Virtual Reality and Special Education
What is "special" about special education? One unique quality is individualization of teaching methods and curriculum, based upon student learning needs. Although effective teaching is a component we aspire to in all types of education, special education researchers have identified several general teaching methods and characteristics that are especially helpful to students with certain types of learning needs. Additionally, students with specific vision, hearing or dual sensory impairments, as well as those who have physical disabilities, require some very specific types of training that are not generally included in the curriculum for other students.
A number of characteristics of virtual reality hold potential to enhance special education effectiveness. In many cases, these characteristics reflect strategies which have been employed in effective teaching for some time. Virtual reality simply provides a uniquely powerful means for employing them.
Modeling, Cueing, and Shaping.
Virtual reality offers what may be the perfect medium for training manual tasks. The learner can literally "superimpose his [or her] hand over the hand of an expert and follow along" (Fritz, 1991, p.46). Within the virtual learning environment, the instructor can imbed various types and levels of visual, auditory, and/or haptic feedback. These can be faded over time, as the person becomes more proficient. The implications for training persons with cognitive limitations in tasks of daily living and vocational skills are substantial. Where NASA prepared astronauts to fly over Mars, we might prepare students to find their way around a virtual community that is mapped out exactly to specifications of their actual community, allowing them to experiment and make mistakes in a safe environment.
Virtual reality technology is enormously flexible. Virtual worlds can be designed to meet whatever specifications may be required to address the instructional needs of an individual. Virtual worlds may be constructed to include cues, prompts, reinforcers, and feedback delivered via various types of sensory stimuli. Integrated multisensory supports for learning may be utilized. Fritz (1991) imagines a beginning dancer wearing a DataSuit. As she moves with the music, she receives feedback regarding her performance from the music itself. As the dancer gets out of step, the music becomes discordant, while "correct" movements result in more consonant music.
A long-standing fundamental principle of effective special education, maximum realism in the learning environment has been difficult to accomplish. A current trend, for example, is to provide a large percentage of middle and secondary school education for students with moderate and severe mental retardation within the community and outside of the classroom. Although this is extremely effective practice, given these students' difficulty generalizing tasks from one situation to another, this instructional arrangement presents a number of logistical difficulties, including transportation, staffing, funding, liability, and so on. Another obstacle has arisen when placing a learner into a realistic environment early in training would present danger, failure, or social stigmatization. Virtual reality can offer a maximally realistic simulation, within a safe environment. Generalization should prove to be less of a difficulty for students, for, as Stewart (1991) observes, "Virtual worlds aren't pictures, they're places. You don't observe them, you experience them" (p.38). Teaching vocational and social skills to persons with cognitive limitations and to individuals with behavioral or emotional disabilities would be enhanced by the capacity to engage in early, protected practice in these highly realistic virtual worlds.
Because the motivational characteristics of many students with cognitive and emotional disabilities are severely affected by fear of failure, this technology appears to offer a safe learning haven in which they can build self-confidence.
One of the most promising and exciting applications for virtual reality is the use of robotics for persons with physical disabilities. The DataGlove and other remote sensory input devices can be used to control robots performing a wide range of tasks for persons unable to do so for themselves.
Beyond the practical applications, some researchers speculate on the power of virtual reality to offer physically disabled persons the sensation of movement. In a technology where the flick of a finger can be a command to fly, such experiences are clearly available. Chris Allis, a representative of Autodesk, Inc., who demonstrates virtual reality products, observes that the "experience of flying is something I know now. When I'm standing on a sidewalk now, I can visualize the ground dropping away below me" (Stewart, 1991, p.40). No other technology offers the opportunity to move into a world free of the constraints normally present, and within which one may experience sensations that would otherwise be physically impossible.
It is currently possible for persons in different cities to play virtual tennis, holding real rackets and striking a shared image of a virtual tennis ball. Because, in the virtual world it is possible to define one's own laws of physics, movement of a finder, or perhaps an eye blink could control the racket. It is not difficult to imagine a person with a physical disability competing with a non-disabled challenger on even ground in such an environment.
Virtual training worlds may be designed to control extraneous stimuli. Persons with learning difficulties often experience problems with managing such stimuli using a scaffolding process, such persons might initiate training in highly simplified stimulus environments, and as proficiency is increased, move toward more complex settings. This progression through a series of environments, with progressively more stimuli added, would be most difficult under traditional training circumstances (Middleton, 1992).
Virtual reality holds special promise for persons with sensory impairments. Schreier has speculated that "this technology could be used by visually impaired people to learn orientation and mobility or to explore a new environment without leaving a room and that persons with visual impairments might be able to experience the environment of a book projected inside headgear. The information presented might even be physically manipulatable.
The capacity to use technology to define powerful and unique ways for persons with disabilities to learn, communicate, move, and work is rapidly becoming an important element of special education.
Problems with cost, availability, size, transportability and integration with existing systems are present with every emerging technology. (In fact, most of these difficulties existed with the very first books.) The extent to which the problems are overcome is typically a product of the ability of eventual end users to identify viable applications. In the case of virtual reality, educators have the opportunity early in the life of this new technology to recognize one of its most important potential applications - the empowerment of persons with disabilities. As "virtual reality seeks legitimacy in practical applications" (Baily, 1990, p.91), educators should assure that the potential of this technology to serve the needs of persons with disabilities is not overlooked. Educators can respond to the apparent "wealth of possibility and dearth of direction" (Wright,1990, p.94), by striving to define possibilities for this new technology that give virtual reality a productive and useful role in special education.
The following article was provided by NASA education @ http://www.nasa.org:
VIRTUAL REALITY SOFTWARE DEVELOPED FOR THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION COMES DOWN TO EARTH
Open Worlds™, a virtual reality software package developed to support NASA’s work on the International Space Station, is opening new worlds of opportunity for businesses here on earth. DRaW Computing of Philadelphia, Pa., developed the software under a NASA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. NASA asked for software that would allow it to create virtual reality simulations to facilitate training future crews for the International Space Station. Open Worlds’™ scripting, hardware and Graphical User Interface (GUI)-front end permitted NASA researchers at the Marshall Center to create complex virtual reality simulations while designing the space station’s various elements.
Open Worlds™ is an open platform for Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) 2.0 integration. With it, businesses gain the ability to have realistic, interactive, moving worlds. It provides the advanced features of VRML 2.0 without all the effort. The Open Worlds™ C++ library brings VRML 2.0 support for any applications and any graphics server. In addition, sample source code is included which demonstrates implementations of VRML 2.0 browsers on various graphics layers, including OpenGL. Sample code showing the implementation of the built-in nodes is also provided, as well as a GUI-based Scene Graph Viewer.
While commonly used in web browsing, VMRL also can be brought into applications. It allows the user not only to load VRML geometry but also run VRML animations and simulations. In essence it turns applications into browsers with all the features the application already supports.
With Open Worlds™, applications can be made to support Java scripting and virtual reality hardware devices. Open Worlds™ permits the use of VRML script nodes to add virtual reality capabilities to the user’s applications. It allows customers to extend legacy 3-D graphics systems or make new VRML applications. It can be used as a stand-alone program or as a web browser plug-in. Open Worlds™ is a fully open system, a set of C++ libraries which can add any level of VRML 2.0 to a client’s system. Parsing, scene-graph transversal, routing, scripting, prototyping, and external interfaces are provided. The customer can sample built-in nodes, user interfaces and applications or build their own.
The addition of script nodes in VRML 2.0 enables VRML to be a true system for virtual reality. Open Worlds’™ design is centered around the idea of a script node. By extending VRML’s Script API, Open Worlds™ lets users create VRML 2.0 built-in nodes in the language of the user’s choice. Through the same interface, users’ applications gain interactive Application Programmer Interface (API) with automatic support for a variety of languages. Currently, Open Worlds™ supports VRML nodes in Java, C++, C and Lisp. With C++ built-in nodes, the user can achieve the speed needed for demanding scientific and real-time applications. With Java script nodes, clients’ worlds will be smarter than ever.
Open Worlds™ flexible design lets users implement the graphical core of VRML 2.0 with the graphics API/platform of their choice. Open Worlds can support such low-level graphical API as OpenGL, high-level scene libraries such as Optimizer, or interface with the users’ own proprietary layer. Because different applications require different levels of VRML 2.0 support, Open Worlds™ provides separate modules so that the user only need purchase the support needed. The option of extending capabilities in the future is provided.