Summer Faculty Workshop Report: Stories for the Eye and Mind

Executive Summary

The summer faculty workshop, Stories for the Eye and Mind: Immersive Environments for Teaching and Learning, was held in the Digital Liberal Arts Lab (DLAB) on Grinnell College 26-29 June 2017. Workshop participants included David Neville (GCIEL project lead and workshop facilitator), Damian Kelty-Stephen (Assistant Professor of Psychology and workshop co-facilitator), Charles Cunningham (Professor of Physics), Christopher French (Professor and Department Chair of Mathematics and Statistics), Sarah Purcell (Professor of History), Liz Rodrigues (Humanities and Digital Scholarship Librarian), Elaine Marzluff (Professor and Department Chair of Chemistry), Liz Queathem (Lecturer, Biology Department), Jen Shook (Postdoctoral Fellow, Digital Bridges in Humanistic Inquiry Partnership), and Bill Rudolph (Lecturer, Grinnell College Writing Lab). Workshop activity covered four days:

  • The first day of the workshop focused on developing familiarity with immersive environments through unstructured experimentation with related hardware such as Google Cardboard, the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and CAVE technology with the Mechdyne ROVR. Readings provided background in the use of immersive environments in higher education and general industry trends.
  • The second day of the workshop focused on the creation of immersive storytelling experiences. Readings provided best practices for creating effective experiences and demonstrated the efficacy of these experiences in promoting self-other merging, empathy, helping behavior, and pro-social behavior. Dr. Joel Beeson, Associate Professor in West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, presented his work on the Bridging Selma Project and the Fractured Tour app. The optional afternoon lab allowed workshop participants to create their own immersive storytelling experiences with a Ricoh Theta S camera and Story Spheres.
  • The third day of the workshop focused on the use of immersive environments to support digital cultural heritage and history projects. Readings introduced workshop participants to the affordances and potential problems of using immersive computing technology to visualize cultural heritage, as well as international metadata standards for preserving developed models. Dr. Glenn Gunhouse, Senior Lecturer of Art History in the School of Art and Design at Georgia State University, presented a general introduction to his cultural heritage projects in virtual reality, with observations about how the technology can provide access to otherwise inaccessible objects of study, but, at the same time, present its own set of obstacles. Immediately after the presentation, workshop participants joined Dr. Gunhouse in VRChat to view these projects first-hand. The optional afternoon lab introduced workshop participants to SketchUp 2015 and the possibility of using elevations and floor plans from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) to begin a digital cultural heritage project.
  • The fourth day of the workshop served as an unstructured opportunity to review project workflows and brainstorm how best to promote the use of immersive environments in teaching and research at Grinnell College. In addition to reviewing the process to create 360-degree panoramic photographs and import these into Story Spheres, participants also learned how 3D models can be imported into Unity and developed into 3D, virtual reality, and augmented reality experiences using this game engine. Dr. David Lopatto, Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, and Dr. Dave Robinson, Chief Information Technology Officer, were present to participate in the brainstorming process. Readings focusing on cognitive load theory, problem-based learning, activity systems theory, situated cognition, and game-based learning encouraged workshop participants to see immersive environments as instructional tools that can be design and implemented in support of teaching and learning.

Participants found the material presented in the workshop to be interesting and useful for their teaching and research needs and would like to produce an action plan of short- and mid-range goals for promoting immersive computing technologies at Grinnell College. Tweets emerging from the workshop were collected under the Twitter hashtag #gcielSW17. A detailed account of workshop activity, including questions related to the readings, follows.

Immersive Environments Workshop: Day One

The first day was spent getting to know each other a bit better and exploring some of the technology that supports immersive environments. Each workshop participant was provided a Google Cardboard device and stereo earphones that can be used with a smartphone. Workshop participants were encouraged to install the Google Cardboard app either from the App Store or Google Play.

 

After a casual start and a round of VR speed dating, workshop participants spent an hour-an-a-half experiencing VR environments on high-end VR equipment located in the Grinnell College Immersive Experiences Lab (GCIEL), which include two HTC Vives and one Oculus Rift; a ROVR device was on loan from Mechdyne. Since ideas for using immersive environments in teaching and research contexts can only grow out of direct experience with the technology, workshop participants were encouraged to spend as much time with it as possible. They were also encouraged to check the workshop website to see some of the titles that are currently installed on lab computers and think about the ones they would like to experience.

The workshop was concluded with a discussion of Kelly, K. (2016) and Sinclair, B. & Gunhouse, G. (2016). Questions to guide the reading of these texts and form the basis of group discussion include:

  • In what ways to you think VR can enhance or change what you do as a teacher/researcher?
  • What do you think that VR can offer your students?
  • In addition to financial barriers, what else do you see hindering VR adoption by colleges and universities?
  • Do you think Google Cardboards can be successfully implemented as an instructional platform? What are the strengths/weaknesses of this platform?
  • In addition to accessibility issues, what are some other aspects of VR that should be evaluated to determine the suitability of this technology for colleges and universities?
  • What type of VR support would you like to see at the college for your teaching/research projects?
  • What kinds of VR projects would you like to pursue and create?
  • What would a space for developing 3D/VR/AR projects look like at Grinnell College?
  • As the Internet of Experiences evolves, what kinds of experiences do you think students should be able to access?
  • How would the amplification of presence in VR experiences benefit education? How would it potentially harm it?

The article by Kelly provides a good overview of VR technologies and their historical development, and also provides an interesting vision of how these technologies could develop in the future as the “Internet of Experiences” begins to unfold. The article discusses Magic Leap at length, a secretive augmented reality (AR) company that many suspect is about to release its first product. Workshop participants were encouraged to read the article online as there are several videos embedded on the website that can’t be seen in the PDF version. The article by Sinclair and Gunhouse provides a good introduction to how VR can be used in academic settings.

Immersive Environments Workshop: Day Two

Since workshop participants did not get a chance to discuss their experiences with the hardware as a group yesterday, we took the time to revisit some of the questions that were sent out yesterday as a way to work in to the topic for today. At 9:30 AM we heard a presentation from Dr. Joel Beeson, associate professor in West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. The Fractured Tour app, which we examined as a group, is inspired by the FataLAtour project and is a product of his work with students at WVU as well as faculty and students from Morgan State University in Baltimore. The Fractured Tour app (download here for Android and here for iOS) is a key component of the Bridging Selma Project, which was the first attempt at a social justice reporting partnership between an HBCU and a predominately white institution. Dr. Beeson is interested in using immersive storytelling technology to address social inequities and create empathy across lines of race, class, and gender. His recent work is with the WWI Centennial Commission and the Congressional Black Caucus to create a Google Expedition VR of African American experience in WWI through the eyes of the Chicago Defender, including the Great Migration, Ida B. Wells, Pullman porters, urbanization in Chicago, the 8th Illinois Regiment in France, the New Negro Movement, and Red Summer race riots of 1919. Dr. Beeson referred us to his ARVRStory site for more details on his projects.

 

After the presentation, we spent time on the lab equipment looking at some examples of immersive journalism. Our time together was concluded with a discussion of the immersive journalism experiences and readings for the day, which focus on the ability of virtual reality to promote pro-social behavior, self-other merging, empathy, and helping behavior. In addition to these readings, workshop participants were also given Anderson (2016), which is a cinematic VR field guide, and the syllabus for an MA seminar at Stanford on immersive storytelling. These files were meant only to serve as a reference and introduction to best practices. Some questions to guide reading and discussion include:

  • Can the realism of a VR experience aid in the transfer of knowledge between a simulated event and the real world?
  • What knowledge would you like to transfer?
  • What liberal arts topics would be good for self-other merging in VR?
  • How can VR’s ability to be an “empathy machine” best be utilized in a liberal arts setting?
  • Debriefing is an important part of constructivist learning methods. Were you to use VR in your teaching, how would you include/structure debriefing?
  • VR seems to be more effective in shorter but more intensive sessions. Knowing this, how would you implement it in your classes?
  • How can the ability of VR to foster oneness and presence be used to enhance your courses and realize your learning objectives?
  • How can presence be used to support the teaching of social justice topics?
  • In addition to diversity training, how should VR be used in educational contexts to promote favorable attitudes and helping behavior?
  • In what fields or topics would this affordance be particularly helpful/useful?
  • Would the depiction of violence in VR have a negative effect?

The afternoon optional lab focused on creating Story Spheres with a Ricoh Theta S camera and the recording app of a smartphone. Workshop participants were provided a PDF copy of the project guide for reference. Participants were also reminded that they need to have a Gmail account to register for a free Story Spheres account.

Immersive Environments Workshop: Day Three

We heard a presentation from Dr. Glenn Gunhouse, senior lecturer of art history in the School of Art and Design at Georgia State University and one of the authors of the of the Educause article “The Promise of Virtual Reality in Higher Education.” His presentation was entitled “VR for Teaching: Issues of Access and Accessibility” and was meant to serve as a general introduction to what he does with virtual reality, with observations about how the technology can provide access to otherwise inaccessible objects of study, but, at the same time, present its own set of obstacles. Through his work in virtual reality, Dr. Gunhouse has come to the conclusion that the best way to provide broad access to virtual objects is to make them available in a wide variety of formats. Some of these VR experiences are available to workshop participants to view on Dr. Glenhouse’s web page.

After the presentation we joined Dr. Gunhouse in VRChat for a tour of some of the models he has created, such as the Baptistery at Dura Europos and a Roman villa. The readings of the day focused on 3D cultural heritage and, which seems to be recurring theme of the workshop, problems of representation. The 3D-ICONS, PARTHENOS, and London Charter readings were meant to serve as primary as background and reference. The 3D-ICONS reading is particularly useful in that it explains the processes that are used to created 3D/VR cultural heritage projects, presents sample projects, and details the technology that was used in the projects. Favro (2012) and Fredrick (2014) discuss the affordances as well as potential problems associated with using game engine technology to visualize cultural heritage. Frischer & Fillwalk (2012) is an interesting use of this technology to test hypotheses emerging from archaeological investigations, here the alignment of astronomical phenomenon with ancient architecture. Questions to guide reading and discussion include:

  • How would real-time, interactive immersion in a VR experience change your course?
  • What is the best approach for archiving/preserving 3D models and VR experiences?
  • How is the creation of a 3D model or VR experience different than that for a 20-page paper? How would they be similar?
  • Do students need to become more proficient in visual, aural, and kinetic literacies?
  • The CityEngine platform can transform 2D GIS data into 3D models. What possible collaborations can you think of with DASIL?
  • Can VR fully recreate a past world? Why do people think this recreation is more authentic?
  • How is a VR recreation different from other recreations of the past (e.g., textbooks)?
  • Is it a good idea to use VR to represent the past or remote sites?
  • Would the use of VR raise issues in class that may not otherwise be discussed? Is this good or bad?
  • Can VR effectively transmit cultural presence?

The optional afternoon lab activity introduced workshop participants to SketchUp 2015 and the possibility of using elevations and floor plans from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) to begin a digital cultural heritage project.

Immersive Environments Workshop: Day Four

The final day of the workshop revisited many of the questions raised in prior sessions, and also served as an opportunity for faculty to review workflows for immersive journalism and digital cultural heritage projects in an unstructured manner. In addition to reviewing the process to create 360-degree panoramic photographs and import these into Story Spheres, participants also learned how 3D models can be imported into Unity and developed into 3D, virtual reality, and augmented reality experiences using this game engine. The workshop concluded with a discussion on how best to more immersive computing experiences forward at Grinnell College. Dr. David Lopatto, Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, and Dr. Dave Robinson, Chief Information Technology Officer, were present to participate in the brainstorming process.

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Final 360-degree group photo of the workshop.

Some of the ideas discussed, which will be further articulated in a forthcoming report detailing action items, include sponsoring a teaching/learning working group at the college to explore immersive computing technologies; lunch meetings to demonstrate these technologies and to brainstorm applications for teaching and research; support of low-bar immersive computing technologies (e.g., Google Cardboard and Story Spheres) to foster wider faculty adoption of the technology; and the creation of a lab to support faculty initiatives. Questions were raised about whether immersive computing hardware, such as Google Cardboard, should be purchased by departments or the college, and one faculty member suggested purchasing institutional Unity site licenses to ensure the broadest access to the technology. As the workshop participants were a self-selecting group with an interest in immersive computing, it was suggested that the “saturation factor” needs to be determined before large-scale adoption of immersive computing technology can be implemented. In other words, how many faculty are really interested in this? It was agreed that a report of short- and mid-term action items needs to be created to help move the initiative forward. Readings for the day focused on cognitive load theory, problem-based learning, activity systems theory, situated cognition, and game-based learning encouraged workshop participants to see immersive environments as instructional tools that can be design and implemented in support of teaching and learning.

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