Making any sort of prediction for the future of technology is fraught with difficulty and Chris Dede’s analysis published as 'Planning for Neomillennial Learning Styles' confronts this as well as any. Written in 2005 it hints at things yet to come and the possibility of virtual reality environments to allow for ‘situated learning’ to occur within classrooms without access to exotic locations or facilities. Chris’ emphasis is on immersion in a virtual world, a digitally constructed reality that allows for situated learning to occur. Chris writes 'The capability of computer interfaces to foster psychological immersion enables technology-intensive educational experiences that draw on a powerful pedagogy: situated learning.’ and 'Situated learning requires authentic contexts, activities, and assessment coupled with guidance from expert modeling, mentoring, and “legitimate peripheral participation.” Chris adds that 'virtual environments and ubiquitous computing can draw on the power of situated learning by creating immersive, extended experiences with problems and contexts similar to the real world.’ It seems the tech companies were listening as we are begging to see the release of devices that will make this sort of immersive reality possible and within the budgets of schools and students.
In recent times two competing approaches to the sort of mediated immersive world described by Chris have emerged. The first of these is the model represented by Oculus Rift. This uses a set of goggles to present the user with an immersive visual and auditory experience. Oculus Rift combines video and audio presented to the user in a way that replaces reality and centres the user inside a virtual world navigated by movements of the head detected by sensors in the headset. The technology behind Oculus Rift has been taken up by Samsung and is available as a headset that uses a mobile phone as the display and provides the computing power. A short play with this revealed a truly immersive environment that was convincing and hugely engaging. Google has released a similar device called ‘Cardboard’ that allows the user to construct a folded cardboard apparatus that holds a phone in front of the users eyes to present an immersive virtual reality experience. Cardboard can be purchased pre-assembled, as a kit or can be constructed as a complete DIY project using instructions online.
Microsoft has taken a different tack with their launch of the HoloLens. Unlike VR goggles that replace reality Microsoft wants to augment reality by projecting virtual elements onto and into the real world. The video below demonstrates what this would look like. While this model does not create the situated learning that Dede describes it does allow for a rich blending of the real and the virtual, a way of seeing information imposed onto the real world that situates the learning content in the real world. It provides a way of annotating reality with data and information placed directly into context. While the ability to play Minecraft as an electronic game that incorporates the lounge room furniture into the 'build' is interesting, the ability to have virtual elements projected directly onto the real world for learning and design scenarios as demonstrated in the plumbing and motorcycle design examples in the video is more compelling.
Between these two extremes is Google Glass that adds notifications to the world in a less immersive but also less intrusive fashion. One of the uses described for Glass by Google is as a tool for taking a class on an excursion without the need to leave the classroom. This video shows how a science teacher was able to take his class on a tour of the Large Hadron Collider and both share the experience and interact with the class as he did so, answering questions and engaging with their observations.
The Oculus Rift model of VR supports Dede’s view of situated learning powered by technology where the learner engages with learning in a virtual world that closely resembles a reality not available in the classroom. The Microsoft model would require access to a reality that at least resembles the desired virtual world in some respects. That said an African safari in the school playground would provide a powerfully immersive experience. The degree to which a reality is layered on to the real world has no boundaries so a fully immersive experience should be achievable. How this sort of experience is made available inside of schools is the next step and is reliant on affordable cameras to capture the required footage. What is likely to be seen in the short term is uptake by caretakers of museums and significant cultural, historic and environmental sites creating accessible virtual versions of their locations that allow for virtual field trips. Given the speed of adoption of ‘action cameras’ such as the ‘GoPro' and the movement of key players from this field into cameras that will record the 3D video required for VR it will not be long before our students are able to create and share this sort of experience. The convergence of this sort of camera, headset and drone technologies will open up some exciting possibilities.
The level of immersion made possible by the technology Dede referenced in 2005 is low compared to what is becoming available and will be available in the near future. Experience reveals that resolution and to a greater extent frame-rate of the virtual images is essential for the effect to believable and to avoid ill effects. The extent to which people will want this sort of experience is not clear. Presently the Oculus Rift is an interesting idea for short-term use, a toy to play with but wearing it for a longer time induces nausea in many wearers and its long-term impact on eyesight is unknown. The uptake of 3D television is a case in point of a technology not being taken up by consumers and becoming largely irrelevant despite the best efforts of tech companies. Microsoft’s solution will bring with it complexities for developers faced with an unknown environment and the need to live up to the ‘magical’ integration of real and virtual worlds presented in the demo video as former Microsoft executive Peter Molyneux warns.
The potential is definitely there and for schools the promise is great. A world of experiences could become available to our students with opportunities to experience places and events not possible in any other way. Walking through the world’s great museums and galleries becomes achievable in a one-hour lesson. Taking a walk into the heart of a volcano or the eye of a hurricane with no need for risk assessments. Visit the depths of the ocean in one lesson before visiting the moons of Jupiter in the next or even experiencing the excitement of a typical English lesson while home with the flu. We just need to accept the idea that our students might be spending a lot of their day out of the classroom while sitting (or bobbing and weaving erratically) in their seats.
by Nigel Coutts