Researchers Work with Kids in Mumbai to Examine Classroom Potential of Virtual Reality

Schoolchildren from slum communities in Mumbai, India, don’t often have the chance to explore the world outside of their physical surroundings. However, with new virtual reality technologies, the world is now coming to them.

To better understand the potential for virtual reality (VR) in the classroom in India and other similarly resource-constrained environments, Aditya Vishwanath, a third-year computer science major at the Georgia Institute of Technology, recently completed a research project using the Google Expeditions VR toolkit with sixth and seventh graders in the Powai suburb of Mumbai.

Earlier this year, Vishwanath – advised by Assistant Professor Neha Kumar, who has a joint appointment in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing, and in collaboration with Google researchers Matthew Kam and Jim Ratcliffe, spent six weeks in Mumbai working with teachers in a local school. Their goal was to assess the role that low-cost VR technology can play to support learning in classrooms that cater to communities with limited resources.

During a recent Q&A session, Vishwanath discussed some of his research findings, and described the challenges that must be met before VR can reach its fullest potential in the classrooms of Mumbai and other resource-constrained parts of the world.

College of Computing: Hi Aditya. This sounds like it must have been an incredible experience. What were the students like and which Google Expeditions did you use?

Aditya Vishwanath: Thank you. Yes, it really was! The students were sixth and seventh graders and belonged to families that came from slum communities in Mumbai, India. The school was located in a densely populated area (Powai), and all the students at the school came from neighboring slums. Most of their parents worked as cleaners, rickshaw drivers, and small-store shopkeepers; their average salary was $3-$5 per day. The primary medium of communication was Hindi followed by (not fluent) English and (fluent) Marathi, which is the local language.

The content available via Expeditions included 360-degree images and graphics of famous landmarks around the world, various landforms, and animal ecosystems, as well as virtual tours of several cities and museums. Some of the specific “field trips” that the local teachers integrated into the curriculum were:

  • The Seven Wonders of the World
  • Major monuments and buildings such as the Taj Mahal, Sheikh Zayed Mosque, and the Burj Khalifa
  • Country tours of Egypt, Greece, Singapore, and Namibia
  • Significant geographic and cultural sites like Mt. Everest, the Amazon, and Aztec and Mayan ruins
  • The human digestive and nervous systems
  • The San Diego Zoo

Did you develop your own lesson plans around these VR field trips?

We were keen to not build our own lesson plans. Instead, we worked with the local teachers to see how they viewed the VR field trips and whether or not it would work for them to integrate these into their classes. The fieldwork lasted for a total of six weeks. In the first four weeks, we focused on developing a better understanding of the school setting and developed potential plans with the teachers. In the next two weeks, we executed these lesson plans.

First, we went through all the Expeditions field trips together to select content relevant to the teachers’ subjects (history, geography, and science). Then we performed a second, more focused iteration, inserting the field trips into lesson plans for the next two weeks. The teachers actively engaged with the content, using VR to extend the knowledge presented in the subject topic.

For example, the sixth graders had a history lesson on the Indus Valley Civilization (an ancient civilization located in what is today Pakistan and northwest India) that described its origins and the archaeological ruins that exist today. The teacher integrated the Machu Pichu field trip into this lesson as supplementary content to extend the general knowledge of the students and facilitate a compare-and-contrast exercise between the two ancient civilizations.

As for the lesson format, since we had previously observed the classes in action, we can confirm that the teaching style of the teachers was unchanged, with the cardboard VR viewer seamlessly integrated. They would simply ask students to look into their respective viewers – as needed – during lectures. And I would like to emphasize that the VR viewers were not a replacement for the teachers, but a highly effective teaching aid.

What did students like best about the Google Expedition field trips?

The students found the experience immersive and enjoyable. They were excited to learn about and visit new places in VR. They had all heard about virtual reality, but none of them had experienced it. They absolutely loved the feeling of being virtually present in front of Mt. Everest and the Burj Khalifa.

Students were also excited that these VR headsets could be crafted out of plain cardboard, even more so when they discovered that they could make these on their own. I can tell you more about this in a minute.

It’s important to note that although they liked using the viewers, some students felt mild eye discomfort and a few experienced minor headaches. Also, phones would often get discharged very quickly and students would have to share the viewers with each other. While these were not major issues, they did cause some disruption.

How did using VR help improve the educational value of these experiences for the students?

It was fascinating to see. The students asked many questions and the teachers encouraged them to draw parallels between the context described in their lessons and the field trips. In many cases, the Expeditions platform did not have enough content for the chapter being taught because there was very little content specific to Indian history and geography. Nevertheless, the teachers found ways to adapt the content and used it to widen the students’ general knowledge skills and train them in compare-and-contrast exercises.

Students compared their VR field trips to other sites they may have visited in India and/or their immediate neighborhood/city. Introducing the VR platform also impacted members of the community beyond the classroom. The students shared their experiences and field trip stories with students from other grades. Parents and elder/younger siblings also came to us with these stories, all eager to try out the cardboard VR headsets.

CoC: You mentioned that the kids were able to make their own viewers?

Yes. The simplicity of the cardboard VR viewers encouraged students to try and design their own viewers, which they did. This activity was such a success that eventually students throughout the school got busy making their own viewers. It started with two students spending a Saturday afternoon in school premises, cutting out shapes from recycled pieces of cardboard and looking up YouTube tutorials to design the viewers themselves. Some made lenses by cutting transparent plastic bottles in circular shapes and sticking them together. This creation ‘movement’ inspired even more students to look up do-it-yourself activities online and soon everyone was personalizing their viewers by adding stickers and coloring them.

This also helped the students share their VR field trips. Almost all students came from families that owned at least one smartphone and they would take their handmade viewers home to give their parents and siblings the VR experience.

What did educators learn from the implementation?

The teachers allowed students to tend to the maintenance of the entire Google Expeditions toolkit and the ensuing feeling of ownership and responsibility prompted a stronger willingness to teach and learn with VR. The teachers also gained considerable support from students – as well as from school administrators – by using VR as a teaching aid in the class.

One teacher remarked, “I loved working with the VR toolkit, especially because of the students' enthusiastic reactions! I want to use these viewers for at least 10-15 minutes every day – even if it is to show them new and informative content that is not related to the syllabus – simply because both the students and I learn so much from the content.”

How might VR viewers (and other technology) be enhanced in the future to increase usability in K-12 classrooms?

First, there is the technological dimension. While the viewers are inexpensive, there is some viewer design work needed to improve overall usability. They can be made more comfortable to wear and use. In addition, there were calibration errors with the phone and viewers. Also, cardboard viewers wear out with excessive use, poor maintenance, or when they are exposed to rain.

There is also the issue of limited content. There is a clear need to design VR content that is based on the students’ learning context. While the Expeditions content offered a high degree of adaptability, the teachers would have preferred content that could further supplement their classroom teaching. For example, for teaching the sciences, teachers would like content that displays 3D models of the solar system, human organs, and even physical processes such as the water cycle and wind/water currents. Also, they would like to see more VR content specifically related to local contexts. As one teacher put it, “I also want to see more forts, old monuments, and similar structures from an Indian context. We have a lot of our syllabus that surrounds history and geography of these kinds of things, and this kind of content would be very helpful for a teacher like me!”

What’s next regarding your research in this area?

More than content, the ownership and agency over that content needs to belong to the teachers and students. The question our work is currently trying to address is “how might we develop platforms that can allow our users to generate and curate (add/share/delete) their own VR content?” With this in mind, our focus is currently on investigating ways of allowing users to create and curate VR content, in addition to designing more usable viewers. We have maintained our ties with the school in Mumbai and will be working with them for our next deployment as well. It is encouraging that the teachers there are eager and willing to integrate VR into their lesson plans. The low cost of these viewers has been particularly instrumental in lowering any barriers to experimentation in their minds.