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Coordinating Virtual Squirrels, with Education Consultant Craig Frehlich

Today’s guest, Craig Frehlich, is an educational consultant, and first saw the learning potential of VR on a trip to the mall with his son. But he drops in to stress the experience itself isn’t going to teach much, without a discussion with students about what they experienced after the fact.

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bring you insight into changing the way we learn and teach using XR technologies, to explore and enhance an individualized learning for everyone. Today, my guest is Craig Frehlich. And he has been working in education for over 25 years and has his master’s degree in education with a focus on curriculum design. He is also an educational consultant and speaker on the topics of inquiry, design thinking, and the use of technology in education. Craig is currently a design teacher and academic advisor for various organizations, and he pioneered the first VR lab for school in Canada. His main focus is to use contextual and conceptual thinking to translate VR experiences into lesson guides that help map successfully introspective journeys in virtual reality. His upcoming book, “Immersive Learning: Harnessing Virtual Reality Superpowers in Education”, offers a practical approach to using VR in a variety of subjects and disciplines. Thanks for joining me today, Craig.

Craig: Hi, Julie. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be on the show.

Julie: And what perfect timing this is to talk about some of the schools that you work on, to help support our educators in the global community today.

Craig: I agree.

Julie: Yeah. So maybe if you want to share a little bit about what you’re working on, and how you can help our listeners — especially if they’re teachers — in some of the work that you’ve done, and provide some advice on learning for those listeners today.

Craig: I’d love to. I think I’ll start with my origin story, which is how I first got interested in VR. So my son and I were in a mall in Canada and it was 2016. He was 16 at the time, 16 years old. So he dragged me into a Microsoft store where they had an HTC Vive setup. We had to sign a whole bunch of forms. Luckily, there was no line up and he donned the headset and was playing around in VR. It was The Lab by Valve. And I watched him, and he was enthralled and it looked so interesting. So he convinced me to put the headset on. When I put the headset on, I just couldn’t believe how realistic it was. There’s words like presence and when you’re don your avatar, how it feels so much like real life. And it was that moment that got me thinking about how a great tool this would be for VR.

Julie: So how did you then take that next step in to, I guess, becoming an educator within VR? Where did that take off for you?

Craig: On our drive home back to our town, we started ruminating on the experience. Like, The Lab has Longbow, which is an archery game. And my son and I started talking about how you could feel the controllers vibrate, and we started to unpack the experience. Which made me think about, it’s one thing for people to put the headset on, but I think most importantly — especially for educators — is how can we make meaning from such a magical/powerful experience? So I started investigating this. Lucky enough, we ended up getting someone donate some money, and we bought three headsets for our school in Canada. And as we put headsets on kids, they walk away with awe, wonder, sometimes bewilderment. But it was until we had conversations after, that it really solidified the learning. So I started writing lesson guides, things like “What should you be seeing? What should you be focusing on before you get into the headset?” And then probably more importantly, when the experience was over, having rich deep conversations on, “Okay, what just happened?”

Julie: I think that’s really important, that you don’t just stick somebody into an experience, have them go through that, and then take the headset off and just walk away. The most important part — I think — is the decompressing of what that experience was about.

Craig: In my other observations with students — which led me down this path that I’m on now — was not all experiences were created equal. And what I mean by that is, it seemed to be the ones that were more contextual and conceptual that kids wanted to talk more about, and they had more to think about, and they had more to discuss. So, for example, one experience that I love is called Fantastic Contraption. It’s a VR application originally as a game, but students have to basically take all these little wheels and sticks. It’s like a puzzle, they have to build this contraption that moves this little jelly ball down a pathway to a jelly wall. And when kids are problem solving like this, they’re gonna make errors, they’re gonna make mistakes, and some give up. And they need to talk about that. They need to pause. They need to think. And this way of thinking, this deeper sort of schemata that they’re forming in their minds was what I found VR to be most beneficial. And the reason my anecdotal observations about this were, they wanted to talk more about stuff like this, then maybe VR applications, which albeit are powerful at heightening visualization, they had less to think about. So there’s a chemistry one called Nanon, and in Nanon you can build organic molecules. So we used that in my old school quite a bit, and it scratched the surface on understanding something that you probably couldn’t understand from a textbook. But kids didn’t have as much to ruminate and chew on and think about, as opposed to experiences that were way more conceptual, or forced or made them struggle to think about connecting smaller ideas or facts to bigger ideas, like systems thinking which I talked about. Fantastic Contraption forces kids to be really good systems thinkers.

Julie: That I think is really important right now is you’re identifying critical thinking and problem solving, which are some of the biggest soft skills tools that we need today. And moving into these virtual worlds, these are the skill sets that are so important for not just for the next generation students and kids, but for all of us to start to engage. And obviously, you’ve discovered some of these applications that offer this type of thinking. And I think this is where we’ll start to see that differentiation in the educational applications that separate out those ones that actually stimulate and engage the students, and make them think and problem solve.

Craig: If we have the time — which I have — I did a bunch of consulting work for Springboard VR and they hired me to look at existing off-the-shelf edugames that are on the market, to think about the best case scenario for education. And so I spent a good two years writing lesson guides and thinking about what’s already existing from gaming companies, that might be highly educational and very conceptual. And so I’ve curated a number of these lesson guides in my upcoming book, and — like I said — it allows students to more than just scratch the surface. I think the Internet and textbooks can help kids give foundational knowledge. But this experiential knowledge, this is what I believe — in my humble opinion — VR was made for. Headsets are still relatively expensive, so we want to be able to put them on students and have them be wowed and awed by deeper thinking. Here’s a good example, there’s a VR game out there called… Cave Digger, thank you. And in Cave Digger, the game basically is, you’re a miner. And so you hop on to the headset. It takes you down below in a mine. You have different tools like pickaxes and you have to go down. It’s a visceral experience, you go down this elevator and it stops at certain floor. And you can look around and you can feel what it’s like to be a miner. And then you have to start hammering away at the different types of rocks, and not all the rocks in the mine are the same. Some are softer and harder. So you have to swing and you collect different minerals. You come back into this mining town, you can wander around the mining town, you get a sense for what the people are like. And so this particular game is something that social studies teachers or geography teachers would love to have, because you can’t teach that in the textbook. One of my favorite experiences as a kid was going to the amusement park in my physics class, because we got experiential learning to see how roller coasters work. We had to take measurements and calculations, but we were right there living the life of what someone who does higher level physics might do.

Julie: I want to take a quick step back, and something mentioned was about the gamification portion — and I don’t know if you actually use that term — but when everybody was in school, teachers were competing with video games. Students would prefer to be on their video games rather than being in classes. And one of the things that I’ve been working on for a while now is trying to explain to people how gamification needs to be a part of that education curriculum to test and fail the students who have the knowledge — passive knowledge — to challenge the students, and gamify things. And I always said the gamers are going to save education, because that’s how students are engaged, is by challenging themselves and by discovery. And if we can start to implement — as teachers — more gamification into the lessons, it builds that challenge and it also provides rewards, even as simple as a gold star. I always talked about this as well was why are we only rewarding kids once a year for them to pass their grade in school, when we could reward them more frequently based on the increase of their knowledge base? So it then ties back into gamification and how there’s so many different ways that we can challenge students these days, especially in virtual gaming and really education platforms, that we need to embed this in order to attract the actual experience to the student and also to test their knowledge.

Craig: I couldn’t agree more. I just– yesterday I was talking to the CEO of Resolution Games. Resolution Games is an amazing gaming company, in my opinion, because they have all these non-violent games which — more importantly — are multiplayer. So one favorite one that many schools are starting to use is called Acron. So in Acron there’s one person who’s got the headset on, but everyone else — nine other people — can play along on their phones. Now you’ve got nine students involved. So in the game, the ultimate goal is the giant tree has the headset on, and the tree has to protect its acorns. Everybody else on their phone are little squirrels that have to try and take the acorns from the giant tree. It’s so powerful when you watch students for team building and collaboration, because all the squirrels who are on the phone, when they first play it, they take this individual role and they go it on their own. But pretty soon they start to realize that if they team up with other squirrels to come up with a strategy, then they’re much more successful in the game and they start talking to each other, strategizing and collaborating and communicating. And I believe — again — that this is the power of VR.

Julie: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And I think VR and AR have opened up all of these different possibilities of collaboration, which if you take a look at the older school systems — I shouldn’t say older, I should say old school systems — that opportunity to collaborate in a gamified way might have been done with a couple of pieces of paper, and maybe some dice, and maybe a problem that the teacher provided. But now the immersiveness and the interactivity and the sharing of concepts, and that sort of thing, it creates a brand new collaboration and learning environment that’s never been provided before.

Craig: Even VR narratives are becoming great conceptual based teaching and learning tools. For example, when you watch a regular biography or story on a computer, you have very little agency. You have the perspective or point of view from whoever the director is. However, in many VR applications — that are done really well — when you’re don a headset, your point of view and perspective can be varied depending on where you look, or possibly how the VR story is played out by the producer or the director. And the discussions unfold or unpack like Pandora’s Box, because now it depends on where you’re looking and what situation or perspectives. Big ideas like identity, which is a powerful conceptual idea in many curricula for language arts. The discussion isn’t “OK, what was the point of view of the author on this one?” It was, “What was your point of view?” Or if you looked at the story with the VR headset under this sort of path or agency, how is that different than if you looked at it this way?

Julie: This leads to everybody’s individual learning lesson plan and building out those individual experiences based on where you’re looking, and following the branching narratives based on what you select and how you play or interact. And it’s only just the beginning, which we can talk for days and days about the different potential and opportunities, but I’d like to narrow down with you. If you were to give advice to teachers today and let’s say teachers and parents, because we’re recognizing a lot of families who are now staying home due to the coronavirus, and a lot of families have had to start looking for different ways to engage their children during the days. And their school systems aren’t providing enough content to keep them busy. What would you advise to them to get started and understanding more about this new virtual world of learning?

Craig: First and foremost, because everyone I think that I’ve talked to in this genre of communication is that it wasn’t until they actually put on a headset that they understood the magic. And so that’s number one. Teachers out there, you have to try it. You could find either through maybe a rental or some avenue. Try it, put on a headset, try out some of these interactive, highly engaging applications like Fantastic Contraption. Once teachers have the headset on and realize the sense of presence that you have, the realism that goes on inside the headset, that they’ll be convinced that it isn’t just a fad or some shiny new technology toy that will gather dust in the long run. So that’s number one: try to put on a headset. Number two, just like anything, reflection is key and paramount. Putting kids inside the experience, the student might be internally motivated to sort out in their mind what went on. But I think it’s our responsibility to talk to the student after or the class. And well-crafted lesson plans can really map out that experience. And by map, I don’t mean like a Google map. If we type in Google Maps, it’s going to give us kind of a straight linear or shortest route to our finish line. The map for a VR experience is going to be more like a treasure map, where depending — as you talked about — the student, the individual might have a different pathway toward what was meant to happen within VR. Having these conversations, these reflection sessions is super key. Thirdly, the third thing that I would suggest to teachers is to start to get familiar with kid culture. Games, as you said, games are part of kid culture. And the more we’re familiar with that genre and why it’s such a powerful medium where kids are allowed to fail and try again, push the reset button. The more we’re familiar with it, the more we can lean them towards non-violent educational games which become important and conceptual for learning.

Julie: I think you couldn’t have said it better. Thanks, Craig. One thing I wanted to close off with. Why don’t you tell everybody about your book and how we’re gonna be able to find it? Because I think it’s something I want to read, and I think everybody in the education sector should start to read something like this.

Craig: Oh, thank you. Yeah, my book is set to come out August 1st. As you alluded to at the start of the podcast, it’s very much a practical guide. It walks teachers through some vignettes and some stories around why VR is an important tool to make its way into schools and homes, from a learning perspective. I curated over 60 lesson guides and highlighted and recommended over 60 VR applications that I think would offer powerful conceptual understanding for students, parents and, of course, teachers.

Julie: I look forward to seeing when it comes out and share with us. Before just trying to wrap up this podcast, can you tell everybody where they can reach you, if they have any other questions?

Craig: Twitter would be the best medium or venue. So I’m on Twitter @Cfrehlichteach. Other avenues, I’m on LinkedIn as well. I offer a podcast about VR in education. So that’s through the various iTunes, etc.. So again, my VR podcast is called “VR in Education”, if they’re interested in learning more about how it intersects with education.

Julie: That’s great. Absolutely. And I think these conversations are also really important to address from so many different perspectives and avenues. We’re all trying to learn this new medium together. And I’d like to put this moment to say thank you, Craig, for joining me on the XR for Learning podcast. And please come back again. And let’s talk about your book once it’s launched. And we can share the news with the listeners again.

Craig: I would love that, Julie. And I want to add that thank you for being such a good conduit for us in this industry, which is growing like crazy. Without people like you, I think us smaller educators, who dabble in this as just a hobby, wouldn’t have a good direction.

Julie: Thanks so much, it definitely takes the collaboration of many to put out any kind of education these days. Things are changing so quickly within our world. And again, thank you, Craig, for being with us. My name is Julie Smithson and this is the XR for Learning podcast. Thanks, everyone.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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