Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What is Immersion and does VR own it?

"Virtual Reality is great because it's so immersive." A common tagline nowadays that grates my ears every time I hear it. It implies that Virtual Reality, or VR, has some kind of special hold on the idea of Immersion. Some people have backed away from this claim recently, offered the more palatable claims of "a sense of presence," but having just walked out of the 2017 Games For Change day on VR, I can say immersion is still going strong.

I have two issues with this phrase- first, it's unclear that VR is actually all that immersive in the first place. I know we are still in the early days of the technology, but there's precious few examples of compelling immersion so far. It's very easy to be broken out of a virtual world by tripping over a cord, or looking down and not seeing your body. That being said, there are a few experiences that have been quite compelling- Invasion by Baobab sticks out as one of my favorites so far. But what's notable about this one example is that the immersion comes more from the story than from the technology. It's unclear that I'm immersed because I have a headset on vs being immersed because Baobab contains good writers on staff. And actually, the fact that so few truly immersive experiences exist on VR offers evidence for the latter.

Which brings me to my second issue. Let's accept that VR can be immersive, and that as time progresses, VR experiences will become progressively better and therefore more immersive. Here's a question for that future scenario- does VR have any kind of special ownership over the idea of immersion? Or put another way, are VR experiences uniquely immersive in some way?

I've already hinted in my first answer that I don't think VR has a unique stranglehold on immersion- even when we have immersive VR experiences, the story itself creates the immersion more than the technology. But additionally, VR is far from the only medium in which we can tell compelling stories- books of course being one of the best, oldest examples.

Of course this may not be totally fair- for anyone who has put on a VR headset, it's clear that a VR story is definitely different from a book story, or even a movie story or game story. But I'd suggest that difference is mostly sensory, not cognitive. Let me explain.

Let's introduce the idea of two kinds of immersion- "sensory immersion" and "cognitive immersion." Sensory immersion is the amount that your senses are engaged in an experience. We can rate different forms of media on a sensory immersion scale. Books are probably lowest, as they only engage our visual senses in a light way. Audiobooks or podcasts are also on the low end, in that they only engage our hearing. Movies might be a step higher, as they engage both sight in a more complete way than books and hearing as well. Games would be even higher, offering sight, sound and having some kind of touch interaction. VR would then be the highest, featuring an extremely strong visual and audio immersion (localized sound is to stereo sound what moving pictures are to words on a page), as well as a stronger sense of kinesthetic immersion (moving hands and arms is more powerful than scrolling a mouse or joystick). So, in the terms of sensory immersion, yes, VR is special.

But how about cognitive immersion? This is the extent to which your mind and imagination are absorbed in an activity. It has parallels with the state of Flow as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In game design theory, this kind of cognitive immersion is well-studied and can be created by employing either narratology (telling good stories) or ludology (having playful mechanics). At which point, we can ask a few questions:

Do forms of media besides VR achieve high levels of cognitive immersion? Absolutely yes. Undeniably, we have book worms, hardcore gamers, and movie-philes because there is something inherently compelling about experiences in these forms of media.

Can VR achieve high levels of cognitive immersion? Umm, maybe? It's unclear to me- I've yet to be absorbed in a VR experience to the same level that I'm absorbed in a good book or TV show. And it's not actually clear to me that VR can even be as cognitively immersive as a book- I have a theory that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of sensory stimulation that an experience gives you, and the amount you can be cognitively immersed in the experience. Basically, because books specifically leave more of the story open to your imagination, they inherently engage more of your mind in the story and are more cognitively immersive.

But VR should make people more able to be immersed in a virtual world, and forget about the world around them, right? So VR does offer some kind of unique cognitive immersion into a new world, right? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that I've been quite immersed in plenty of flat screen games, even going back to the 8-bit variety. I can't say that when I played Metroid or Castlevania or Final Fantasy that I was all that aware of the world outside the 1.5 square feet of screen that I was playing on. I'm not sure I needed to physically block out the world around me with a headset in order to be mentally absorbed in a different world.

So, why are we still saying VR has a special hold on immersion? That's the question I've been stuck on lately. I think we may have a tendency to become overly concerned with the sensory aspects of an experience, and overlook the more subtle, psychological aspects of an experience. We are so obsessed with the great capacity for VR to engage our senses that we ignore it's potential inability to deeply engage our minds.

Of course I'm happy to be convinced otherwise, but just so that we're clear, here's where the bar is at: make a VR experience that is more cognitively immersive than a good book, and then you can start to claim that VR has special ownership over immersion.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Should we teach simple things first?

In my time volunteering and working for Iridescent, I came to understand a certain model for how to teach design processes. Having read the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, I realized that the Iridescent model of teaching is unique from the more typical and common sense teaching models, but that difference is really powerful. I'd call this model core-first teaching, and I believe it's particularly applicable to teaching topics like engineering design, coding, or the scientific method.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A nuanced look at Student Data Privacy

Student data privacy is a big concern with the proliferation of data in education. But is all data equally concerning? We tend to put all “Student Data” in one big bucket and treat it as if it’s all the same. Yet we know there are drastic differences between different schools and EdTech companies in their mission, approach, pedagogy and tools: is it really reasonable to suspect that all of their data is the same? And more importantly is all data and uses of that data equally threatening from a student privacy standpoint?

I’ll give away the punchline- my answer is no, not all student data is equal. But if it’s not all equal, what criteria can we use to distinguish student data?  Here’s some ideas.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Intrinsic rewards and grinding in video games

In one of my earliest blog posts, I talked about my model for intrinsic rewards in video games. The basic idea is that many games create a loop, such when you follow the loop the reward for an action is being able to do that action more, and in a more challenging way. Do something to do that thing more is an intrinsic reward: do something to get something else is an extrinsic reward. Seems simple, but gets really messy when applied to different game genres, and my recent experience with Fallout Shelter made me realize this needs a deeper look. This blog post will talk through how intrinsic rewards play out in different games, in particular how they are related to the issue of grinding and meaningful gameplay.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Bloom's taxonomy in NGSS (part 3/3)

This article is cross-posted on the BrainPOP Educator blog.

Inspired by Dan Meyer's analysis, I wrote two previous posts on the Common Core Math and Common Core ELA standards. Both broke down the standards on a task by task basis, and coded each task according to Bloom's taxonomy. In this part 3, we're going to turn to the NGSS and see how it ranks up.

Next Generation Science Standards

In addition to coding the specific NGSS grade bands (which are shown on the left of both graphs), I also decided to code the framework itself (the right side of both graphs). The Framework was comprehensive enough to be able to separately code the tasks in each of the Framework's three components: 1) the Science and Engineering Practices, 2) the Crosscutting Concepts, and 3) the Disciplinary Core Ideas (I did break up the DCI by grades). Of course, the components are not expected to be taught in isolation even though I am coding them this way, but it is interesting to note differences in each component. The top graph shows the number of tasks, and the bottom shows the same info by percentages.

First, general patterns. Unsurprisingly, the total number of tasks goes up with grade. Second, there is a slight trend towards higher level skills at higher grades (though it's not nearly as strong as the ELA standards). Third, the Framework's components are very similar to what might be expected. The DCIs are unsurprisingly focused mostly on remember tasks. The Practices, on the other hand, emphasize a fair proportion of tasks across the spectrum. The Crosscutting Concepts most emphasize analyze tasks.

The most interesting patterns involve the gradebands, and their comparison to the Framework. The gradebands show a clear preference for higher level skills, for all grades. Create tasks start as early as kindergarten, and persist through high school. The main pattern across grades is that Remember tasks (primarily making observations) is strongest in kindergarten and fades in later grades. The most striking feature of the gradebands is that they most closely resemble the Science and Engineering Practices in their distribution of tasks. In other words, the Framework claims that the Practices are suppose to underlie all of the gradeband standards, and that seems to hold out surprisingly well. This is an especially interesting comparison to the CC Mathematical Practices, whose distribution of tasks carried little resemblance to the gradebands themselves. The traditional conception of science as a collection of facts is shown in the DCI's, but does not reflect itself in the gradebands.

The NGSS are certainly setting a high bar for what they expect from students in terms of science performance in school, and according to this analysis the bar sits at a higher level of Bloom's taxonomy than either Common Core standard.

That's it, part 3 of 3! Please, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Notes on Methodology

In case you are curious how I did this analysis, here some details.

Some grade-specific standards contained multiple parts, or multiple tasks that they required from students. I coded each "task" required from students, which usually was one per standard, but sometimes was multiple tasks per standard.

For the gradebands, I coded the "performance expectations," or the things that followed "Students who demonstrate understanding can:" 

For the Framework, I had to be a little more creative. For the Science and Engineering Practices, each practice has a section entitled "Goals" that starts with the phrase "By grade 12, students should be able to" and had a series of bullet points. I coded each of those bullet points. For the Crosscutting Concepts, I coded the short description of each concept on page 84 of the Framework. There was a section labelled "Progression" which described how the treatment of the concepts would change over time, but it was hard to code a clear number of tasks from that description. This led to a small number of total tasks, but a reliable relative percentage of tasks. For the Disciplinary Core Ideas, I coded the "Grade Band Endpoints," which were subdivided into 4 categories for different grade level. This again produced a somewhat artificially high number of tasks, as each sentence from a several paragraph description was coded separately, but the relative proportions are reliable.

Each gradeband started with a verb that was relatively clearly related to some level of blooms, and allow for easy, direct coding. The only sequence that I had to interpret a bit was "Developing a model to..." This most resembled a create task, especially when the thing being modeled is sufficiently complex and there are multiple potential ways to model it. But when the model was relatively simple and defined (like the water cycle), this felt much more like an analyze task- just finding and sorting all the obvious and finite pieces, rather than creating or synthesizing something new and novel from a large and complex assemblage of parts. I used my best judgement to distinguish between Analyze and Create for that verb sequence.