Meredith Thompson

Klopfer & Thompson Implement Collaborative Games in VR Learning

Yiwei Zhu

Nowadays, VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) are more popular, affordable, and accessible. To keep pace with this revolutionary force, it is important to take advantage of these new technologies in an effective, affordable, and practical way, and apply them in different industries, including entertainment, trading, medical care, and particularly - as MIT concerns - education.

At their xTalk on November 18, Prof Eric Klopfer, Head of Comparative Media Studies and Writing, and Dr Meredith Thompson, Research Scientist in the Teaching Systems Lab, introduced the Collaborative Learning Environments in VR (CLEVR) project, demonstrated Cellverse - an educational VR game for classrooms, and discussed how to incorporate VR into learning experiences.

Prof Klopfer gave an overview of the affordances and possibilities of current VR technology, focusing on five aspects that allow users to “experience new worlds”: 

  • immersion - users feel they are situated in the place being modeled 
  • perspective - multiple points of view are provided to the user 
  • interaction - users interact with the virtual world through body movement 
  • sensation - visceral and emotional feelings are experienced at a subconscious level 
  • spatial representation - users experience 3D spatial relations and panoramic views

By allowing students to enter a fully immersive and scientific environment, VR opens up possibilities for innovative educational approaches. Dr Thompson described Cellverse, a game that helps students learn cellular biology, and which has been met with positive feedback. The project began with a user study in 2017 to collect expert and novice inputs to assist with game design, conducted qualitative studies in 2018, and is now near the end of experimenting with the game at two urban schools.

Cellverse allows students to travel “inside” the human body and experience cells at a micro level. In conventional biology courses, students are taught an over-simplistic tabular cell model. One significant advantage of Cellverse is that it preserves size and scale on the micro level and offers better authenticity and interaction - students can see real-time what is going on inside the cells. As students described in their feedback Cellverse is “hands-on”, “makes conceptual ideas substantial”, and “leaves the images of each cell layer in my head.”

The virtual setting of Cellverse does not separate students in the real world. Instead, Cellverse is designed to encourage collaboration: in classrooms, students work in pairs - one student on tablet with helpful study material, and the other on VR devices. The process of learning is cast as a collaborative problem-solving experience. For example, students are asked to travel through a patient’s body and gather information from the cells they see to figure out what type of cystic fibrosis the patient has.

Cellverse is an ambitious project with promising potential for other subjects - physics, geology, chemistry, material science, etc. As an MIT student who took 7.016 Introductory Biology in freshman fall to fulfill the biology General Education Requirement (GRE), I definitely would have benefited from Cellverse to better memorize cell structures and visualize cell activities. However, in this era of rapid technology development, there are also some questions to keep in mind during the research and development process: how much portion of games, or VR games specifically, should be incorporated into classes? What is the best way to leverage VR in education while ensuring safety and correctness? Designing and implementing a VR game takes tremendous effort; one needs to make sure the payoff is worth the investment.


Ivory Zhu

Ivory (Yiwei) Zhu '21 is an MIT undergraduate majoring in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science


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