How VR Can Help Train Teacher
Critical reflection and continuous exploration
It’s very hard to become bored with teaching. The more you learn about how we learn, the more you become aware of how much more there is to know about teaching. It’s one of those professions that can never truly be mastered. Theory and practice are constantly struggling to come to terms with each other in the complex world of pedagogy and the dynamic world of the classroom.
In Pedagogy of Freedom (Freire, 1998, p. 51), Paulo Freire emphasizes that, as teachers (and human beings), it is essential that we become aware of our ‘unfinishedness’ and the necessity to continue exploring.
“As a teacher with critical acumen, I do not cease to be a responsible ‘adventurer’ disposed to accept change and difference. Nothing of what I experienced as a teacher needs to be repeated.”
Freire believed that teachers should be open to change through critical reflection and this echoes John Dewey’s belief that teachers should retain “an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us.” (Dewey, 1933, p. 30).
This is, of course, far easier to say than it is to do, and teachers have long wrestled with how the idea of active and constant reflection might transfer into everyday classroom practice. Reflection takes effort and it is a skill that requires an ongoing developmental approach to foster in both trainee teachers and seasoned professionals.
Technology can help here and video has long been used as a tool in the context of teacher training. It is an excellent medium for the detailed capture of teaching episodes that can be watched to provide a context for feedback and to develop reflective practice skills.
However, its value is often limited as video provides only one fixed perspective of the classroom. The camera is typically placed out of the way at the back of the room and focused on the teacher, with the backs of students’ heads occupying much of the foreground space. Well, this was the case until quite recently.
Hands-on with 360-degree video
With the advent of cheap 360-degree cameras came the opportunity to rethink the way that video is used for continuous professional development and to support trainee teachers taking their first steps into the classroom.
I began exploring this possibility back in 2015, by filming some of my own classes in 360 degrees (with the full permission of my students, of course). I quickly found, however, that the file sizes of these videos were enormous. Added to that, watching the videos became quite uncomfortable after 20 minutes or so, due to the combined weight of the headset and my worryingly overheating phone.
In order to overcome these problems, it was clear that I would need to shorten the length of the videos. 10 to 20 minutes seemed to provide the optimum balance in terms of reducing the file sizes and avoiding the physical discomfort. This length of time was also great for capturing more focused ‘microteaching’ episodes in the classroom.
Although at first it felt a little existentially disconcerting to actively view myself in the third person, I found the experience to be so thoroughly exciting, revealing and useful that I set out to discover whether it might be equally beneficial for helping my CELTA trainees to develop their self-reflection skills. To this effect, I set up the following procedure:
Step 1: The volunteer trainee planned her/his usual 20-minute lesson to teach to a small group of 10 to 15 students.
Step 2: The trainee’s microteaching sessions were recorded using a small 360-degree camera. The video was also streamed live to my iPad outside the classroom. This enabled me to watch both the trainee and the students ‘in action’ and take notes as the lesson unfolded.
Step 3: After the class, I interviewed the trainee to find out her/his thoughts and observations on how their lesson had gone.
Step 4: I watched the trainee’s micro-lesson using a VR headset and took notes on what I observed.
Step 5: A week later, my trainees individually viewed the 360-degree video of their lessons using a VR headset and headphones. While they were watching, I asked them to use the ‘think aloud protocol’ (a process in which participants speak aloud to voice their thoughts as they complete a task) to describe what they were observing and make their thoughts on this explicit. While they were doing this, I recorded their voices and took notes.
Step 6: After watching themselves teach, the trainees removed their headsets. We then discussed their thoughts and observations in more depth, as well as my own.
One of the most remarkable themes to emerge from the interviews became clear from the language the trainees used to describe the process. Rather than speaking about ‘watching a video’, the trainees frequently spoke of ‘going back in’ or ‘revisiting’. This was a sign that the trainees were strongly re-immersed in the experience. I also felt this while ‘revisiting’ my own classes.
Virtual Reality achieves this through taking control of your senses. Your eyes cannot see outside the temporary confines of the spherical environment and the surround sound provides the acoustic immersion.
It was also very interesting to see how the trainees twisted and turned as they revisited their classrooms virtually. They were clearly spatially immersed in the environment and using their heads to look around as they would naturally do if they were physically present. This last point was particularly important as, in contrast with traditional fixed-point cameras, the trainees had the power to choose where they wanted to focus their attention anywhere within the room.
Albeit limited, this amount of agency proved to be enough to provide them with the feeling of being present. It also enabled them to ‘track’ individual students as they participated throughout the lesson, as well as providing a wealth of information on both verbal and non-verbal communication.
While I am the first to admit that this was not a scientific study (it was merely my way of trying to be “a responsible ‘adventurer’”), it provided such a positive response from the volunteers that I have since gone on to develop both the ideas and the process in my current role in higher education.
While the gaming industry dominates the use of virtual reality, its role in education is being explored with great enthusiasm, creativity and funding. The ability of VR to fully immerse you in a simulated environment, whether computer generated or recorded in 360-degree video, and place you in the shoes of another (or back in your own shoes) is extremely powerful and ideally suited to a wide range of training scenarios. The convincing feeling of ‘being there’ can be leveraged to promote reflection, safely practise skills, improve empathy and provide therapy.
Although it continues to gain traction, VR technology is still in its early stages and still has a long way to go. Based on current trends, in the future virtual reality may become a primary way to communicate, learn and spend leisure time. The current focus on image and sound immersion is likely to broaden to impact a wider range of senses, starting with touch and motion capture.
The clunky headsets of today may one day be replaced by a direct brain-computer interface and simulations so real that ‘real reality’ may pale by comparison.
There are many ethical, philosophical, sociological and health concerns raised by these possibilities, as there have been by the advent of the printing press, the telegram, radio, the telephone, television and video games. And this is a good thing. We should, after all, do our best to become responsible and critical adventurers.
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process.New York: D.C. Heath and Company.
Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Lanham: Rowman.
Read Paul’s previous post on VR – A tour of virtual reality resources and content creation tools