Virtual Reality to Support Social Emotional Learning
Dr. Sean J. Smith is a professor at the University of Kansas and co-PI on CIDDL. His research interests include innovative solutions, tools, and Universal Design for Learning. He is the PI on Project VOISS, a virtual reality experience for social skill learning, and co-PI on CIDDL. Dr. Smith is the president of the National Down Syndrome Congress, He is the father of four children, one of which has Down Syndrome.
His primary area of research focuses on innovations and technology solutions to support the struggling learner through the lens of the Universal Design for Learning Framework. Dr. Smith’s projects focus on (1) technology integration within pre-service preparation programs (CIDDL), (2) applying effective technology solutions to writing strategies (the Writing Classroom), and (3) using virtual reality experiences to support social skill development (Project VOISS)
The problem highlighted in this brief
Teaching social skills in an authentic yet safe environment is a struggle. However, through the use of VR, educators are able to create a virtual environment that resembles the school community and allows for students with and without disabilities to practice needed skills.
Why does this topic matter to teacher preparation?
Simply adding technology to a classroom or a program does not ensure it will be successful. Rather, meaningful planning and intentional implementation must occur in conjunction with evidence- and research-based practices. Through social skills curriculums, like VOISS, and the use of innovative technologies, like VR, future educators can learn to support the social and emotional needs of their students.
About This Brief
This brief will focus on the integration of virtual reality and a specifically designed social-emotional curriculum to improve outcomes for students with and at risk for disabilities related to social skills. Dr. Smith discusses the importance of social skills and the impact technology has on their development. Through the use of virtual reality, students have the ability to practice skills in real-life situations within a simulated safe environment. Additionally, he shares the importance of using data-informed decision-making and the role of the educator within social skill development and the generalization of skills from the virtual to the real world.
Research and Practice Context
An Overview of Virtual Reality
Traditionally, when we think of virtual reality (VR), we think of bulky headsets that immerse users into the virtual world. However, according to research by Carreon (2021), virtual reality immersion has three distinct levels: fully immersive (head-mounted displays), semi-immersive (simulators), and non-immersive (desktop/ laptop). Results from a study comparing non-immersive to fully-immersive VR experiences with middle school students with Autism Spectrum Disorder indicate that (1) the fully immersive environment (using a head-mounted display) did not produce higher acquisition of skills than the non-immersive (screen-based experience) and (2) both produce significant learning increases (Carreon et al., 2023).
The following are key insights shared by DR. SEAN SMITH on this research. The interview focused on six questions about VIRTUAL REALITY and SOCIAL SKILLS in teacher preparation as well as recommendations for teacher educators to incorporate these ideas.
One of the drawbacks of traditional social skill education is that it takes place in isolation, making it difficult to generalize to the natural environment (VOISS, 2023). Through the use of VR, students are able to practice skills in a virtual environment that mirrors the natural environment, allowing for the opportunity for practice and feedback, leading to independence, inclusion, and meaningful relationships (VOISS, 2023).
Project VOISS (Virtual Reality Opportunities to Implement Social Skills) offers a social skill inventory of 183 skills across 10 domains to support educators in identifying and progress monitoring skills with which students are struggling.
SMITH: “The need for knowledge and skills and an opportunity to not only learn but practice those skills in a safe environment in an environment that offers an opportunity for explicit instruction on opportunity for practice and opportunity for contextualization.”
Q2: How do you integrate technologies to support social emotional learning like VOISS and others and VR in general into teacher preparation programs?
The benefit to using VR for social skills is that it resembles real life, which has been found to increase engagement and social validity (Mosher, 2023). VR interventions, specifically VOISS, that deliver social skill instruction have the potential to be effective and socially valid (Mosher, 2023). Using this innovative technology provides students an opportunity to practice areas of deficit repeatedly in an authentic and safe environment (Carreon et al., 2023)
DR. SMITH: “It gives them the opportunity to have an explicit social coach that's talking to them in their ear. It gives them the opportunity to interact with peers. But virtual peers. It gives them the opportunity to, for lack of a better word, crash and burn, relearn an opportunity to do it again without any social consequences.”
Q3: How do we better prepare educators to use innovative technologies like VR in their classrooms, in the field of education?
Students, teachers, teacher-educators, and pre-service teachers need explicit instruction on how to integrate technologies in their classrooms (Dawson et al., 2019). The VOISS Advisor (see voissadvisor.org), the educator support for VOISS, provides the necessary support for professionals to implement technology into social skills. Additionally, the VOISS advisor provides a social skill inventory with progress monitoring and lesson plans to support students areas of need.
DR. SMITH: “It's just not simply, here's the technology, use it. But it needs to be complemented with those types of supports for the educator, both the current classroom teacher as well as a pre-service teacher, educator to understand how to use and when to use the technology.”
Q4: What implications do you see for the future of research, with social skills and VR and other technologies that might?
One of the big concerns and focuses of social skills research is the generalizability from classroom or therapeutic settings to the natural setting (Mosher & Carreon, 2021). The term extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term describing a combination of real and virtual environments (Mosher et al., 2021). The plan is to further integrate technologies, like artificial intelligence, to create a more personalized, intelligent, immersive, and detailed world that more closely resembles the students actual environment (Mosher, 2021).
GUEST: “what other technologies can be embedded within it. To make this virtual experience so much more of an experience. And so, right now, we are actually investigating the role of AI artificial intelligence, particularly in the area of the ability to have…we believe the more realism, the more practice that's realistic, that would lead to more understanding and knowledge and skill development that should lead to generalization as well.”
Q5: What else should teacher preparation programs consider moving forward, looking at technology and looking at social skills?
This is the mission of CIDDL, to support faculty in pre-service preparation and leadership programs in meaningfully and intentionally integrating technology into their programs (CIDDL Team, 2021). Rather than providing pre-service teachers with technology tools, which may come and go, Dr. Smith and his team advocate for teaching pre-service teachers to align tech tools, like VR, to their learning outcomes. When considering integrating technology into their classrooms, teachers should consider their learning goals and student preferences, levels, characteristics, and needs (Anderson & Putman, 2019).
DR. SMITH: “The key role within teacher education is making folks, yes, aware of some of the technologies, more importantly aware of what we need to be doing with these individuals that we're working with, and from that, as the technology grows and changes.”
Q6: Are there any specific technologies or resources that you would suggest for either faculty or pre-service, or in service educators and service providers looking to learn more?
VOISS and its counterpart VOISS advisor are freely available through the website (projectvoiss.org). To reiterate, VOISS is a VR experience that takes place across the school setting (e.g., classroom, hallway, bus, gym, etc.) and provides an opportunity for students to practice social skills and receive immediate feedback. VOISS advisor is a professional development tool designed to help educators implement and utilize VOISS with their students.
In the interview, DR. SMITH provided resources and technology tools for teacher preparation programs starting with VIRTUAL REALITY and SOCIAL SKILLS.
Project VOISS is a VR social skills application that is available on the iPad, chromebook, and for the Oculus.
VOISS Advisor is the professional development tool to help teachers with identifying and teaching the skills their students need.
Carreon, A. (2021). A Comparison of Immersive VR and Non-Immersive VR on Social Skill Acquisition for Students in Middle School with ASD (Doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas).
Carreon, A., Smith, S. J., Frey, B., Rowland, A., & Mosher, M. (2023). Comparing immersive VR and non-immersive VR on social skill acquisition for students in middle school with ASD. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 1-14.
CIDDL Team (2021, May 13). Why CIDDL? A Glimpse of Our Mission. CIDDL. https://ciddl.org/why-ciddl-a-glimpse-of-our-mission/
Dawson, K., Antonenko, P., Lane, H., & Zhu, J. (2019). Assistive technologies to support students with dyslexia. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 51(3), 226-239. doi:10.1177/0040059918794027
Mosher, M. A. (2023). The Social Validity and Efficacy of a Virtual Reality Intervention for Improving Middle School Students’ Social Communication: A Randomized Controlled Study (Doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas).
Mosher, M. A., & Carreon, A. C. (2021). Teaching social skills to students with autism spectrum disorder through augmented, virtual and mixed reality. Research in Learning Technology, 29.
Mosher, M. A., Carreon, A. C., Craig, S. L., & Ruhter, L. C. (2022). Immersive technology to teach social skills to students with autism spectrum disorder: A literature review. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9(3), 334-350.
Goldman, S. R. & the CIDDL Team. (2023). Virtual Reality to Support Social Emotional Learning. The Center for Innovation, Design, and Digital Learning.