I was invited to work with UniVRsity to work on designing for a virtual reality version of existing online educational platforms like Khan Academy or other MOOC (massive open online course) platforms. In order to tackle this challenge, I first needed to figure out the pain points and frustrations that users of these traditional online learning platforms experience, and how the immersive medium of VR could potentially resolve these problems.
Exploring the Target Audience
According to recent statistics, a good portion of VR/AR device owners are in age groups of 18–24 years and 25–34 years in the US. UniVRsity’s program is mostly targeted towards students of grades K through 12, in which a majority of them are fairly unfamiliar with VR/AR. Even in the survey conducted by my team member at his high school, approximately half of the students have never used VR before; even among the students who have experience, they have only used it 1–2 times a year.
Understanding this, I recognized that designing UniVRsity’s navigation and usability to be as intuitive and easy-to-use as possible would be vital to the experience of UniVRsity. I figured that empathizing with first-time users of VR would be a good approach to consider when designing the interface of the system.
Research on Education in VR
- the visually interactive medium of VR can enhance information retention in learning
- an immersive experience fosters better understanding of an educational concept
- a Beijing research group reported that students who took a VR-based curriculum scored 20% higher than students who didn’t
- 77% of VR users want more social engagement
I interviewed different high school students from LCL’s high school program to better understand who we’re designing for and validate some of the assumptions we had about our target users.
Some assumptions that we had before the interviews were:
- students retain information more effectively when learning is more interactive, rather than just on paper and pencil
- current online educational/tutoring services lack the medium for students and tutors (teachers) to communicate ideas efficiently and accurately
- VR is a medium capable of engaging students in an immersive space, limiting exposure to distractions in real space
Key Insights from Interviews:
- The gap in the different paces of learning across different students affects the quality of education for everyone
- Students wish learning is more interactive and immersive
- Peer study sessions help students collaborate and learn material in a more effective way
- Traditional classroom and MOOCs are difficult settings to get individual attention due to the disparity in teacher:student ratio
- Students see a problem in the outdated resources of technology at their schools
- most students don’t have experience with VR
Through interviewing these students, we were able to validate some of the assumptions we had before the interviews, as well as obtain valuable insight from listening to real students with different personal experiences and stories.
By synthesizing the data we retrieved from the interviews, I was able to determine the prevalent problems students faced from their experiences with different online and traditional educational/tutoring services, as well as their general education at school.
Problems with existing traditional and online educational services:
- Communication between user and tutor/teacher through online interfaces lacks interactiveness and timeliness (also applicable to coordinating peer study sessions)
- Current online medium of learning through a 2D interface by watching videos and reading text on screen lacks empathy and engagement, reducing concentration levels of users
Lizzie Apani is a junior at Northwest High School located in Austin, Texas. She is passionate about the environment and hopes to major in sustainability sciences in the future. She is enrolled in AP Chemistry but is needing educational supplements because the pace of learning in the class is too fast for her to follow. She is a visual learner who retains information better when the concept is visualized in her head. She comes from a family of moderate income and does not own a driver’s license yet.
Trey Jackson is entering his freshman year at his new high school, but is nervous about the fast-paced curriculums of high school. He is a special needs students who has ADHD, and has often struggled with focusing while learning in school. He has many friends in the classroom but gets intimidated to ask the teacher questions due to his introverted nature. He needs something or someone to keep him engaged in an activity; he enjoys gaming with friends in his free time. He also hopes to become a financial consultant for his future career.
Lucy Shen is a sophomore born and raised in California. She was always a hard-working student at school, but as she started taking classes of more academic rigor, she figured that she needed academic supplements to help her excel. She has watched tutorials on Khan Academy for her AP Physics class and taken beginner computer science courses on Coursera to start learning on her own at home. However, she has found it to be difficult to stay motivated to complete the courses that she purchased on these sites. She’s also tried traditional tutoring centers, but found it a waste of time and effort to have her parents drive her to these centers every lesson. Lucy aspires to become a chemical engineer in the future.
I created a diagram of a very basic user flow of what UniVRsity’s experience might be like.
Exploring Design for Main Menu
A main menu with an interface that is similar to what we see in mobile apps or websites would be best. Of the different button design options above, I made the design decision of going with 2D buttons because it would appear the most familiar to students who are frequently exposed to mobile/web interfaces with similar designs.
Designing the Classroom Scene
When I was thinking of the design of the classroom initially, I thought that the classroom should be designed as realistically as possible to give the students a virtual experience that is as similar as the real one. I considered aligned rows of desks and chairs with a whiteboard on the front of the room, with a pedestal where the tutor would be.
However, after researching more into virtual spaces, different studies about learning in virtual environments claimed that realistic aesthetics does not necessarily enhance the learning experience in virtual space. Increasing the fidelity of the environment could possibly limit the capacity of the virtual world and its potential.
Therefore, I decided to shift away from the approach of designing the classroom like it is in the real world.
The release of the Oculus GO in May 2018 opened up new possibilities for UniVRsity to increase in accessibility, and represented a movement towards mass consumption of virtual reality. Without the complicated setup of the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, the GO opened up new market possibilities for UniVRsity as well.
I researched into the GO through watching different reviews and demos of early adapters on Youtube. I came across several videos showing Oculus Rooms, a virtual space where users could watch media or play games with connected friends who are represented as avatars.
This interface gave me a good idea of what the design of UniVRsity’s classroom scene should be. The online tutors and/or peers would be represented as avatars, who the users (students) could directly interact with, like the avatars in Oculus Rooms.
Oculus Rooms also gave me the idea to design the space as if the users are in the comfort of their homes (like they are physically in real life), an environment that is “homey” and visually comfortable.
Studies have showed that a “sense of place” is important in enhancing learning in a virtual space. A “sense of place” indicates a space “imbued with meaning by human experience.” Therefore, this sense could be represented by a meaningful environment where different available interactive tools and facilities foster communication and collaboration. The open space where the user is able to visually perceive the entire space he/she is in would encourage social interactions with avatars present in the space.
The “homey” virtual environment would allow the users to be able to learn in a comfortable state, while interacting with an immersive medium to foster learning. After talking with my team members, we figured that the media player where users would be able to watch tutorials and a space where they could write/draw on a whiteboard would be default features throughout all subjects. What would differentiate each subject’s learning environment (geometry, chemistry, US history, biology) would be the menu with different virtual lessons respective to each subject.
Placing all the facilities and interactive tools that the student would need for the optimal virtual learning experience in the same scene (environment) capitalizes on the advantages of virtual reality. The user is able to have access to different resources (i.e. media player, whiteboard, tools) right where he/she is, while also having access to the help of a live tutor or collaboration with peers.
Since it’s my first time designing for VR, it took some time researching into how to prototype for VR. After discussion, my team and I decided that we would purchase assets and environments from the Unity assets store for the initial demo. I looked into the assets store and purchased scenes that would be the foundation for the initial classroom scene for UniVRsity.
My team and I also decided that when UniVRsity’s app is launched, the user would be immediately directed to the classroom scene. Therefore, the main menu interface I designed would be omitted in the beginning but instead be implemented within the classroom scene. I also had to take an entirely new approach with the navigation of the product. I made a decision that a small menu interface would be in front of the user; this would allow for the user to use the menu to access different features of the virtual space. This menu would allow the user to select different options within the classroom, such as transporting to different scenes (media player, whiteboard, etc.) or selecting a virtual experience they would like to launch.
In designing this new menu interface, I came up with a new user flow for this interface.