Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes: Commercial VR Content for Learning?

One of the most interesting elements of virtual reality for learning is that provides a real opportunity for educators to redefine what it means to explore and learn from content. VR does more than just present information like a moving diagram or tell a story like a film, it presents a chance to fundamentally interact with ideas and information in new ways. This type of interaction is a really useful thing for schools to think about and consider.

Kids have repeatedly told us that they fear that when VR crosses over into education, school will ruin it. It will become another form of virtual textbook; a more narrow, watered down version of the potential they see in commercial content and on their favorite Youtube channels. We don’t think that is necessarily the case, but we can see where they are coming from, and are big advocates for thinking creatively about how to use VR to illustrate concepts and expand students’ thinking about learning in general.

In some cases, that requires fundamentally rethinking what “educational content” might look like. We might be inclined to use something like “Public Speaking Simulator” to build communication skills, which is great. At the same time it may behoove us, as educators, to think more broadly about the idea of communication skills and consider something a bit less traditional, like, in this case, defusing a bomb.

To illustrate this concept, we are going to focus on one extremely versatile piece of content that is not explicitly educational that we have seen several educators use in interesting ways: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (KTANE for short). The general gist of KTANE is that one person, or student in this case, is wearing a VR headset and they see some type of bomb that needs disarming. The bomb’s timer is counting down and the student clearly sees that buttons need to be pressed, wires cut, etc. in order to make the counter stop. However, the student in the headset is missing a critical piece of information: they have absolutely no idea how to disarm the bomb. The people who do know how to disarm the bomb are, fortunately, nearby. A few other students have a physical handbook (available online to print) that shows a variety of different bomb types, parts and the directions on how to identify and ultimately disarm them. The trick is that the students with the handbook each only have certain pages, cannot see the bomb themselves, and the student that can see the bomb cannot see the handbook. Thus, clear communication is needed, and fast.

Now, let’s pause here for a second. Unless one is in advanced military or law enforcement training, bomb defusal is not really a necessary skill-set. How does this intersect with traditional school? Our research with teachers has shown that there are actually many situations that it can intersect with traditional school in interesting, engaging, and lively ways and help kids tap into several useful educational skills.

For instance, we had a language arts teacher use the program with students who were struggling with clear, verbal communication. Though her curriculum did not include bomb defusal, it did include interactions with peers, conversations about key concepts that need to be communicated and clear articulation of one’s ideas. Her students found it thrilling to practice these skills in an environment where time and clear communication were of the essence. They were able to extrapolate ideas from the virtual interactions into other areas of their class where similar types of communication were needed.

An English language teacher at the high school level was working with a remedial English class on writing and communicating instructions. The students were already working on a project where they would be writing step-by-step instructions for other students to follow. KTANE provided a concrete example of a manual used for instructional purposes. The students participated in the virtual experience, analyzed how the instruction manual was laid out and used that as the starting point for their own projects.

We had a leadership teacher who used the game as a team-building tool. Students discussed what it meant to cooperate on a team, not yell out all at once, delegate responsibilities and to be a functional, collaborative group. By sharing and debriefing the experience, students were able to reflect on what it meant to work effectively as a team.

A foreign language teacher adapted the same piece of content but used it as a translation and speech exercise. Advanced foreign language students modified the “handbook” into French to communicate with a student who was in the headset, describing the bomb, also in French. Using VR for foreign language, with the goal of having students communicate effectively in the target language, is an interesting way to look at language fluency, particularly in advanced classes with time-pressure added.

Each of these teachers found a way to integrate the commercial content into their classroom curriculum in ways that were interesting, entertaining, valuable and relevant. Whether it was verbal communication (in English or a target language), collaborative group skills, writing, or analyzing and debriefing what worked effectively (or not), a host of opportunities were present for students to engage in thinking and learning in a virtual environment, with content that is well-designed and clever.

Often when we talk with teachers, they ask us to find highly specific content that they can use for a particular course or unit. And, at times, that is what is called for or needed. However, we also encourage educators to consider opportunities to include content that really does provide students with something different, something they likely couldn’t experience anywhere but virtually, and how those may naturally fit within their curriculum.

Students tell us they won’t soon forget their virtual bomb defusal nor the skills they developed as a result. Virtual reality is a different way to experience the world and thus, as educators, we need to reflect on how we might best capitalize on those experiences and use them to enhance our students’ thinking, communication and reasoning skills. Learning in VR does not have to look the same as learning in the traditional classroom.

*foundry10 has no connection to the creators of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, we really just think highly of their VR experience and want to share and inspire other educators to think creatively.