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‘Sensing’ Learners through Presence: Learning Relational Pedagogies for Infants Using Virtual Reality

Visiblising Pedagogies

In: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy
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Jayne E. White Faculty of Education, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Rene Novak Faculty of Education, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Benita Rarere-Briggs Faculty of Education, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Cara S. Swit Faculty of Health, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Heide Lukosch Hit Lab nz, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Abstract

Virtual Reality (vr) is widely purported as an effective strategy for learning practical skills across disciplines such as medicine and sport, but it has yet to be fully exploited in relation to education. Learning how to engage pedagogically with students calls for sophisticated and nuanced relational skills, but opportunities to practice these with ‘real’ learners are often hard to access. This is especially so for students who are learning how to enact relational pedagogies with infants in early childhood education settings (ece) through sensing encounters. To address this lacuna, the authors co-designed and trialled a prototype for a vr game scenario that simulated ‘real-life’ presence with a virtual infant to explore its potential for learning relational pedagogies based on observable features of presence. The authors videoed the vr screen as cohorts of ece students and teachers interact with the prototype simulation and/or observed their peers. The authors found that learners quickly became sensorially engaged once they had mastered the technology. Their application and attitudes towards important features of relational pedagogies were keenly evident through these engagements – on and off the screen – with opportunities for future development identified.

Feature
Feature

This article comprises four videos, which can be viewed here.

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10043

  1. This article is part of the special topic ‘Visiblising Pedagogies’, edited by Andrea Delaune and Toni Torepe.

1 Introduction

Infants in Early Childhood Education (ece) are fast becoming one of the largest group of learners globally (Gradovski et al., 2019). Increased infant participation in these out-of-home contexts call for revised pedagogies concerning how teachers of infants can engage with younger learners. Recent research (e.g. Tarc, 2021) has emphasised the importance of high quality relationships with infants as the basis for effective learning in out-of-home contexts – calling upon teachers to develop sensitive, attuned interactional strategies accordingly. Teachers’ capacity to develop intersubjective relationships with infants relies heavily on their ability to interpret non-verbal cues and sense meanings accordingly.

Relational pedagogies of this nature are difficult to learn and require considerable skills and knowledge – since they cannot rely merely on intuited understandings or taken-for-granted perspectives. As Quinones et al. (2021, p.2) point out, pedagogies of this nature invite “vibrant and affective relationships” that are based on emotionally attuned, intentional approaches. Relational pedagogies build on a combination of observational and contextual understandings concerning each infant as a personality in their own right, alongside generic developmental knowledge concerning the universal ‘infant’. Teachers must, therefore, tune into the nuanced verbal and non-verbal cues of each unique infant to develop trusting and reciprocal relationships as the basis for learning that takes place in everyday pedagogical encounters with routines (such as nappy changing) and play (White et al., 2022). For this reason, relational pedagogies cannot be learnt simply by reading textbooks or attending lectures – they must be experienced during real life situations that call for a dialogic response on the part of the teacher.

ece students would ideally have ample opportunities to practice the application of these relational pedagogical skills during placement experiences in ece contexts with real infants. Yet, in reality, ece students are often denied access due to centre policies and practices that exclude students from intimate engagement. Many ece services struggle to provide standards of care needed with high ratios of teacher-infants and large group sizes, high turnover of infants, and unqualified staff (ibid, 2022). Consequently, opportunities to develop aspects of relational pedagogy are often constrained or even denied to ece teachers prior to their entry into the profession.

In the article that follows, we set forth a potential route to increased understanding and application of relational pedagogies for ece students who are learning to be relationally present with infants. Utilising Virtual Reality (vr) as a tool for inquiry, we developed a vr baby prototype for ece students to engage in a classroom-based simulated learning exchange with a virtual infant. We explore its potential for ece students to safely and effectively learn and demonstrate relational pedagogical skills and consider the potential transfer of skills with real infants in ece.

2 Relational Pedagogies for Infants in ece

Relational pedagogies play a vital role in infant’s learning. Not only do they create a sense of belonging but they establish emotional and cognitive patterns for development (Sidorkin, 2022). They are especially important during the earliest years of life when, a time when increased number of infants are now attending out-of-home ece contexts (White et al., 2022). While a series of relationship indicators have been developed for the early childhood sector, these are typically based on a series of external observations comprised of universalised behaviors (e.g. Kazmiertska et al, 2021). However, the enactment of relational pedagogies for infants in ece calls attention to the specific and nuanced cues that are accessible to the teacher as they are sensing the infant. ece students must learn to intuit the significance and meaning of infant cues (Quinones et al, 2022), paying attention to the embodied, sensory (Trevarthen & Delafield-Butt, 2017) and the mutually interanimating nature of verbal and non-verbal dialogues (White, 2019).

These relational skills are difficult to acquire in the absence of real life encounters. As Tarc (2021) highlights, these are speculative ‘inner’ processes that are not easily articulated, applied or described second-hand. Relational pedagogies must therefore be ‘sensed’ (seen and felt) in immersive encounters with infants who have personalities, in order to be enacted. While practicum experiences play an important role in learning these skills, access to infants (as opposed to older learners in ece) is limited for many ece students (White et al., 2016). As a consequence, learning to work effectively with infants in ece settings often relies on pedagogies that are borrowed from older learners or draw from prior parenting experiences (White et al., 2022).

3 Sensing Relational Pedagogies through Virtual Presence

Simulated, yet realistic, experiences in well-designed vr programmes have the potential to provide the sensation of ‘being there’ – a phenomenon also described as ‘presence’ (Steuer, 1992; Slater, 2009; Slater, 2018). According to Lombard & Ditton (1997), a higher level of presence may lead to an experience of the virtual environment as being real, which anticipates a positive effect on learning outcomes and contextualizes learning. The nature of virtual embodiment experienced in an immersive environment can influence attitudes and behavior in and for the real world (Bailey & Bailenson, 2017). Baceviciute et al (2021) claim that vr can also provide a ‘safe’ learning environment – eliminating concerns about the repercussions of failing in real world practices.

Although vr is widely used in fields such as science and medicine, it is less common in social sciences or history (Curcio, et al, 2016). Research about the pedagogical efficacy of vr in education is only just emerging (Cooper & Thong, 2022; Estrada et al., 2022; Park et al, 2022). So, too, are studies that integrate various forms of vr into teacher education programmes (Darling-Hammond, et al, 2014; Cheek, et al, 2019). A recent paper by Hirsch et al (2023) explored simulated opportunities for education students to practice aspects of teacher education by utilising Mixed Reality technologies (i.e. the combination of physical and virtual environments with object manipulation – such as vr and Augmented Reality). The ability to recreate pedagogical situations that may otherwise be too complex or risky to achieve, having control over the educational situation and environment, the experimental and active learning as opposed to the traditional teacher-centred (passive) approach, and the development of new forms of collaborative learning, are some of the benefits shared across these studies.

Despite such promise, studies of vr in ece student training are absent.1 Our substantive literature search found only one infant-focused vr training application – in the realm of medical care of infants (Umoren et al., 2021). To date, vr has not been explored as a tool to train ece students or in developing relational pedagogies with infants. This seems surprising given the large body of literature outlining the value of vr for training professionals in other disciplines (e.g. medicine, engineering and military). On this basis, we advance our pedagogical quest with vr and infant relational pedagogies as the first of its kind in the field.

4 Introducing the Study

Given the potential of vr to bring such encounters to life in accessible and sensorial ways, we set out to develop and trial a vr baby prototype that would explore the potential of this technology for the field through dialogic engagement with a virtual infant. We anticipated that some of the key features of relational pedagogy would be observable and ‘felt’ through a well-designed vr experience that would facilitate ‘presence’ through an authentic, but safe, game-like relational experience. The overarching research question that frames this article2 was:

What is the potential of vr to support ece students in learning how to sense relational pedagogies with infants through ‘presence’?

5 Prototype Development

We developed a realistic vr environment, representing an infant room, with objects such as a changing table, toys, and a cot. A virtual infant was also present, and the participant was able to interact with the infant by picking it up, carrying it around, and using virtual objects. The virtual infant was given a personality, with preferences that enabled reactivity to a series of scripted actions on the part of the participant (as modelled by Checa & Bustillo, 2019). This required careful design and scripting decisions, leading to extensive testing and experimentation with various development approaches and 3D visualisation techniques, employing Unity and Blender (an example of the scripting design criteria applied to the vr prototype is provided in the Appendix).

The vr experience had a game-like interaction quality with the infant programmed to show preferences, follow eye gaze and show reactions to a series of stimuli by the participant, such as waving one of the virtual objects in front of its face, or comforting the infant with rhythmic movements (see Figure 1). We considered this to be important because vr games offer the ability to take participants into the game in real-time and immerse them in the game’s 3D environment, thus establishing presence (Lee et al, 2020). The open-ended nature of the task was for the participant to interpret the vr infant’s cues and in the vr experience itself (including others in the room3 where the research was taking place). Hence, there were no pre-determined scenarios beyond a loose instruction to provide a quality interactive experience with the infant.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Immersive vr baby prototype

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10043

6 Trialling the Prototype

The prototype was trialled with undergraduate ece students and experienced ece teachers in a University classroom setting. Figure 1 shows the view of the user which was also shown to students in the classroom.

Participants were briefed about i) the expectations of the session and taking turns with the vr headset and ii) ethical processes.4 They were then invited to build a relationship with the vr infant and provided with an information sheet outlining the interests and preferences of the infant. Figure 2 shows the information sheet which was based on the prototype profile.

Figure 2
Figure 2

“About-me” sheet, similar to sheets used in ecec

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10043

ece students were then invited to wear the headset and orient themselves to the environment, including a practice task. The practice task required some simple interactions with virtual objects, and was designed to establish a baseline of interaction skills for all participants.

Once the practice task was completed, participants were automatically transported into the actual virtual scenario and had 8 minutes to engage with the vr infant. After 5 minutes, the infant was programmed to show tiredness and the student was given a further 3 minutes to respond by placing the infant in bed. After the full 8 minutes, if the participant had not achieved contentment with the infant, the infant was programmed to repair to reduce any potential emotional distress caused to the participant. Other participants of the research observed and commented on the participant’s actions that were visible on a large screen.

7 Trial Methods

First, we videoed the screen and audiotaped participant dialogue as they engaged with the infant. We opted for screen recording only to avoid a performative effect on participants. The screen recording allowed us to focus on actions and interactions in the virtual space without the distraction of actions and movements in the physical space.5 Figure 3 captures the user experience in the classroom and on screen.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Student wearing vr headset with vr baby on screen videoed during classroom trial

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10043

8 Participants

Participants were recruited from our local community in Ōtautahi, Christchurch, in New Zealand July 2022. They included 12 ece teachers (Mage = 23.8 years; 83% female) from three postgraduate education training courses. Most participants identified as New Zealand European (83%), followed by Māori (17%). Most (67%) had no prior experience using vr before engaging with the vr baby.

9 Analysis

Researchers independently transcribed and analysed the screen video recordings of the participants’ use of the vr infant – identifying key sensing features of relational pedagogies that were observable in the vr context (based on a substantive literature review that took place concurrently). Results were discussed with the research team, with selected excerpts of each feature in relation to the broader concept of ‘presence’ (i.e. evidence of the sensation of ‘being there’ or ‘reality’ in a simulated environment). Our analysis was inductive – allowing us to identify aspects of the vr baby design that supported ece students to rehearse effective relational pedagogies, as well as how these were evidenced in this simulated setting. Table 1 outlines key relational pedagogies identified in the literature and their relationship to observable features of presence in the vr context that oriented our analysis.

T1

10 The Potential of vr Presence for Sensing Relational Pedagogies

Our analysis shows that almost all participants promptly become highly immersed, sensorially engaged and able to engage with the vr infant in a reflective manner, once they had mastered the technology.6 ece students consistently emphasised the value of the vr game for pedagogical learning and their reflections were evident through the dialogues that took place during their engagement. Most participants acted intuitively in a way they would engage with a ‘real’ infant is an indication that they accepted the vr environment as quasi-reality. Thus, exhibiting the immersive nature of the vr design. In the section that follows, we provide video excerpts that illustrate vr presence and its relationship to observable features of relational pedagogies evident in the experience. In presenting these discretely, we do not wish to imply that they occur in isolation to others.

10.1 Verbal Connectivity

An observable feature across all interactions was the early and intuitive use of verbal expressions to engage with the infant in the vr environment. Most of the participants intuitively used language as a means of connectivity closely aligned to relational pedagogies literature. These participants were able to describe their responses to the infant, including their feelings and experiences. They expressed the relationship with the infant in a specific tonality and pitch of their voice, as if interacting with a ‘real’ infant. Verbal language was used in rich combinations to announce actions (e.g. “I’m going to put you down again, okay … there we go”), ask questions about infant preferences (e.g. “Are you starting to get a little bit tired? Shall we go and lie you down …”), comfort (e.g. “shhh shhh shhh”), narrate actions or apologise to the infant (e.g. “Sorry, sorry, oh my gosh, I’m going to lay you down, because I am not feeling confident”). Almost all participants referred to the vr infant as ‘she’, even though neither the environment, baby information sheet, nor the vr baby itself provided any cues regarding its gender. This indicates the participants’ inclination to connect and use pronouns in their dialogues.

Verbal expressions switched almost seamlessly from interaction with the infant to reflecting on the interaction and experience with other participants who were present in the classroom. When that happened, voice and intonation changed, and participants were able to reflect on their interactions with the infant and the vr environment. Although most participants talked primarily to the infant, their language switched to other participants in the classroom when some unexpected or difficult things happen. The shifting tone of their voice clearly showed that they were switching modality and audience in order to build a relationship with the vr infant or to check in with others regarding their practice. Video 1 demonstrates many of these features:

VIDEO 1
VIDEO 1

Verbal connectivity. (See here.)

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10043

In two of the cases, however, verbal interactions were more frivolous. These participants were less immersed in the interaction and more attuned to its game-like qualities, saying “Do not give this game to my girlfriend, she would abuse this child, she would think it would be funny” or “I’m not trying to treat this like a baby, I’m treating it like a game, like I’m sure there is a hitbox thing somewhere”. This behavior resulted in some inappropriate interactions with the vr infant. The quoted participants were part of the same group that interacted with the vr infant, suggesting the possibility of imitation and peer learning taking place. This may also suggest that some participants become uncomfortable when performing with a vr environment under observation, leading them to mask uncertainty with overly confident or frivolous behavior. However, even when approaching the experience as a game, this participant was so immersed in the experience that they forgot about the peer group watching, or the recording itself: “I just realised this is all recorded. They are all hearing me!” – suggesting that some levels of immersion were taking place nonetheless.

10.2 Embodied Alignment

Participants’ embodied alignment with the infant was evident in their movements, reflecting an awareness of the connection between their own body and interactions with the virtual infant (see Video 2). Often, participants sought to match the infant’s movements or respond to cues like crying or discomfort. Several participants interacted (responding and initiating) with the vr infant exclusively with their own bodies (picking it up, holding it, rocking it, carrying it around), while others mainly utilised virtual objects in the simulation to establish a connection to the vr infant. We are unable to assess whether the latter is a strategy of avoidance because the participants are not used to interactions with infants, or whether this can be interpreted as playful behavior, and an exploration of the possibilities of the virtual space. However, recent studies of spatiality and proximity in infant pedagogy (White et al, 2022) suggest that this is an important feature of relational pedagogies that has received little research attention in real-life or virtual contexts. Video 2 highlights some of the efforts employed by students to engage with the infant through touch, spatiality and object-use. These invited reflective discussions in class about what worked, what didn’t, and why.

VIDEO 2
VIDEO 2

Embodied alignment. (See here.)

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10043

While the visualization of the vr baby experience, including the virtual infant, the objects present, and the environment itself, can be rated as realistic based on the non-verbal reactions (and articulations of their utility) of the participants, the current interaction modality represents a barrier for many participants in achieving embodied alignment. The vr baby reacts on certain programmed interactions of the participant, e.g. what objects they pick up, whether they pick up the infant and rock it gently, or whether they lie it down in the cot at the correct time. Several participants described the desire to bring the vr infant close to their physical body to establish a relationship. However, the current design and interaction options of the vr environment did not seem to adequately facilitate this feature. Consequently, participants resorted to different strategies, allowing them to explore alternative sensorial ways of interaction.

10.3 Intersubjectivity

Persistent efforts on the part of most participants to establish and maintain levels of intersubjectivity were evident. Participants demonstrated tangible efforts to discern the priorities of the infant and engage in meaningful reciprocal exchange. These included the information sheet they were given at the beginning of the study (highlighting infant preferences and interests which corresponded to the design script) and the verbal and nonverbal cues provided. Some participants were more easily able to discern these than others and, when they did, intersubjectivity was achieved. In Video 3 we see a typical example of these efforts by a participant who playfully utilized the yellow duck which she had been told the baby liked in order to sustain their interaction and joint attention.

VIDEO 3
VIDEO 3

Intersubjectivity. (See here.)

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10043

As the vr infant starts displaying signs of tiredness, this participant shifts her focus towards verbalizing the vr infant’s emotions – another important feature of relational pedagogies with infants. This experience of responding to and trying to establish a shared meaning and context with the vr infant is likely to lead to intersubjectivity. During the trial, we observed varying degrees of success in achieving intersubjectivity. The vr environment and design afforded ample opportunities for participants to explore different approaches and employ unscripted strategies, allowing them to experiment with numerous pedagogical techniques, with both positive and negative outcomes. In cases where intersubjectivity was not achieved and the infant became increasingly upset, the timed function that ‘corrected’ this (so that the situation was repaired) was an important feature of the design for these participant– providing important opportunities for exploring alternatives and reflecting on actions whilst ending the iVR experience on a positive note..

10.4 Reflection

Reflection on actions and their adjustments in practice were evident across the participants in two central ways. Firstly, they made pedagogical adjustments during their interactions with the vr infant. Secondly, they engaged in clarifying dialogues with other participants. These two processes often occurred in tandem as participants experimented with possible approaches and responses. Video 4 serves as an example, where the participant tries out different approaches with the vr infant while simultaneously seeking clarification from other participants.

VIDEO 4
VIDEO 4

Reflection. (See here.)

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10043

The important aspect of vr enabling participants to make mistakes without real-world consequences was clearly evident among participants. For instance, after accidently dropping the vr infant on the floor, one ece student explained I wouldn’t do that on practicum!”. Several participants corrected themselves or sought the support of others to adjust or improve their practice. Notably, these levels of reflection were not apparent in the two participants who treated the vr experience as a frivolous game. Their engagement showed less inclination to reflect on their relationship with the infant, focussing more on a playful exploration of the virtual space. In a classroom setting, it will be important to mediate this behavior. During a structured debriefing, instances of inappropriate behavior in the vr environment could serve as examples of how not to interact with an infant, leading to a more carefully moderated role for the facilitator. Reflecting on the features of sensing pedagogies demonstrated and those that were not, could be a valuable addition to the vr experience. This highlights the potential of vr in ece to explore alternative behaviors without any risk to the individuals involved in the interaction.

11 What Might We Conclude?

Regarding out central research question, vr exhibits significant potential in support ece students to learn relational pedagogies with infants through ‘presence’. The analysis of the recordings and demonstrations reveals that vr creates a believable, quasi-realistic learning environment that fosters a sense of ‘presence’ among participants. This immersion allows them to apply sensing pedagogies principles through trial and error in a safe and supportive environment. Almost all participants quickly immersed themselves in the simulated scenario, aiming to interact appropriately with the vr infant as a subjective partner by interpreting cues and responding in various ways. Notably, this vr environment demonstrates its capacity to provide immersive opportunities for testing important features of relational pedagogies, including verbal connectivity, embodied alignment, intersubjectivity, and reflection through ‘presence’.

Despite difficulties in bringing the infant in close or picking it up correctly – as was the identified pedagogical desire for most – they embraced the vr infant and environment effortlessly. They intuitively engaged with their bodies and voices, behaving as if they were in a naturalistic setting. These difficulties often prompted further reflection and encouraged the exploration of alternative pedagogical strategies. Our findings convincingly show that participants intuitively use their voice as well as their bodies to establish a relationship with the vr baby, yet these audio stimuli are not recognised in the current prototype. Some difficulties with the current interaction technology, using hand-held controllers, could be related to the novelty of the technology. Future research could investigate what alternative interaction technologies and haptic devices would enable a more realistic and easier interaction with the virtual world. More sophisticated selection of game elements such as an environment to accurately reflect the busy nature of an ece environment (groups of infants with diverse personality types and cultural background, scenarios that allow teachers to practice different skills such as nappy changing) will further support ece teachers in attuning to different intersubjective relationships.

Despite some limitations, the study highlights the prototype’s potential as a valuable learning instrument. The vr environment offers a high level of realism, providing a valid learning experience within a pre-defined situation. The innovative approach of classroom observation with peers played a significant role in reflection and demonstration, holding promise for further reflection and social learning beyond the vr experience. A more mediated approach is endorsed for professional practice to be seen as a serious pedagogical event, not just a frivolous game, although enjoyable. As technology evolves to address the challenges of teaching relational pedagogies, we await eagerly. In the meantime, we work with what we have, anticipating the lessons yet to be learned.

Acknowledgements

We thank Ryan McKee and the hit Lab nz at the University of Canterbury for the technical expertise in developing the vr baby prototype. We also thank those students and lecturers who were willing to spend valuable hours with our team immersed in the vr baby, and research assistant Melanie Audier who assisted with the recruitment and data collection.

Funding

We thank the Child Well-being Research Institute at the University of Canterbury for funding this study.

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1

One exception is noted in Novak’s 2020 study of play with preschool learners. Augmented reality games are reported in studies of ‘preschool’ children, but not infants (see Genu-Paramksiz & Delialoglu, 2020; Neumann, et al, 2022).

2

Additional questions concerning the technology itself are explored elsewhere (Lukosch, in development).

3

This novel addition to the experience simulates the pedagogical experience of infant teachers in ece, who work in teams with others.

4

The study was approved by University of Canterbury ethics committee.

5

Users also completed a post-trial online Qualtrics survey inviting their comment on the value of the vr tool for their learning – which is reported elsewhere (Lukosch et al., in press).

6

Several participants struggled initially to manipulate the controllers effectively, reinforcing the importance of the initial block trial built into the design.

Appendix

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