Virtual Learning Environments to support STEM learning for children with autism

We have been conducting pilot studies for the past few years in this area of special needs. Our initial study involves 4 autistic children (4 to 7 years). They explored 2D/3D geometrical shapes using both an immersive environment and a haptic interfaced environment (fig 1); The Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) were related to a virtual solar system (using an immersive environment) and properties of matter (using a haptic interface). While the children were able to learn basic concepts, their levels of engagement (and preferences) when using the VLEs was different: some preferred the 3D stereo based environment while the other enjoyed interacting with the haptic interfaced VLE where they could ‘feel’ objects and their responses.  Figure 1 (left) shows a student who preferred interacting with a haptic device while Figure 1 (right) shows a student who enjoyed learning using the 3D graphical environments. As our study continues, we plan to investigate the impact of the types and levels of immersion on learning and engagement.

In fall 2013, Fox 25 (Oklahoma City) carried a report on our exploratory work.

Fig 1: Students interacting with VLEs using a haptic device (left) and immersive eyewear (right)

The Next Generation of Internet Technologies holds great potential in making the learning activities more accessible to autistic children. A quiet revolution involving the Next Internet is underway, which can phenomenally impact education and engineering worldwide. We are one of the pioneering groups currently exploring these Future Internet technologies for engineering and education (we are actively involved in the GENI and US Ignite initiatives). Software Defined Networking and Cloud computing are some of the emerging technologies which are poised to impact Cyber Learning and Engineering practices. As part of the Global Cities Teams initiatives, we are expanding use of Next Internet technologies and principles to link computers from schools and homes through a variety of interfaces including haptic devices and smart phones. In spring 2013, as part of US Ignite and GENI demonstrations, we successfully highlighted the use of software defined networking (SDN) technologies in which an autistic student at one location was able to interact with a virtual learning environment at another location using a haptic interface; further, a milestone was achieved when a student and teacher were able to interact from 2 different locations using their respective haptic devices (the teacher and student were able to take control and assume the role of leader during their interactions) (fig 1). A small part of this GENI demonstration along with an interview with an autistic student and his parent can be found here
Note that this youtube video shows only the technology elements of this demonstration where one student at one location interacts with a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) at another location through a haptic (touch) interface. in this example, a student is interacting with a duck model in a virtual tank of water; we were attempting to find out how the Next Internet framework would perform learning activities involving the student (who was using mouse based interactions and a haptic device to move and push the duck).  Using such an environment, a teacher can expose students to concepts related to buoyancy, floatation and density of materials.

We are also excited about the potential of next generation Internet technologies which holds the promise of ushering a new era in cyber learning for all students. We have been using Global Environment for Network Innovation (GENI) related networking concepts to support learning activities not only for helping children with autism but also to support STEM education for elementary, middle and high school students. We have posted one of these interactions involving GENI networks at