Intent on weaving the school’s newly acquired VR technology into her psychology lessons, teacher Alexandra Crowder opted to resurrect the challenge from pirate legend and test it out on students – minus the nasty consequences. 

The Tasmanian educator says the practical experiment tied in perfectly with their studies on human learning. 

“So part of that module we look at is the process of acquisition and conditioning and the biology of how we learn, and I was talking to the students around well ‘what are the innate fears that we are born with?’ And the two innate fears are fear of falling and loud noise,” Crowder begins.

“Because the topic that we’d just done is consciousness, I posed to the kids ‘well, can we override our knowledge that this is fake, virtual reality, with the fear that we all have of falling?’”

Working from the hypothesis that by observing others leap one could re-train the brain to overcome ingrained hesitations, students took to the plank. 

Only then did bravado turn to actual fear, Crowder recalls. 

“It couldn’t have gone better really … I said ‘well, are there any volunteers to go first to walk off this plank?’ and one of my male students was like ‘I’ll do it!’” 

“He was very confident that he would be completely fine, and he put all the gear on and it took him close to ten minutes before he could do it. He was a bit shaky and I was like ‘oh what have I done here?’” she laughs. 

Yet as predicted, the process of observational learning proved powerful.

Armed with their background knowledge in behaviour modification techniques, like systematic desensitisation and flooding, more children were able to take the plunge with diminishing fanfare. 

“As the students went through and they all started participating it became easier and easier, because they learnt that there was no consequence for what they were doing,” Crowder says.

“There were still some students who couldn’t step off, but then it was great as well because I asked the first student if he would ... do it again at the very end, and he walked straight off the edge.”

Engagement was high in follow-up discussions. 

“We were actually looking at the research design and what we could do to improve the validity of the research, so we then went back to the classroom and brainstormed ‘OK, what would we need to do to replicate, to test that experiment?’ 

“Also, what would we need to do to create some control groups? So observing those who saw other people walking off, versus those who didn’t get to observe the other participants,” Crowder says.

With an individual research assignment looming, students got to practice how they might be able to extract “meaningful” data from their own practical experiments. 

Crowder says that in the field of psychology, forays into virtual reality are a fantastic way for students to explore textbook concepts. 
In a sense, it’s about getting children inside their own minds. 

“We’ve also been looking at some (VR) programs that simulate altered states of consciousness … we obviously can’t bring in psychoactive drugs or alcohol which are part of the course, so actually getting them to experience some of those altered states ... is something that we are looking to implement next year.”