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KU researchers to develop virtual reality to improve social competencies for those students with disabilities who need it

Mon, 12/03/2018

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers have secured grant funding that will allow them to develop virtual reality technology to help students with high-functioning autism and learning disabilities learn social competencies and apply them to their everyday lives and education.

Students with disabilities often do not learn social skills or pick up on social cues at the same pace as their peers. The Office of Special Education and Programs in the U.S.  Department of Education granted KU researchers $2.5 million for a five-year program to implement VR that delivers evidence-based practices proven to help improve social competencies. Researchers in KU’s Center for Research on Learning, within the Life Span Institute, and the Department of Special Education will work with a minimum of 17 schools to implement the VR technology.

The program, known as AViSSS, will allow middle school students to encounter situations in which social competencies could be tested throughout a typical school day. Users will interact with avatars in settings such as school hallways, lunch rooms, locker rooms, buses, classrooms and others. They will have opportunities to react to school-based social situations that might require them to start a conversation, respond to questions, problem-solve potential inappropriate behavior and practice numerous other skills in a safe, controlled environment. The system, along with teachers who administer it, will offer the students feedback on how they handled situations, why certain actions are socially appropriate and how to generalize those lessons in everyday life. The grant is an extension of previous funding in which AViSSS was developed.

“With previous funding, we developed and did initial testing of our virtual reality tool to develop and improve social competencies with students with high-functioning autism and learning disabilities,” said Sean Smith, professor of special education and co-principal investigator of the project. “Based on that work, we’ve wanted to expand and further investigate this tool with students and teachers in schools, and this grant will allow us to do that.”

Smith is leading the project with Amber Rowland, assistant research professor in the Center for Research on Learning, and Bruce Frey, professor of research psychology. They will implement the technology in at least 17 schools throughout the Midwest over the five-year project. They will also evaluate the technology and its progress throughout. At present, AViSSS can be used on tablets, computers and electronic devices. Eventually they hope to make it available on VR-compatible headsets, continuing to advance VR capabilities.

“Our idea is to use virtual reality to explicitly teach students these social competency skills and how to generalize them in their natural environments. Likewise, we want to equip teachers with ways to implement virtual reality and support student generalization of skills into the classroom setting,” Rowland said.

The AViSSS virtual reality system will give students an opportunity to learn and practice various social-skill-building techniques, and researchers will monitor progress while improving and revising the system based on input from student learning, schools, teachers and parents. The project comes at a vital time because students are increasingly challenged with social skill development. This is further complicated by initiatives like the Next Generation Science Standards that require a level of student social competence in order to demonstrate knowledge through increased social interaction, including verbal presentations, group-based learning and informed arguments.

As Rowland explained, “With an emphasis on argumentation, collaboration and communication, new learning standards place heavy importance on social competency and thus limit access to content to some individuals. We’ll be able to help these individuals work through those challenges and learn how to process these struggles in a safe environment.”

In addition to the students and teachers, KU researchers will collaborate with educational leaders at the Ohio Center on Autism and Low Incidence Disabilities and a team of computer scientists at Western Illinois University.

“In our schools, there is a great need for inquiry-based instruction focused on social competency. Many of our learners need to be taught these skills, and this is an effective venue to do that,” Smith said. “Virtual reality offers individuals an interactive learning experience where they feel as if they are actually engaged and part of the virtual environment. We want to be able to build off of that and help them generalize skills learned in the VR to actual classrooms, schools and other everyday experiences.”

PHOTO: A screen capture from the AViSSS program shows an avatar a student could interact with in a hallway setting to help boost social competencies. CREDIT: KU Center for Research on Learning.

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