1994 VR Conference Proceedings

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Virtual Reality Applications for Teaching Social Skills to Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

By: Howard S. Muscott, Ed.D.
Rivier College
420 SE Main Street
Nashua, NH 03054
Phone: (603) 888-1311 Ext. 8563
E Mail: muscott@mighty.riv.edu

Timothy Gifford
Director of Development
Argus Productions
25 Torwood Drive
Hartford, CT 06114
(203) 956-7933

A fight is in the air. Changing classes between periods, you see two of your students in the hallway. They appear to be arguing. The larger and more imposing teenager says to his smaller, more fragile classmate, "you better come and cut classes with me now or else". Before you can get closer, there's a push, then a shove. The smaller boy runs away crying and the larger one turns around smiling. You yell, "STOP". For a brief second, which feels like an eternity, you're not sure what he'll do. Neither is he. He pulls off the head mounted display and says, "Ms. Gibson, was brainstorming all possible options the first step in the problem solving sequence?". "Put the visor back on and try it," you remark, knowing that total immersion, rather than seeing or hearing, is believing.

This is virtual reality. Unlike the real case scenario played out in many schools across America today, prosocial learning can take place through computer generated simulations without students or their teachers getting hurt in the process.

Violence and its victims in America today are at an all time high. Newspaper and television headlines scream with the stories of the raging epidemic of violence in our schools, homes and on our streets. Schools, like the society they mirror, have become increasingly more dangerous and unsafe for both students and teachers. Sadly, children and adolescents are more likely to get attacked in schools than in any other environment. The need for teaching prosocial skills to students in our nation's schools has never been greater.

Virtual reality (VR) is the latest and most powerful interface between computers and humans. VR is an interactive, three dimensional (3-D), multisensory experience which immerses the individual in a computer simulated world. Pioneered by the military for training applications and the field of entertainment, VR can also be applied to more humanistic endeavors in psychology and education. Because the immersion experience convinces the learner that (s)he is actually in the simulation, VR promises to minimize the barriers currently inherent in prosocial skills training programs. However, VR, like other forms of technology, is not a panacea or a cure for the social problems in society. Limitations in the technology currently exist and applications that attempt to generate accurate simulations that model human behavior may prove to be the most difficult challenge of all.

The purpose of this presentation is to provide the audience with an understanding of the potential applications of VR to the teaching of social skills to all students, particularly those with troubled and troubling behavior. Limitations and future challenges in our ability to apply VR methodology will also be discussed as will implications for future research and development.

Virtual Reality and Social Skills Instruction:

Historically, schools have taken both convergent and reactionary approaches to social skills training, typically waiting for students to show maladaptive behavior prior to intervening (Muscott, 1988a; Neel, 1988). This approach can no longer be justified. Schools in the 1990s must meet the challenge of a changing social landscape by restructuring the formal curriculum to include direct instruction in prosocial skills for all students, not just those who currently exhibit, or are at risk of developing, behavioral disorders.

Designed to be taught as an area of the curriculum and worthy in their own right, social skill building programs were constructed with the goal of teaching students critical social, interpersonal behaviors such as asking for help, responding to peer pressure, giving a compliment, etc. According to Cartledge and Milburn (1986) social skills are seen as "socially acceptable learned behaviors that enable the person to interact in ways that elicit positive responses and assist in avoiding negative responses from them" (p.7).

It is also clear that specialized social skills instruction must be a fundamental curricular pillar upon which programs for children and youth with behavioral disorders are constructed. Educators such as Muscott (1988a), Hersh and Walker (1982) have strongly advocated for social skills training as a necessary component of programs designed to reintegrate students with special needs from special classes and schools into less restrictive educational placements in general education settings.

Existing Social Skills Programs:

Over the past two decades a variety of social skills programs (see Cartledge & Milburn, 1986; Goldstein, 1988; McGinnis and Goldstein, 1984; Muscott, 1988b) have been developed to help teachers with the difficult task of teaching students prosocial, interpersonal behaviors that many educators believe should have been learned prior to entrance into elementary school.

Many of them use modeling techniques based on educational applications of social learning theory (Bandura, 1973). Social modeling techniques which use directive teaching methods and rely on role plays, either acted out by the students or observed through the use media and materials, have proven effective in teaching a wide variety of behaviors to children and youth (see Cartledge & Milburn, 1978; Michelson & Wood, 1980). Typically, this involves the use of puppets as in the Developing Understanding of Self and Others program (DUSO) developed by American Guidance Service or videotape as in the ACCEPTS program developed by Walker, McConnell, Holmes, Todis, Walker, & Golden (1983) and published by PRO-ED. Combining modeling with directive teaching strategies like structured learning, a four step procedure developed by Goldstein and his colleagues appears to be successful in teaching specific prosocial behaviors in a wide variety of training settings from schools to juvenile detention; centers (Goldstein, 1988; McGinnis & Goldstein, 1984). A number of these curricula use technology, media and/or materials (TMM) to enhance learning by providing the learner with a model to view and emulate.

However, despite the success of some social skills training programs in enhancing skill acquisition within the training setting itself, the field has been hampered by a limited ability to overcome issues related to the transfer of training and generalization of skills to natural environments (Goldstein, 1988; McGinnis, & Goldstein, 1984; Stokes & Baer, 1977).

In order to maximize their effectiveness, social skills training programs must be motivating and personally relevant enough for students to want to use them. They must include abundant opportunities for observing and imitating high status models. In addition, they must provide opportunities for learned skills to be practiced under varying conditions and in as close to natural situations as possible in order to enhance the transfer of training.

Advantages of Virtual Reality Systems for Education:

VR applications hold tremendous promise for maximizing not only the acquisition of a variety of social skills, but the transfer of those skills from training to natural environments. Clark (1983) has noted that computer graphics technology has the potential to enhance education by creating a remarkable variety of digital images and visual displays. Meredith Bricken, working out of the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab in Seattle, is one of only a handful of researchers (Bricken, 1992; Bricken & Byrne, 1993; Reingold, 1991) who are directly studying educational applications of VR technology. Bricken (1992) identifies a number of unique features of VR and virtual environments that are consistent with sound educational pedagogy. These include the experiential quality of VR, the natural interaction with information, the shared nature of the networked experience, and the unique qualities of controlling time, scale and physics.

The advantages of VR technology for educational applications can also be organized around the main aspects of immersion and dynamic simulation. It is important to note that these two extremely powerful features provide VR technology with a number of potential advantages over current applications using existing technology and media such as interactive CD or film.

Advantages of Immersion:

  1. Multisensory experiences which are matched to the multiple learning styles of students. VR technology allows the participant multisensory experiences which include haptic perception in addition to the traditional perceptual information coming from visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli.
  2. Three-dimensionality. The ability to experience a situation in a 3-D format has tremendous implications for innovations in a variety of fields including social skills instruction. Stephen Pizer (as cited in Reingold, 1991) sees a number of advantages of VR with respect to perception. Most notably, "the depth cues associated with normal motion are very strong, and creating a virtual world in which you move and change your view of things as you would in the ordinary world is important not simply to spur the imagination and suspend disbelief, but to give you adequate perception" (p. 32).
  3. The most natural coupling interface between user(s) and computer available. Unlike current computer interfaces between machine and learner which still rely on more artificial behaviors such as clicking on an icon and typing, VR technology is developing interfaces that mirror more natural human behaviors and the given physical laws governing the objects they interact with in the environment.

Advantages of Dynamic Simulation:

  1. To visualize complex dynamic processes. Success in social situations require proficiency in a number of interconnected processes and behaviors. Real time computer generated simulations can provide a plethora of information to the user in order to help him/her understand human behavior and behave in more socially acceptable ways. According to Andrew and Ellis (1993), objects in behaviorally controlled virtual worlds can be programmed for behavioral modeling applications. They remark that, "Visualizations of real-world events can be accomplished, and actions taken depending on their nature. The object in the world can be programmed to provide important visual and aural cues for situations requiring immediate attention, and also for potentially disastrous courses of action" (p. 85).
  2. Active problem-solving capacity. Unlike passive television and most computer software programs, interactive VR technology will allow for and even encourage active problem-solving and decision-making on the part of learner. One educational application using active problem-solving was first proposed by David Perkins of Harvard University and later developed by David Traub of Centerpoint Communications in San Jose, California (Traub, 1991). The VR educational system uses collaborative simulation game scenarios to develop problem-solving skills after initial concepts and information are taught through books and videos.
  3. Multiple users. The capacity to network participants to interact in similar situations and under similar conditions is a significant advantage of virtual systems (Bricken, 1992).
  4. Scaling. The ability to create objects in three-dimensional space while changing the scale to facilitate the learning process is another important and powerful benefit of VR. Scaling could also be applied to social skills training through behavioral modeling. One possible example of many would be the enlarging of a person's physical being to create a more imposing presence. In one scenario, two students could be involved in a verbal altercation that has the potential to escalate into a fight. Enlarging the physical stature and build of one student might create enough discomfort to convince both participants that a fight isn't in their mutual interest.

Potential Applications for Virtual Reality in Social Skills Training:

The military and entertainment establishments continue to pour large amounts of resources into the development of VR which, at their best are neutral and at their worst continue to promote violent themes and ultimately violent behavior in our youth. Initial entertainment applications of VR technology including arcade games such as the Virtuality game "Dactyl Nightmare" which utilizes programming based upon seek and destroy plots that serve violent outcomes and foster aggressive goal attainment.

On the other hand, this rapid growth of the VR industry bodes well for the educational community. Many of the techniques and capabilities necessary for entertainment products are directly applicable to educational programs and visa versa. By using these techniques compelling educational worlds can be built. These programs can be designed to be entertaining and packaged and marketed in such a way as to mimic entertainment software. Thus people will be able to play our educational software like a game and learn prosocial behavior as a secondary benefit to being entertained. Two categories of applications in teaching prosocial skills to children and youth with behavioral disorders, Cooperative Learning Environments and Interactive Role playing, will be highlighted next.

Cooperative Learning Environments:

VR can create simulated experiences where several students can work collaboratively in learning teams on projects or activities. In this application, several students and their teacher(s) could be networked into the same virtual environment simultaneously. The program can be constructed so that successful completion of the project requires them to use collaborative skills. The teacher can lead the group subtly or overtly to try different collaborative techniques. One possible scenario involves bridge building (Gifford, 1993; Muscott & Gifford, 1993). This application is consistent with the one outlined by Traub (1991).

The students are first taught basic bridge design by looking at books or tapes on existing bridges. Inside the virtual environment they are presented with the challenge of successfully spanning a river by building a bridge from preconstructed structures. They must work cooperatively to decide how to build the bridge and then to actively pick up the pieces of bridge structure and build the bridge based on their own design. The software is designed so that construction of a bridge which would defy the laws of physics would naturally fall over, forcing the students to work together to find a successful solution. These exercises can be repeated with key variables randomized so the students need to build different kind of bridge each time, thus facilitating generalization.

Interactive Role Playing Scenarios:

Bricken (1992) set the parameters for software development in educational applications when she commented that, "we need software that is intended specifically for creating virtual worlds, that provides straightforward methods for modeling, modifying, and assigning behaviors to elements of the environment" (p. 183). Using computer generated simulations created by computer graphics packages to model social behavior through role plays would meet that need.

Any number of scenarios can be simulated using the dynamic nature of VR once a basic program structure has been developed. One possible structure begins with a student entering a virtual world depicting an environment familiar to them. In this instance a school. This school is populated with computer controlled agents which play the parts of the other students and teachers. The student enters a preset situation -- perhaps a language arts class or a gym period outside on the playground. In each situation there are several things that the student can do which will have no effect on the outcome of the scenario. These are actions like walking around and interacting with objects in the area. The student could explore forever except that we introduce a driver. This is an agent or a group of agents whose preprogrammed goal is to instigate a situation. This turn of events forces the user to react to stimulus from the antagonist agent. The user is given three or four possible choices of actions that she can take. These actions are natural and implicit to the situation. They could include both motor and social behaviors such as moving away, starting to fight, or making any number of verbal comments. Each choice leads to a different branch of the program which in turn plays out the consequences of the student's choices. Branches can lead to more decision points which lead to more branches. In this way we can lead a child through an example situation and show intuitively the outcomes of many different courses of action. Individual skills or courses of action can be enhanced by students playing the roles of others and experiencing their behaviors.

The system can be networked for multiple student participation where the other students appear to the child using the system as an animated character similar to the computer controlled agents. A teacher, instructor or counselor can enter the experience as well and play the role of a grownup or another student.

Let's take a look at one specific example. Take the social skill, responding to peer pressure which is part of the Skillstreaming the Elementary School Child program developed by Ellen McGinnis and Arnold Goldstein and published by Research Press. In one VR role play scenario we could create a cafeteria in a local elementary school. Paul, the child who is entering the virtual world, is the user. Students could be eating and conversing with each other. One student, a fifth grader named Bruiser who is streetwise and savvy, could lean over to Paul, who is socially immature and withdrawn, and tell him to take the lunch money left on the table by a classmate. Bruiser's character could be programmed to put pressure on Paul's character to take the money. Scaling could be used to increase the physical size of Bruiser as he makes the request and shrivel the size of Paul IF he chooses to give in to the threat. Should Paul choose to use his previously learned sequence of social skills outlined in the Skillstreaming program, his character could be enlarged to be equal to or larger in stature than his adversary. Each choice that the students' make in this computer generated scenario could be observed by classmates and the teacher. Additional conditions such as the teacher walking over could be included to increase the complexity of the experience. Other students can play an active role as well. Computer assisted data collection on the choices that students make could be kept without the teacher having to lift a pen! Simulations could be set up to reinforce prosocial behaviors so that repeated antisocial behaviors terminate the game, much like a tilt in a pin ball game. Once the scenario has been completed, the entire episode can be replayed on a screen and analyzed by the class. Copies of the interaction could be taken home on videotape for review by the students and their families.

Challenges in Applying Virtual Reality to Social Skills:

A number of challenges exist when developing and implementing social skills programs utilizing VR. Technological advances however, are occurring at a rapid rate and many limitations in the technology will be solved or minimized within the next few months and years. Current challenges include: (1) hardware and software limitations such as costs, availability, ergonomics, lag time versus real time, computing power, and the ability to recognize speech and semantic cognition; (2) human resource issues such as fear of technology, and the need for local technical support and staff development and training.

Hardware and Software Limitations:

Currently the hardware cost for a complete system including the computer is approximately $15,000. This clearly prohibitive for large scale use. It is however, accessible for specialized facilities. The availability of software for these applications is limited as well. Very little is being produced at this time. Fortunately, the price of the hardware and software is beginning to drop which should make systems more available to schools. In the future, it will be possible to purchase a complete VR system for the cost of a VCR today. Similarly, bulky interfaces like HMD and Data Gloves should ultimately become less cumbersome and more effective. HMD will eventually be the size and weight of a pair of eyeglasses.

One major limitation involves the ability of the user to speak directly to the computer in natural language and have the computer extract subtleties of meaning. Current limitations in speech recognition and semantic cognition in computer software preclude a stand alone version of the software. A fully effective system needs to be externally controlled by a person. In most cases, this will be the classroom teacher who is either at a remote terminal or immersively networked into the virtual world. In the future, it should be possible for the computer to generate an agent which more accurately simulates human characteristics and is more able to understand the subtleties of human language and behavior.

Human Resource Issues:

Innovations of any kind present a variety of challenges to human resource allocation and restructuring. The fear of the technology itself, designated VR technophobia by Bricken (1992), presents a major challenge to the field. Educators do not automatically include technology of any type in their classrooms without administrative and technical support. As Warger and Rutherford (1994) have noted, despite the promise and documented benefits, TMM have not yet changed the nature of schools and the way they do business. Technical support for the development of hardware and software as well as for staff development training will be necessary to overcome the curricular inertia which is common in many schools.

There is also the question of public acceptance of the technology itself which provokes images of science fiction in general and mind control or artificially enhanced intelligence in particular. As VR technology becomes more available and people become more exposed to it, these fears, like the fears of the PCs before it, should be allayed.

Future Applications of VR to Social Skills Training:

Virtual Reality holds great promise for enhancing the acquisition, maintenance and generalization of social skills from the classroom to natural settings. With global features like immersion and dynamic simulation which allow for 3-D, interactive, multisensory, problem-solving, and multi user experiences, VR was made for education. Many applications in the medical, scientific and military fields are advancing at a breakneck pace, in part because funding for research and development is readily available. Clearly this is not the case in the field of education. Furthermore, unlike creating simulations of inanimate objects, modeling human behavior, particularly social behavior, is the ultimate and most complicated summit to climb.

Yet despite the obstacles, there is both a incredible fascination and a tremendous need to develop applications of VR technology which utilize behavioral models to enhance the social development of all children, particularly those who exhibit behavioral disorders. In addition, it is critical that educators influence the role that VR will play in prosocial development as the technology, through war games and violent entertainment applications, has the capacity to increase antisocial and violent behavior in our children and youth.

Simply put, our goal should be to create virtual environments where students can learn prosocial skills that transfer to the real world. These environments should allow students to experiment with problem solving techniques, make good and bad choices, and see the consequences in the simulated world played out in ways that prepare them to deal with these situations when they occur in the real world.

To achieve this goal a number of applications for use in school systems must be developed, field tested, and evaluated. A good starting point would be the development of simple systems designed to test the viability of VR technology in teaching cooperative learning skills. Connecting collaborative skills with science education may provide a useful and pragmatic first step. Concurrently, the development of more complicated software to support role playing should be undertaken. One approach would be to translate specific skill sequences from existing social skills programs or newly created ones, one at a time. Thereafter, these systems need to be evaluated in controlled trials. Based on the results of these trials, a more robust and dynamic system should be developed to realize the potential of this technology to combat the increasing rate of violence and antisocial behavior among our youth.


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