CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The University of Illinois is teaching grade-school kids how to cross the street.
The wrinkle is that they are learning on "virtual" streets life-size streets and traffic generated in three dimensions by computers. The virtual-reality room, or CAVE as it is more popularly known, is operated by the university's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).
In what is likely one of the first uses of virtual reality as the setting for an educational research study, Frank Rusch is leading a joint team of education and NCSA researchers trying to learn more about the teaching potential of virtual reality, and how the technology can be adapted to increase that potential.
At the same time, they are studying how children with and without disabilities can most effectively learn basic but important skills and whether skills learned through virtual reality can be "generalized." In other words, will those skills be transferred to real life situations?
One benefit for the children, mostly fourth- and fifth-graders, is access to a new and developing technology usually reserved for scientists.
"We're trying to find out what is it about the real world that needs to be present in virtual reality to promote generalized learning," said Rusch, a professor of special education. "Is it the car? Is it the number of cars? Is it the speed of the cars? Or is it, in fact, all of that and more? How complicated does the learning context have to be for kids to generalize?"
The researchers also are trying to discover which learning strategies are most effective and efficient when incorporated with virtual reality. Different kids are given different verbal instructions as they approach the virtual intersection. Some are given lengthy instructions, some very simple, and some are asked to repeat the instructions. "We feel that if we teach children specific cognitive strategies that result in their verbally organizing their performance, they're going to be better learners," Rusch said.
The answers are important because they may hold part of the key to how virtual reality is developed and used in the future. "We're interested in technical development, not just the educational side," Rusch said. "We're interested in making sure that individuals who are developing virtual reality begin to better understand what it is that educators might do with it."
Working with Rusch on the research team are Dee Chapman and Umesh Thakkar, both with NCSA. Also involved are students from education, engineering, and art and design.
Rusch sees virtual reality as a powerful educational tool that could develop and become widely accessible in ways similar to the personal computer.