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Virtual reality tool impresses in prisoner learning

Photo: University of Otago.
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The development of a virtual reality automotive workshop is handing prisoners an impressive new tool to help improve their reading, writing and maths skills.

They can put on a set of goggles and be thoroughly immersed in a three-dimensional workshop, completing tasks such as fixing brakes – and learning new words as they go along.

Wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles, prisoners can, for example, assemble and disassemble a brake calliper. They hear and see the associated words and receive a mini lesson. They need to understand these words to complete this task before progressing to the next.

To improve numeracy, a prisoner might use the VR workshop to fill a tank with water, learning amounts such as ‘half’ or ‘quarter’ as he does so.

University of Otago Principal Investigator for the virtual reality literacy project, Professor Holger Regenbrecht. Photo: University of Otago.

University of Otago Principal Investigator for the project, Professor Holger Regenbrecht, says early studies have shown that immersion using VR technology can improve learning.

In addition, the automotive workshop environment is familiar and engages prisoners, motivating them to learn.

“This more interesting and relevant environment can help learning; and improved literacy skills for prisoners, in this case, improve rehabilitation and integration into the community.”

Under trial

This VR workshop tool is being trialled at the Otago Corrections Facility near Milton. The project is a collaboration between the University, social agency Methodist Mission Southern (MMS) and internationally-successful Dunedin company, Animation Research Ltd (ARL).

MMS provides services at the corrections facility, including a literacy and numeracy programme. MMS Business Development Leader, Jimmy McLauchlan, says literacy is a significant issue among New Zealand prison populations.

People struggling with reading and writing find it difficult to learn, train and, upon leaving prison, to get jobs.

Methodist Mission Southern Business Development Leader, Jimmy McLauchlan. Photo: Methodist Mission Southern.

He says those in prison have often had negative experiences of classroom learning. A challenge with adults learning in prison is to make the content relevant, accessible and interesting.

Those teaching literacy and numeracy in prisons labour hard for results. However, success has been achieved when learning relates to the prisoners’ interests or programmes they’re participating in.

Jimmy offers the example of a prisoner who does woodwork, and improved his writing and reading skills by using vocabulary related to woodwork and workshops.

Prisoners are often keen on vehicles.

It’s very common for guys in prison to have had an interest in cars or bikes.”

However, prison security constraints, plus a limited MMS budget, mean a car workshop can’t be built on-site. So, MMS had the idea of creating a virtual workshop and asked the University’s Department of Information Science for help.

Development of a prototype

During the past year, Information Science PhD student, Jonny Collins, has laboriously developed a prototype VR application, using computer technology to create the simulated car assembly workshop.

Virtual immersion: University of Otago PhD student, Jonny Collins, helps a user operate the virtual reality car assembly workshop. Photo: University of Otago.

Prof Regenbrecht says MMS supplied learning experts, corrections facility staff and prisoners provided input, and an automotive repair business ensured the virtual workshop was realistic.

“We worked together over a year to find out how to provide a new way of learning,” he says.

Animation Research Ltd filmed the panoramic environment for this VR workshop.

The Professor says VR is a three-dimensional environment and ARL provided this surrounding environment, using a 360-degree camera to capture the sights and sounds of a real Dunedin workshop.

“It is like a surrounding photo with 3D inside it.”

Jimmy says the VR workshop tool has been tested twice at the correctional facility, each time involving about a dozen men. Initial feedback has been positive and prisoners have contributed suggested changes.

[There’s] massive enthusiasm from the guys who have had a play with it.”

Next year, MMS will pilot this virtual tool at the correctional facility. In future, a commercial version may be developed. North Island iwi organisation, Ngāti Kahungunu, is a possible financial supporter.

The two men say once the VR workshop has been thoroughly tested and further improved, this tool may be used with prisoners throughout New Zealand during literacy and numeracy education.

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For further information:

A video on the system is available by clicking here 

Click here to learn about MMS’s existing literacy and numeracy programme.

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