1994 VR Conference Proceedings

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Use of VR-Based Cooperative Gaming to Enhance the Reintegration of Severely Emotionally Disturbed Elementary Level Students Into Mainstream Education

By: Ralph M. Hausman, Ph.D.
Texas A&M International University
One West End Washington Street
Laredo, TX 78040-9960
(210) 722-8001, Ext. 372

Kalani Kirk Hausman
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX

Rachel Fawn Hausman
West Texas A&M University
Canyon, TX

Within the school age population, there are children and youth who arouse negative feelings and induce negative behavior in others. They are rarely popular and often experience social rejection or alienation from peers and adults alike. Typically they demonstrate significant academic failure and often see themselves as failures, obtaining little satisfaction from daily experiences. In addition, they may display a variety of inappropriate behaviors ranging from aggression to withdrawal. Their own overt behaviors handicap their search for gratifying social interaction and self-fulfillment. These youngsters are often referred to as having emotional problems.

In 1961, Bower (Bower & Lambert, 1962) developed what was to become a landmark definition focusing on the exhibition of one or more of five characteristics to a marked degree and over a period of time. The characteristics included (a) an inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors, (b) an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers, (c) inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal conditions, (d) a general, pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression, and/or (e) a tendency to develop physical symptoms, pains, or fears associated with personal or school problems. The phrase "which adversely affects educational performance" was added when this definition was included in the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA) in 1978 to define "seriously emotionally disturbed." The prevalence estimates for the area of emotional disturbance range considerably with the most conservative estimate of 1.2 percent to 2.0 percent quoted in the 1980s by the U.S. Department of Education. Often quoted as more realistic is 7.4 percent, an estimate determined by Rubin and Balow(1978) in their longitudinal study.

Educational placement for school-age students with emotional problems varies. Mildly involved students as well as those youngsters exhibiting nonaggressive, nondisturbing behaviors will sometimes remain in the regular classroom setting, often with supplementary support. In the event a student's behavior becomes extremely aggressive and/or disturbing, he/she may be removed from the regular classroom setting and placed in self-contained special education programs for special assistance. Even with such placement, the students may remain for part of the day in regular classes (Kauffman and others, 1987). The instructional approaches used within such programs vary according to which conceptual model or combination of models is preferred by the classroom teacher (Kauffman, 1989). The conceptual model presently being implemented in the United Independent School District classroom wherein the present pilot project is located involves an Integrative Academic approach (Hausman, 1994; Hausman & Mesman, 1990).

Regardless of the conceptual model governing programs used in self-contained classrooms for students with serious emotional or behavioral disorders, ultimate full inclusion in mainstream education classes is federally mandated for the majority of these students (Public Law 94-142, 1975, recently amended as Individuals with Disabilities Act, 1990). During the late 1980s calls were made for even greater integration of regular and special education for all handicapped students, with some professionals calling for abandonment of all "pull-out" programs, i.e., the regular education initiative (REI, Hallahan, Kauffman, Lloyd & McKinney, 1988). Unfortunately, REIs probable effects on teachers, students with emotional disorders and nonhandicapped mainstream students remains controversial. In spite of the research indicating regular teachers' concerns about teaching students identified as seriously emotionally disturbed (Coleman & Gilliam, 1983; ERIC Digest, 1985), a variety of approaches have reportedly been successfully used to integrate emotionally disturbed students back into mainstream education classes (e.g., Gallagher, 1979; Newman & Simpson, 1983; Schneider & Byrne, 1984; Chrystal, 1988; Zabel, 1988).

In addition, several approaches have utilized or recommended technologically-based approaches to successfully transition students with special needs to mainstream classrooms. Male (1993) and Watson (1991), for example, contend that combining cooperative learning techniques with computer-assisted instruction is an effective way of integrating special needs students into regular social studies classes and a newswriting activity, respectively. Fitzgerald and Saeugling (1989) had community boy scouts interacting with middle school-aged students with emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD) using recreational software and game-playing strategies. The results of this study revealed that the EBD students learned effective gaming skills, demonstrated skill transfer to similar games and shifted free-time choices from lower-level arcade games to higher-level games and construction software. Chauvenne and others (1989) developed a content-centered package of alternative methods and materials designed to assist secondary teachers to meet the needs of mainstreamed learning disabled and emotionally handicapped students in an Introductory Computer course.

Virtual Reality (VR) has also been suggested as having excellent potential to be a most effective method for training people who learn and remember best by doing (Taitt, 1993), as do many emotionally disturbed students. In addition, VR has been reported to be highly useful as an educational tool in a summer day camp with nonhandicapped students (Bricken & Byrne, 1992) as well as effective in stimulating spatially-related problem solving in regular elementary level students (Merickel, 1992). Woodward (1992), as part of a three year study to identify emerging issues and trends in technology for special education, discussed the potential contributions of virtual reality technology in light of both the intuitive appeal of the technology and the mixed findings on the effectiveness of simulations as educational interventions. He posited an expectation for the toy industry to downsize existing systems for the home market and exploit the commercial potential of virtual reality. Woodward also noted a dearth of research involving virtual reality and students with any type of disability.

In view of the motivational qualities inherent in interactive technology (Ferretti, Okolo, & Cavalier, 1992), in cooperative learning using a game atmosphere (Fitzgerald, 1987; Ritchie & Dodge, 1992; Strommen, 1993), and in virtual reality (Woodward, 1992), it would appear that such avenues of investigation may be warranted with emotionally disturbed students. These approaches would seem particularly useful with such students as they are often unable to learn in the traditional manner, yet they enjoy hands-on activities of an exploratory nature. The cooperative gaming approach may also serve to overcome the ED students' inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.

Previous Exploration of Cooperative Gaming and Mainstreaming Through Developing Perceived Social Value In the early 1980s, when the primary writer's special education computers, i.e., several old TRS80 Model IIIs, were the only personal computers on that particular elementary campus, an offer was made to a fourth grade teacher to allow her students access to the special education computers for drill and practice in math. As a result, on a regularly scheduled basis throughout most of the morning hours, individual fourth grade students needing math drill and practice would arrive at the special education unit with hall pass in hand and quietly wait for his/her mentor (one of the students in the writer's Emotional Disturbance, ED, unit) to pull the student's folder and call up the correct math drill. While the fourth grader worked on the drills, the special education student would rejoin the ongoing activity with the rest of his/her classmates. If the visiting math student needed assistance, he/she would hold up their hand and wait; the special education student would then attend to their needs, asking for assistance from the teacher only when and if necessary. The original pairings of special education mentor and fourth grade student were carefully arranged using only upper level students as mentors, matched with regular students with functional math skills lower than their mentors. (Upper level students were those having earned sufficient points to be ready to return to the mainstream or regular classroom setting.) This voluntary assistance program resulted in an increase in math skills for all involved fourth grade students, increased willingness on the special education students' part to participate with other students on campus, and a highly receptive as well as grateful regular classroom teacher.

After word of the computers circulated among the school population, non-special education students began to approach the students in the ED unit requesting access to the games that were available. In hopes of developing some perceived social value on the part of the ED students, the opportunity was offered for special education students to invite another student for "cooperative gaming" during the lunch period. Suddenly, the upper level students were being actively 'courted' as 'friends' on the playground at lunch and recess. Interestingly, this extended to being invited to play on various activity teams. The success of the venture was improved by making sure all the special education students were well versed and practiced on the various available games so they could match the functional level of their visitors.

Shortly after the students began to participate in the sports activities, one of the regular teachers volunteered to include a special education student in her science class. Prior to the student's entry, two students from the targeted class, both computer-playing friends, met with him in the library several times to review where the class was in their studies. When his friends confidently declared him ready to join them, the placement was made. With the supportive assistance of his "newly found friends," the student with EBD performed well enough to be invited to extend his involvement in one class after another. This approach eventually resulted in the successful mainstreaming of over 90% of all the EBD students over a two year period.

The Integrative Classroom for Elementary level, Emotionally Disturbed Students

During the academic year 1993-94, the primary writer was employed to establish an Integrative Classroom for elementary level, emotionally disturbed students in the United Independent School District (UISD) in Laredo, Texas. This particular approach utilizes an integrated content focus wherein the activities covered in the traditionally oriented morning class periods are infused into a two-hour, hands-on, project-oriented activity in the afternoon. It also incorporates a point-and-level system where the students earn points each class period for academic as well as behavior performance. As points are accumulated, the students advance through a series of levels, each offering progressively more privileges and responsibilities. Entry level for all students is Level I; on Level V, the students begin staging back into the mainstream classes on campus. Following a successful six-weeks program where they are fully included in the mainstream, they are returned to their home schools.

VR-Based Pilot Project

With the assistance of the second writer, the current pilot project was recently established in the Integrative Activities EBD program. Designed to explore the efficacy of using readily available, off-the-shelf VR equipment, the project is employing a relatively new toy called "Virtual Reality Stuntmasters" used in conjunction with Sega Genesis games in a cooperative game-playing situation with pairs of students. Once the students in the EBD classroom attain Level IV, they are paired with volunteers from non-special education classes. The "buddy" pairs are matched for grade level, gender, and ethnicity, and are then scheduled for cooperative gaming activities. Successful development of cooperative socialization within the VR environment will be systematically followed by regular class-based cooperative activities and then, hopefully, full reintegration.

Thus far, overall program development has been slow in the EBD Integrative Activities class due, in part, to the need to train the teacher and aides "from scratch" as well as in a brand new school building. Too, the students enrolled in the class also constitute the most difficult to handle elementary students from all of the United ISD schools. Yet, in spite of these facts, the majority of the students have attained Level III status. Unfortunately, as of this writing, only two students have attained Level IV status and have entered the pilot project.

The equipment selected for this pilot project, i.e., the "Virtual Reality Stuntmaster," is a computer-chip driven, polyvinyl headset containing a built-in pair of stereo speakers, color LCD screen and backlights. The headset also contains controls for brightness, color contrast and interaction sensitivity. A harness holds the headset in position. An adjustable plastic rod extending from the headset to the front of the shoulder may be affixed with a small clip and reportedly used for additional stability. Available through Hammacher Schlemmer & Co., Inc. (9180 Le Saint Drive, Fairfield, OH 45014-5475, 1-800-543-3366) for $269.95 (December 1993 catalogue), the "Stuntmaster" is designed for use with SuperNintendo, Super NES, or Sega Genesis games. Described in the catalogue as "the first entertainment device of its kind, taking standard video games to an exciting new level with intense, three-dimensional graphics, thrilling interactive play and life-like surround sound stereo (p. 68)," it reportedly "also offers the possibility of "team play" and "shared power" play (p. 68)." At this point in the program, only one game, i.e., Sonic the Hedgehog 2, has been used in the cooperative gaming mode, although another, i.e., The Illusion of Magic, starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck has also been recommended.

Results thus far are encouraging. Videotape examination of the pairs of students engaging in cooperative gaming have shown an average of 94% engaged time using a 15 second interval recording system. An increase in the engaged time is anticipated as each student becomes used to the "Stuntmaster" device and as they learn to fit the device more accurately. Anecdotal notes taken during the observation also reveal a fast developing camaraderie between the student pairs. Individual interviews with the students suggest that while the screens are small, the closeness make the images appear three-dimensional and, thus, "makes you feel like you are inside the game." The students have also indicated that it is far more exciting to play with the headset on than to just play the games on the monitor screen. An apparent heightened intensity of colors and images has also been reported. Definite interest has also been reportedly shown toward some of the EBD students by other students on campus during lunch and hall encounters.

Unfortunately, significant equipment related difficulties have been encountered. The three pound headsets seem more difficult for smaller, elementary-age children to manage than expected even with the additional support rod. This would seem due to having most of the headset extend beyond the student's face without any counter weight on the back of the harness. As a result, significant pressure on the upper nose has been reported by the smaller students. The support rod also produces an additional discomfort when the end-clip affixed to the student's shirt also pushes into his/her shoulder. The LCD unit within the headset, while colorful and apparently designed to produce an immersion effect, produces a "grainy" image that was uncomfortable for several adults to watch. Although the students failed to note this as a major concern at this time, one should take into account that the equipment is still novel and fascinating.

Unfortunately, a more significant problem relates to the catalogue claim that it "also offers the possibility of "team play" and "shared power" play (p. 68)." Prior to purchase, the writer contacted the Hammacher Schlemmer Co. technical assistance department (800-227-3528) and was assured that not only had they had personal experience with the unit but that it also involved virtual reality with the Sega Genesis games. In addition, the technical assistance representative noted that two separate headsets were required for "team play." Assurances were given that two headsets could plug into the Sega Genesis through the ports in the back. When the headsets arrived, it was found that there is only one port in the Sega Genesis housing. Further inquiry resulted in the statement from the technical assistance representative that "we haven't had that problem reported yet" and a referral to an 800 number that failed to answer or produced a continuous busy dial tone. Several weeks later, a different technical assistant indicated a personal concern, noting that the original technical assistant contact must not have understood what they really meant by "team play" and "shared power" play. No attempt was made by the second assistant contacted to clarify what they really meant by either of the terms. Contact was also eventually made with a representative of the original company that constructed the "Stuntmaster" equipment where we learned that the equipment was never designed for paired use. Thus, the program is, at present, confined to the use of one headset with the pairs of students having to share its use.


It would appear that Woodward (1992) was correct in his expectation that the toy industry would downsize existing systems for the home market and exploit the commercial potential of virtual reality. At present, the pilot project can only be considered as involving a Virtual Reality simulation. It was also disappointing to discover that technical assurances may prove misleading.

However, the potential motivational quality remains intact in that the students interviewed were most enthusiastic. In the event a newer version of Sega Genesis is designed with two plug-in ports, the equipment may realize its full potential. As it is, the program is continuing by having the pairs of students share time equally with the headset.

The enthusiasm displayed by the ED students leads one to suspect that Virtual Reality, simulated or actual, would hold tremendous potential with emotionally disturbed students in that many of them (a) enjoy exploratory activities with novel stimuli rather than traditional learning activities, (b) have an active fantasy life that may naturally extend to a perceived reality format, (c) can learn social skills in stimulating though, of necessity, highly structured situations such as those associated with interactive technology, and (d) can learn to control their impulsiveness through cooperative play, at least when the stimuli is as attractive as found with VR based activities.

The relative value of VR based activities for use with students with emotional or behavioral disorders would, as was posited for the use of computer technology for the same population (Council for Exceptional Children, 1990), seem to include the concepts that VR programs have the potential to offer step-by-step instruction as well as feedback, correction and reteaching in a patient, positive manner. Through careful construction, such programs could actively involve the student in activities requiring them to learn by doing and in realistic problem solving, socially relevant situations.

Additional areas that would seem to hold substantial potential for investigation include the use of VR programming (a) to develop appropriate social skills in students with EBD, particularly those youngsters who display a pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; (b) to explore the learning effects of combining the use of videodiscs, compact disks, databases, telecommunication, and other electronic media in the VR format to allow ED students to access, organize and control the presentation of full informational units (since these youngsters often experience severe loss of personal and environmental control), and (c) to allow them to safely explore alternative behavioral manifestations under controlled and nonevaluative circumstances.


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