Using immersive technologies to support changemaking

By Helen Caldwell and Emma Whewell. Posted

Pac-Man is being controlled by movements performed with foil-covered apparatus connected to electric fence wire, completing the Makey Makey circuit

The Digital Learning Across Boundaries (DLAB) Developing Changemakers project is a pioneering three-year Erasmus+ project that combines digital making and changemaking

The DLAB project is in its first year. It addresses the need to align European educational practice with ways in which digital technology is changing how and what we learn, and how this can be applied in education. It draws inspiration from the changemaker movement, which seeks to build the skills and attributes for individuals to find innovative solutions to society’s challenges. We have worked with immersive technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), to blend physical and digital learning environments and provide powerful and creative opportunities for international collaboration. There is a distinction to be made between VR, which completely immerses users in a digital world, and AR, which superimposes digital information or virtual objects onto the real world. AR allows for a reality in which virtual objects appear to co-exist in the same space with the real world. Recent advancements in these technologies have meant that they are now more accessible and more mainstream, and they are particularly well suited to children’s learning.

This piece describes just one of four ‘crossing physical boundaries’ strands based on a subgroup of Danish, Norwegian, and English teams of university lecturers, teachers, student teachers, and Year 7 pupils working together on the theme of exergaming — using technology to facilitate physical exercise. Pupils and university students collaborated in international teams with a partner classroom in another country to make games that stimulate physical activity and address the social issue of physical inactivity.

The English group explored the use of technologies with pupils at Northampton International Academy, working during designated international days and using video calls and TweetBeam to communicate with their partners in Norway and Denmark. The pupils developed the digital skills they needed to be creative with AR and VR, beginning by swapping 360° video and stills to gain immersive experiences of each other’s spaces, and then combining a range of apps and tools to invent exergames for each other. 

What is exergaming?

Exergaming is particularly appealing to young people, and there have been many success stories including the Wii Fit, the Nintendo Switch, Pokémon Go, and Xbox Kinect. It has been mooted as a means by which physical activity levels can be improved (Oh, 2010 – see Further reading). 

Best (2012) claims that as well as enhancing physical activity levels, exergaming develops children’s cognitive function and that the immersive qualities of AR are more likely to distract participants from the physical exertion (Lin and Chang, 2015; Faric et al., 2019). Best (2012) noted that because of the whole-body gaming experience, cognitive functioning was required throughout the experience because of the rules, speed, and demands of the games. Participants are required not only to move their body to control the games, but also to partake in decision-making, problem-solving, categorisation, reasoning, and the use of logic. 

We explored the potential for VR and AR in combination with other technologies to enhance the exergaming experience and provide a motivating medium for children to invent innovative solutions to problems they identified and cared about. In this sense, it is allied with social innovation education, linking the social problem of physical activity with the potential solution of exergaming as a context for changemaking. 

Giant Pacman

Technology to design exergames

One of the aims of the first international day of the project was to introduce the theme of technology supporting physical activity. We gave the pupils a carousel of choices so that they could explore the potential for designing their own games. This phase included: 

  • Making step counters using the micro:bit app on iPads

  • Building exercise circuits using Makey Makeys, electric fence wire, and conductible materials

  • Programming motion-sensing games in Scratch

  • Using balance boards via the Plankpad app

  • Designing gaming environments in CoSpaces Edu that can be viewed in VR or AR

On the second day pupils added VR and AR to some of these technologies to design their own immersive exergames. This resulted in a range of invented exergames to swap, test, and evaluate, such as:

  • Virtual reality table tennis 

  • Balance boards in combination with VR

  • Basketball coaching videos in VR using 360° cameras

  • Makey Makey games 

  • A physical movement challenge using the Cardboard Camera app

  • A micro:bit and Scratch remix of a balance board challenge

  • A soccer video sensing game in Scratch

Playing virtual table tennis using a VR headset.

Prototyping innovative solutions

The plan for the third day was for pupils to visit the university and work with a set of HTC Vives and CoSpaces. Unfortunately, the visit was cancelled due to coronavirus, and so just the students and lecturers trialled the combination of technologies. We wanted to use VR apps to design 3D objects within 360° environments; the aim was to develop our prototype solution of an imagined exergaming environment with an embedded physical challenge. 

We trialled a combination of five VR tools and apps using the HTC Vive. First, we opened the app Tilt Brush to paint in 3D space using the handsets. This could be combined with imported sculpted 3D objects from Google Blocks, objects and scenes from the Google Poly library of 3D resources for VR and AR, and our own objects and scenes from CoSpaces. The result was an imagined world containing an exergaming challenge that we could interact with in VR using the handsets.  

Overall, we think the exergaming strand of the DLAB project this year has shown that the use of VR and AR tools in combination with other technologies can help pupils towards becoming creative digital makers and changemakers. Through collaboration with their international partners, they showed that they could use technology to have an impact and develop empathy and understanding of each other’s cultures. As one pupil said: “We haven’t changed the world forever, but we have made a difference and we have shown people that we can help with the future”.

Further reading

  • Best, J. R. (2012). Exergaming immediately enhances children’s executive function. Developmental Psychology, 48(5), 1501–1510.

  • Faric, N., Yorke, E., Varnes, L., Newby, K., Potts, H.W., Smith, L., Hon, A., Steptoe, A., and Fisher, A., 2019. Younger Adolescents’ Perceptions of Physical Activity, Exergaming, and Virtual Reality: Qualitative Intervention Development Study. JMIR Serious Games, 7(2), e11960.

  • Lin, C.Y. and Chang, Y.M., 2015. Interactive augmented reality using Scratch 2.0 to improve physical activities for children with developmental disabilities. Research in developmental disabilities, 37, pp.1-8.

  • Oh, Y. and Yang, S., 2010. Defining exergames & exergaming. Proceedings of Meaningful Play, pp.1-17.

Helen Caldwell

Helen Caldwell

Helen is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology, Teacher Education, and Online Learning at the University of Northampton, where she leads the Online Education MA and the PGCE Top-Up programmes. She is a member of the Technology and Pedagogy in Education Association (TPEA) committee.

Emma Whewell

Emma Whewell

Emma is a Senior Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education at the University of Northampton. She leads on physical education and is part of an Erasmus+ project, Digital Learning Across Boundaries (DLAB), an immersive technology-based project working with schoolchildren, student teachers, and lecturers across five European countries 


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