Int. J. Cont. Engineering Education and Lifelong Learning, Vol. 14, Nos. 1/2, 2004
Virtual reality for spatial topics in biology Silvia Dewiyanti* Open Universiteit Nederland, OTEC, PO Box 2960, 6401 DL, Heerlen, The Netherlands E-mail: [email protected]
Piet Kommers Department of Educational Instrumentation, Faculty of Education, University of Twente, Box 217, 7500 AE, Enschede, The Netherlands E-mail: [email protected]
Abstract: Starting from the need for visualising the live biological process, we conducted a pilot project to develop a virtual reality-learning environment. As a new technology, virtual reality has a good prospect as an alternative medium for teaching and learning. A virtual reality environment has some advantages in increasing the learning process and learning outcomes. We developed three prototypes for mammal blood circulation. An evaluation for those prototypes were conducted in order to know the virtual reality position for learning biology and also to know the students’ appreciation of the virtual reality environment. Interesting results from the evaluation gave indications that a virtual reality environment can help the learner to visualise an abstract concept and ideas. Keywords: virtual reality; mammals’ circulation; immersive; interactive learning. Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Dewiyanti, S. and Kommers, P. (2004) ‘Virtual reality for spatial topics in biology’, Int. J. Cont. Engineering Education and Lifelong Learning, Vol. 14, Nos. 1/2, pp.93–100. Biographical notes: Silvia Dewiyanti received her MSc (Educational Technology) degree from the University of Twente, the Netherlands in 1999 and is currently a Doctoral Student at the Open University of the Netherlands. Her research interests are in the areas of virtual reality and electronic learning environment. Piet Kommers was Co-Chair in the ICALT2002 Conference and focuses on new scenarios for media-supported learning. He is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Behavioral Sciences in the University of Twente, the Netherlands. Virtual Reality is one of the new commodities he undertakes for learning and training applications. The Project DIME: Distributed Interactive Medical Exploratory for 3D Medical Images, addresses a VR-based pre-surgical planning and teaching environment, granted by the Dutch Academy of Sciences in the stream Exact Sciences. http://vrint.ctit.utwente.nl/DiME.pdf. It attempts to outline the essential functionalities novices in artery surgery need for effectively orienting on the critical elements in preparing the actual intervention in the human blood vessels.
Copyright © 2004 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
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Recently, the use of computers to enhance learning has become widespread in schools. Even in elementary education, teachers have tried to use the computer as a medium for teaching and learning. Moreover, educators are always looking for new modes of instruction that can be more effective and efficient in order to facilitate learning for students who have varying academic backgrounds, cultures, motivation, learning styles and achievements. In biology, some students used the computer as a learning medium. There are quite a few commercial learning programs for biology in the market. In order to gain a thorough understanding of the basic biological concepts, it is necessary for either the teacher or the student to have access to visual information such as photographs, schematic, film, slides, pictures, and so on. The popular visual information that often illustrates biology textbooks comprises diagrams and photographs. However, this visual information is sometimes not sufficient to illustrate the dynamic nature of the fundamental process. Learning biology emphasises on developing an appreciation and awareness of the fundamental processes in our daily lives. The easiest way of learning biology is to start from familiar concepts and proceed to more abstract concepts. We are aware that there are some aspects of biology that cannot be discovered by simple observation and experimentation because they are only theoretical concepts in nature. For the learning of these theoretical concepts, we depend on factual information, visual representations and models. Virtual reality (VR) may contribute as a learning technique by demonstrating the abstract concepts or giving a chance to explore such systems, processes or mechanisms. As a computer-generated representation of a three-dimensional environment, VR enables the user to view and manipulate the contents of an environment. We have developed virtual realty prototypes and evaluated it order to know the following: •
students’ appreciation of the VR system for learning
VR’s contribution to the learning process.
2.1 The virtual environments A VR environment provides features, information and structures that a user might explore to access precise information from a theoretical concept. The non-immersive VR system, also known as the desktop system, can be used more widely by students rather than an immersive VR . The non-immersive system offers an easier and quicker manipulation of the viewpoint, which is useful for moving around the models. A VR environment allows the user to interact with virtual models by rotating, spinning and zooming in real time. The interactive capability of a VR system can be categorised into three levels of interactions  that offers options for VR usage with different student types. A VR environment can be effective in enhancing the student’s understanding and the effectiveness of learning abstract theories in biology. VR prototypes have been developed to support learning processes such as the development of the mammal’s heart structures or the pattern of blood circulation. We hope that the learner can gain a better
Virtual reality for spatial topics in biology
understanding of the differences in blood circulation patterns of mammals. The development of a mammal’s heart structure changes its blood circulation pattern. In the foetal period, mammals have a specific blood circulation pattern because their lungs are not yet functional. When a mammal is born, its blood circulation will change from the time it takes its first breath that makes its lungs start to function. A canal, called ductus arteriosus, and a hole called foramen ovale, will be closed soon and cause a change in either blood circulation or heart structure. We conclude that there are three phases of blood circulation pattern in a mammal’s life, namely foetal, neonatal and adult. Learning this subject depends on a visual display material representation or an illustration of the real thing. The best method is by using a real object, although, sometimes, this is complicated and difficult to interpret by untrained eyes.
2.2 Development phase In developing these VR prototypes, an instructional designer should determine the VR aspects such as: •
level of realism, which ranges from a very symbolic object to a very real object
type of interactions, which ranges from no immersion to full immersion
type of sensory output such as sound, tactile or visual.
The VR prototypes consist of virtual models. These models describe their outside appearance with interactivity or reactions. The developed VR prototypes include the following heart structures: atrium, ventricle, aorta, artery pulmonalis, vena pulmonalis, vena cava, ductus arteriosus, and foramen ovale. Three VR prototypes, foetal circulation–neonatal circulation–adult circulation, were developed in order to compare the differences of these circulation patterns. It is required that each prototype show the most crucial events so that the learner can understand the differences between the three types blood circulation patterns. •
The learning content for the Adult Circulation prototype includes the concept of adult circulation pattern. A symbolic mode of the mammal heart and the blood cells are displayed in a window. The learner can observe the heart model from all directions. A small pop-up window that contains brief information about each part of the heart structure is displayed when the learner clicks on it. To help the learner to visualise the adult circulation, clicking on the virtual button plays the animation. This prototype allows learners to control the animation by themselves. If the learners click the ‘start’ button, the animation of the blood circulation will start together with the ‘pumping’ ventricle and atrium. A synchronised sound the heartbeat can also be heard.
The learning content for the Neonatal Circulation prototype is about the concept of neonatal circulation. The important objects in this model are the foramen ovale and ductus arteriosus. The most crucial event on neonatal circulation is showed by the animation of closure of the foramen ovale and ductus arteriosus and the backward blood flow in the ductus arteriosus. The animations are prepared to help students visualise these phenomena.
S. Dewiyanti and P. Kommers The learning content in the Foetal Circulation prototype includes the concept of neonatal circulation. The crucial event that is showed in this prototype is the opening of the foramen ovale that makes the rich-oxygenated blood in the right ventricle go through to the left ventricle and mix with the less-oxygenated blood. It is also possible for learners to choose their viewpoint from those that are provided if they do not want to navigate by themselves.
During the development of these prototypes, we found some aspects that have an important role in the VR environment. •
Transparency, as a colour effect in the heart model can make it easier for the user to observe the blood flow in the heart.
Animation effects play an important role in the VR environment because they can significantly enhance learning. In a VR environment, animation can be used to help explaining difficult concepts, promote concrete understanding of abstract concepts and show relationships between objects and ideas.
Sound effects can play an important role in the VR environment. Sound adds realism and stimulates emotions.
Interactivity has functions of either attention gaining or practice.
We also faced some problems when we were modelling VR objects. It is not easy to create the natural shape of a biological object. Moreover, modelling and animating objects are time consuming.
VR contributions for learning
A VR environment is a dynamic and responsive presentation medium. It has a particular effect called immersion in which the user can interact with the learning environment. A VR environment is created from diverse components using continuity and articulation. Articulations determine the presentation accents and also the allowed degree of interactivity, realism and immersion. In order to provide users with simulated experiences in a virtual environment system, control modes for articulation parameters makes it possible for users to experience autonomy themselves (for example: an animation button will allow the user to control the animation by himself/herself). A VR environment influences learning outcomes, especially in cognitive abilities such as spatially related problem solving, memory retention and memory recall. Other advantages in using a VR environment for education and training are the pleasure, enjoyment, fluency of understanding how to perform tasks and seeing what is going on. It can demonstrate difficult and abstract concepts. Sound, colour and animation not only add interest and realism to the visual presentation but also infuse movement and excitement. VR presentations help to focus attention on important content areas and stimulate learner interest. For those learners who are not self-motivated and who need an extra incentive to forge ahead, VR can provide the incentive. A common learning level that used by learners to understand the subject can be classified in Figure 1:
Virtual reality for spatial topics in biology Figure 1
The levels of learning
Text, particularly if concerned with technical information, is usually read with some use in mind, rather than for pleasure or relaxation and should enable the reader to apply his or her understanding for a particular purpose. As a purely verbal presentation, text is very good to use for expressing logical relations. Text has never given students much of a feel for real science or real art. Concept mapping is a technique for representing knowledge in graphs. Knowledge graphs are networks of concepts. Networks consist of nodes and links in which the nodes represent concepts and links represent the relations between concepts . The function of a concept mapping is to help learners structure their understanding of a topic and create meaning. Developing a concept map for a topic requires learners to evaluate the relative importance of the concepts, to arrange the concepts in meaningful cluster and draw link connections between them to make the relationships explicit. Schematic drawing represents and identifies parts of a whole, a process, a general scheme, and/or the flow or results of an action or process. Illustration is a non-photographic picture that represents something as an accurate drawing or likeness. Most pictures present one point of view, but illustrations can represent multiple points of view that are not possible in real life. Virtual reality is a three-dimensional model representation of the real thing. It may be complete in detail or simplified, consistent with learning and instructional purposes. Indeed, a VR environment can provide learning experiences that real things cannot provide. As a three-dimensional representation, VR is a more concrete reference than a photograph or a drawing. In particular, VR environments need to be designed to guide the learner in the crucial aspects that are necessary for conveying the appropriate messages and information. Real object is the most accessible, intriguing and involved material in educational use. The real objects are ideal media for introducing learners to a new subject. Used as
S. Dewiyanti and P. Kommers
part of concept learning, the real object gives meaning to otherwise merely abstract words. Besides their obvious virtues as a means of presenting information, raising questions and providing hands-on learning experiences, real objects may be used to enhance instruction. Learners can identify them, classify them, describe their functioning, discuss their utility, or compare and contrast them. The VR characteristics as learning media can be shown in Figure 2. Figure 2
The characteristics of VR
Evaluation of the prototypes was designed by using quantitative methods. The participants were divided into two groups, namely, the experimental group and the control group. The experiment’s evaluation objectives were to measure the students’ appreciation of the VR environment as learning tool and to obtain information on how the students used VR as a learning tool. A questionnaire was prepared as an evaluation instrument. The evaluation was organised into four sections. The first section was prepared to collect general information about students’ previous experience in learning biology. The second section was about the prototype usability and the third section dedicated to the prototype functionality. The last section of the evaluation was a paper and pencil test about the learning subject. However, this paper reports only the evaluation results of prototypes’ usability and functionality because our focus is providing recommendation for next VR development. All evaluation participants had attended the animal physiology lecture before they performed the dissection. The experimental group that consisted of 46 participants was assigned to see a demonstration of VR features and functionality as a learning tool when they performed the dissection of the calf heart. The remaining participants, as a control
Virtual reality for spatial topics in biology
group, were assigned to perform the dissection without the VR demonstration. In this experimental evaluation, the paper and pencil test was given to students in both groups, but students in the control group were not asked to fill in the questionnaire about the VR usability and functionality. Table 1
Evaluation results Results (%)
Easy to understand
Easy to learn
Easy to remember
4.1 Reflection The prototype’s evaluation provides a set of interesting results. The first remark deals with VR systems usability. The participants indicated that the VR program was found to help student’s understanding, provided good retention, and had a good colour and interactive animations. Some participants also found that using the VR program is not easy. The background of such participants who did not have enough computer literacy might have influenced the evaluation results (we also found that 73% of the users had never used VR for learning and 88.1% of the users seldom used the computer as a learning medium). Motivation is also an interesting point in this result because around one third of the participants are unsure about the motivational effect of VR systems. This result could be an effect of the limitations of the time and hardware when the students were shown this program. It is also possible to conclude that students recognise the functionality of the VR program as an appropriate media for presenting visualisation the blood circulation. VR programs also contribute to learning for the next learning level (in this case, students will use a real object). The most important result of this aspect is the position VR occupies as a learning medium. We conclude that VR will be effectively used after the lecture and before the dissection of the real object. This result points to VR’s importance in the learning intensity. The evaluation results also provided a number of suggestions for improving VR application. Some students gave good important suggestions about the program such as using a better computer and developing a more detailed program. Another remark concerns a suggestion from the participants about time needed to learn how to operate the VR system because we use a special browser.
S. Dewiyanti and P. Kommers
On the other hand, the distracting factors and biases such as time limitations and hardware limitations should be considered when analysing the evaluation result. The previous experience and prior knowledge may interfere with the evaluation results.
Recommendation for next VR development
In general, the students responded with appreciation when they were introduced to the VR system. The educator who would consider using a VR environment as a learning aid should be aware of students who are amused but learn essentially nothing and absorb nothing. Learners had a tendency to use a VR system after the lecture and before they performed the dissection. This trend shows that students need a basic knowledge of the related subject before using the VR system. Another consideration was that the VR system was good in assisting students with unsupervised learning so that their previous knowledge would help students to observe the interesting points in the VR system. Adequate computer skills are also important for students to steer the VR experiment. The use of the VR environment in learning will lead to new ways of thinking or doing. It will allow for more powerful and symbolic manipulations in the VR environment. The VR environment allows learners to view the ideas and concepts that would otherwise have been difficult to see in reality. It can also be used to stimulate and motivate learners, besides providing new insights and discovering new aspects of biology. In the next few years, VR technology will become more mature; it does not mean that the VR system can replace teachers. Careful application and support from teachers are still fundamental requirements. The VR is also a poor replacement for tactile experiments (e.g. dissection of calf heart), but it can provide a valuable and flexible perspective on the real world. As a learning tool, the VR environment will not suddenly produce good learners and good materials. It takes quite a long time to prepare an appropriate VR environment for a subject. Care is needed to avoid constraining and frustrating learners or confusing the screen. Information in the VR system must be well structured.
References and Notes 1 2
Immersive virtual environment is a completely synthetic, computer generated three-dimensional environment with virtual reality devices such as helmet and gloves. Kommers, P.A.M. and Zhiming, Z. (1998) ‘Conceptual support with virtual reality in web-based learning: new tools and applications’, Paper for the BITE Conference, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Lanzing, J.W.A. (1997) The Concept Mapping Homepage, Available from: http://users.edte.utwente.nl/lanzing/cm_home.htm.