In this virtual classroom, the goal is to distract students—to throw things in their line of view, or pop in sounds. A door might open, for instance, letting in the buzz of hallway conversation and the slamming of lockers. Or a bright- red car might drive by the classroom window, the sound of its engine humming.
Eighteen elementary and middle school children are experiencing this virtual classroom after gathering in a room at the University of Southern California. They are wearing headsets that cover their eyes and ears, and they have been instructed to stay focused on the computer image of a blackboard. Every time they see a certain sequence of letters appear on the board, they must hit a response button.
If they look toward the distractions, or miss the response, researchers take note of their attention lapses.
The program—which researchers are testing on students to see if it can be used to effectively diagnose and treat children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—is one of a number of emerging virtual reality technologies tailored for youngsters with disabilities. Others being tested in schools are designed to help students navigate difficult landscapes in wheelchairs, conduct virtual science experiments, or teach blind youngsters how to walk safely across a street.
Still, some parents and educators worry that special education students need more interaction with other children and adults in real-world settings—not make-believe “virtual” environments. They say that the emerging technologies have value, but warn that they could also further isolate students with disabilities from mainstream life.
In addition to that concern, the technologies themselves can be prohibitively expensive for schools, with the cost of a virtual reality headset ranging from $300 to $6,500.
Some researchers say it’s simply a matter of finding the right balance.
Albert “Skip” Rizzo, the director of the Virtual Environments Laboratory at the University of Southern California and one of the developers of the simulated classroom for ADHD diagnosis, acknowledges that “this field is still ... figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.”
“We need to sort out what’s good, what isn’t good,” he said.
‘What Went Wrong?’
Cars zoom by as a blind middle school student stands on a sidewalk waiting to cross a street. The cars seem to get louder and faster, but still the boy decides to step into the road.
Suddenly, the traffic sounds stop. The child has been hit. Well, not literally.
The student, who is standing in a 6-by-12-foot classroom at the Oregon School for the Blind in Salem, is learning the dangers of crossing a street. Wearing headphones, he is experiencing the sensations of three-dimensional sound. Noises come at him from all directions, much like in the real world.
“What do you think happened?” Bob Disher, an orientation and mobility instructor at the school that serves 5- to 21-year-olds, says he asks students each time a crash occurs. “Can you tell me what went wrong?”
Mr. Disher is one of a growing number of special educators who are testing emerging virtual reality technologies.
“We make it a complement to the student’s education,” Mr. Disher said. “It’s a part of the whole package.”
But as researchers have placed these virtual reality programs in classrooms, many issues about how the programs work have cropped up. For example, what should happen when a student navigating through a virtual world has a fatal crash in his or her wheelchair? Or a blind student gets hit by a car crossing the street?
The researchers grappled with those questions for months, said Dean Inman, a lead scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, an independent behavioral-science research center based in Eugene, Ore. The center is developing virtual reality programs for students in special education, including the one that teaches blind students how to cross a street.
“We didn’t want to make getting run over and killed entertaining in any way,” he said. “We decided to have the [sound go silent], then the system crashes and must be rebooted while the student sits there and waits. So it is a frustrating experience, rather than exciting. It gives them time to reflect about what just happened and talk to the teacher about it.”
A teacher is in communication with the student throughout the street-crossing program. Students start out by donning earphones, and at the teacher’s prompts, identifying the direction from which traffic and surrounding sounds are originating.
Eyeing a computer screen, the teacher can see where the student is in relation to the moving objects. Then, when the student moves in reaction to noises, the sounds get farther away or closer depending on where they step. The sound of their own footsteps even changes depending on the virtual surfaces on which they are walking.
Through grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Oregon Research Institute is fine-tuning the street-crossing software as well as programs that teach students how to navigate in wheelchairs, and one to help students with disabilities conduct virtual science experiments.
In the science lab program, for instance, students can look closely at the parts of a flower and examine its circulatory system. For many special education students with coordination problems, it would be difficult to dissect the parts of a flower or highlight its circulatory system with drops of dye.
“The virtual reality program can replicate scientific events,” Mr. Inman said. “Anything you can imagine can be modeled.”
Mr. Inman noted that such programs could be useful for students without disabilities, too.
But a common criticism of virtual reality is that the imaginary environments are not perfect replicas of the natural world, and that they don’t account for the unpredictabilities of the natural world.
‘A Level Playing Field’
Mr. Rizzo of USC says virtual reality programs could potentially be used in many different ways as diagnostic tools for teachers and therapists. For instance, the technology can be used to assess a student’s depth perception in ways that other tests simply cannot do.
Mr. Rizzo’s group tested the ADHD program on eight students, ages 6 through 12, who had been diagnosed with that disorder and 10 who did not have it.
The results showed that the students without ADHD did a good job of filtering out the distractions. The students with ADHD performed much worse when the distractions were present, Mr. Rizzo said.
Educators could use the program to learn under which circumstances their students have the most difficulty concentrating, Mr. Rizzo said, so they could modify their classrooms to the extent possible.
But there are concerns about the use of virtual reality programs for special education students.
Mr. Inman from the Oregon institute conceded that some parents and educators worry that special education students need more interaction with other students and adults in the real world. They believe the technology could make children with disabilities more isolated, he said.
But others counter that the emerging technologies actually have the potential to foster better relationships and understanding between those who have disabilities and those who don’t.
Researchers at the Rehabilitative Sciences Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Ottawa in Canada, for instance, designed a virtual reality program to help nondisabled students and teachers understand what it is like to live with mobility impairments.
In the program, called “Barriers—The Awareness Challenge,” children and teachers without disabilities sit in virtual wheelchairs to experience stairs, narrow doors, objects that are out of reach, and even inappropriate comments.
Mr. Inman points to programs like that, and his own work, to make the point that virtual reality technologies have the power to help students with disabilities “work on a level playing field. Their disabilities don’t matter in these virtual reality programs.”
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.