ISTE 2017: Virtual reality and social competence can keep kids in STEM

The use of Pokémon Go has exploded in education, and it’s a powerful tool for a reason: real-world socialization.

In their session “Beyond Pokémon: Virtual and Augmentative Reality for STEM” at ISTE 2017 in San Antonio, Dr. Amber Rowland and Dr. Sean Smith of the University of Kansas spoke on how to teach social competence in a technology-driven world.

When educating students about argumentation, Rowland and Smith wanted to find a way to turn it from boring to fun. So they tried a game called Reason Racer instead. And it worked. But in the end, students “still struggle when it comes to face-to-face back-and-forth conversation.”

Beyond Pokemon panel ISTE 2017

Teaching social skills in STEM

Social interaction is incredibly important in the workforce, especially in STEM fields. “We know that 75 percent of students with learning disabilities come in with poor social competence,” Smith said.

Teachers report that social emotional skills (SEL) play a huge role in not only workforce readiness but also school attendance and graduation, academic and life success, and college prep.

“Oftentimes,” Smith said, “that opportunity for the structured practice for individuals to learn how to interact, collaborate … that has to not only be explicit, but it has to involve lots of practice.”

Comic strips or animated videos like those from The Social Express can be useful, but how they teach students to handle social interactions doesn’t always match up to reality, according to Smith. Kids aren’t always polite to one another or well-mannered, so it’s difficult to script the kind of responses that they’d receive in real life.

Comic strips or animated videos like those from The Social Express can be useful, but how they teach students to handle social interactions doesn't always match up to reality, according to Smith. Kids aren't always polite to one another or well-mannered, so it's difficult to script the kind of responses that they'd receive in real life. Yet developing a social narrative matters. It guides students with social deficits so that they know, at any time, what they should be doing both instructionally and behaviorally. In the worst cases, poor interaction can make students leave a field like STEM. Good social competence keeps them in.

Yet developing a social narrative matters. It guides students with social deficits so that they know, at any time, what they should be doing both instructionally and behaviorally. In the worst cases, poor interaction can make students leave a field like STEM. Good social competence keeps them in.

Augmented reality (AR) programs like Thinglink and Aurasma can steer students by embedding reminders in the classroom of how to act. With Thinglink, students can scroll over dots overlaid onto the classroom via AR and access directions, video, and audio with “instructions appropriate not only for the lesson but also for that social competence.” With Aurasma, students can scan an image or object in the environment and have it pop up a digital element.

“This is the perfect opportunity for students to say, as I’m about to go into this small interaction, this is my primary role,” Smith said.

Enter virtual reality

The next level beyond AR is virtual reality.

Creations like sensory rooms, which are semi-virtual, serve as a safe space where kids can play out social scenarios. “From that interaction, they’ve been able to practice and learn how to potentially interact and deal with sensory elements that are there,” Smith said. But those rooms are expensive and not portable.

Full-on virtual reality can provide invaluable practice anywhere. Devices like the Microsoft HoloLens enable students to practice those social situations via an avatar and receive explicit direction on social competence.

The University of Kansas designed their own solution called AViSSS, or Animated Visual Supports for Social Skills. Smith and Rowland thought of adjustments that would make these virtual practice scenarios more realistic. They developed 34 different scenarios in 10 different school environments to teach social competence.

The response is sensory — it comes via both audio and text — and teachers can customize the path students work through along with what skills they want students to develop, such as conversation, reactions, verbosity, listening, emotions, transitions, empathy, hygiene, and more. Teachers can assess by looking at data and adjust from there.

As technology expands in new directions, so should our approach to social competence. And as Smith and Rowland are showing, teaching technology and social emotional skills don’t need to be separate endeavors. We can leverage them together.

Photo credit: pickingpok / Shutterstock.com
Stephanie Carmichael Stephanie is the editor-in-chief of the Classcraft Blog and the Head of Content for Classcraft (www.classcraft.com). She's a proud advocate of games for social good and loves talking with teachers about their amazing experiences in the classroom. Email her at [email protected]
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Amber Rowland, augmented reality, ISTE17, Sean Smith, SEL, social skills, STEM, virtual reality
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