UNICEF Innovation Fund Graduate: NubianVR
The UNICEF Innovation Fund is proud to see portfolio member, Nubian VR, graduate. They’ve come a long way – from numerous product iterations to deep diving into understanding their ecosystem better, strengthening their business model, and gearing up to take their solution to market. They’re now ready to collaborate at a larger scale – as they find new pathways to work with partners, investors, and the open source community.
NubianVR is a technology company focused on improving how we learn by creating immersive learning experiences in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, and making them easily accessible to everyone.
Globally, approximately 61 million children are unable to attain primary education (UNESCO, 2018); this translates into fewer children making it into secondary education. Moreso, in Africa, when it comes to the quality of education that students receive in school, much room for improvement still exists. A global study conducted by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) indicated that 617 million school goers were not acquiring the minimum reading and mathematical skills. In Ghana, there exist challenges to accessing the necessary teaching and learning resources for students to receive quality education; which is compounded by the lack of necessary and up-to-date education materials, huge class sizes and the lack of necessary infrastructural facilities – well-equipped science & ICT labs, etc. - to support the teaching and learning process. The NubianVR team researched to understand the challenges of the current teaching and learning processes to unearth the impacts of VR in driving the learning experience in Ghanaian secondary schools.
Over the past 12 months, the NubianVR team researched to identify the opportunities that VR technology could play in the teaching process of Ga-East district educators and their students’ learning experience. We forged partnerships with the Ga-East District Education Directorate, which has given us research access to educators and students in about 31 public junior high schools and 180 private schools. Based on our research findings, we built a Unity framework for creating lessons in Virtual Reality. Using this VR lesson creator dubbed Project Konko, we undertook a teacher-centred approach to develop a lesson to teach Junior High School Science students about Basic Electronics.
In the short-term, we see our solution being relevant in improving the teaching of upper and lower secondary school Science lessons by providing VR lessons for historically challenging topics. In the long-term, studies conducted on the efficacy of VR will drive the development of modules for social and emotional learning. We see virtual technology as the bridge between the deficiencies of the conventional learning model and the 21st-century digital and social skills necessary for any student.
Our initial attempts involved trying to use a WebVR framework, which is experiencing virtual Reality through a web browser; however, we later transitioned to a Unity framework as it provides easier tools for experimenting with learning pedagogies. The prototyping process started from content development, with educators developing the learning content and lesson objectives. A content creation process followed this and involved turning the lesson objectives and learning goals into media formats: 360 video experience, 2D videos, 3D Interactivity and Assessments. Subsequently, we created a narrative interactivity flow that described how the learner progressed through the various elements of a lesson. Throughout our prototyping stage, we ensured regular usability testing, feedback gathering and iterating several times before reaching the final solution.
During one of our teacher testing sessions, we had science teachers from across the Ga-East district, both male and female, as young as mid-twenties and as old as early sixties. The feedback and responses were reflective of their age group. We were surprised to see responses that challenged our assumptions in ways we could not have predicted. The most memorable example was when one of the older teachers, on seeing a video play button (the triangle in the circle) complained about getting stuck. On inquiring, she said she was seeing an “eye with a triangle”. That left us confused. In fact, it took a while until we realised the playing video had paused and the play button had come on the screen to resume playback. We had innocently used what we thought was universally understood, but testing with a broad swatch of users proved to be particularly valuable.
Being open-source has made NubianVR’s cause more appealing to potential collaborators in the developer and creative community. Of the 35 developers and creators we interacted and collaborated with throughout our creation and testing processes, 100% wished to contribute towards our project. These collaborators would allow us to develop a community of contributors that can advance our open-source project vision.
NubianVR is cultivating a business model that has its roots in content subscriptions. We charge individuals, schools & organizations a premium to access VR learning experiences. We also complement this by additional services that include:
i. Advocacy Services - helping non-governmental organizations such as UN Women and UN Refugees create lessons to drive the social and emotional learning agenda
ii. Commissioned Development - design and creation of media-based learning tools and experiences
iii. VR-on-Demand Services - providing content and hardware subscription-based rental service to schools that are unable to bear the cost of VR devices
iv. Deployment Services - helping organizations and learning institutions develop and maintain VR labs
One of the biggest obstacles we ran into was building a VR learning solution that was cross-platform and device agnostic. During prototyping, our goal was to build in WebVR, but we transitioned to the Unity framework, which offers moremuch versatility. Some of our other challenges included; staffing the team with the locally available talent familiar with VR development. Finally, VR hardware cost is one of the biggest inhibitions towards adoption of VR for schools.; Our team had to think through a walkaround solution to jump the hurdle of schools having to buy headsets,; hence our VR-on-Demand Service package.
We are interested in working with research partners such as the MasterCard Centre for Innovative Teaching and Learning in ICT and the International Retail Design Conference (IRDC), which will enable us to conduct research at a large scale that will convince governments & large scale educational providers of the efficacy of VR. Additionally, we are looking forward to collaborating with agencies with advocacy needs such as End Violence and World’s Largest Lesson as these would help drive our social and emotional learning agenda. Finally, collaborations with large scale education providers like national and state governments, and private school chains such as Bridge International, would help drive VR’s impact on education.
Next set of goals
In the coming year, we hope to deepen our research in Ga-East, Accra by exploring the pedagogical benefits of using VR as a learning tool over a long period. In our initial years, we will prioritize STEM educational topics, and later on, we hope to expand to other subject matters. For our social and emotional learning angle, we intend to develop more content for issues relating to school safety, gender-based violence, and climate change. We also look forward to deploying our VR-on-Demand services and deepening our relationship with the Open Source community.
Working with the UNICEF Innovation Fund
Beyond the financial support, the UNICEF Innovation Fund has been helpful right from the start by opening doors to other key stakeholders that facilitate our mission such as the UNICEF Ghana country office, Ga-East Educational Directorate, etc. Additionally, the fund team helped us with refining our business ideas into workable models while also connecting us to a cohort of global VR edTech developers. Furthermore, the UNICEF Innovation Fund has given our team the opportunity and muscle to focus on the wicked problem of learning inequality that we otherwise would have found significantly more challenging.