1 (June 1997).
"VR in Secondary Education: What Do You Need, What D'es It Cost, How Do You Get Started?" Veronica S. Pantelidis. In Proceedings: VRET '97, Virtual Reality in Education & Training 1997; International Conference & Exhibition, Loughborough University, June 24-26, 1997, 13-19.
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.