The author explaining avatars and virtual reality to undergraduate students at Fordham University.
AMID THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic, millions of students worldwide traded their classrooms for their living rooms as places to learn. And while many young people are digital natives who understand that learning can take place almost anywhere with an internet connection, educators at all levels still are figuring out how to effectively deploy remote learning on a massive scale.
Their challenge is that many students—and perhaps even most—do not learn effectively from video lectures alone. As one Indiana University medical student tweeted on his first day of video lectures: “I got through 45 minutes of lecture and lost my desire to keep going. Send help.”
How can educators create online learning experiences that truly engage students with the learning process, rather than distance them from it? Of the many edtech tools now available, augmented reality and virtual reality offer some innovative options for remote learning—and I believe that they represent the future of education.
THE BENEFITS OF AUGMENTED REALITY
Augmented reality (AR) refers to technologies that add digital elements to the physical world through the use of smartphones, tablets, or headsets. Prominent examples of AR include Snapchat filters or the game Pokemon Go. Up to this point, AR has been used primarily for entertainment, but it has immense potential for use in education.
This is true for several reasons. First, AR is extremely accessible. As the pervasive use of Snapchat filters demonstrates, most students already have a smartphone or tablet that they can use to access the technology. Second, AR makes content come to life. With AR, students aren't merely reading text; they also have the ability to access additional features in their assignments, such as voice narration, videos, and holographic avatars. A still photograph can become video of a speaker, and a static image can rotate to be seen in three dimensions. Companies such as Post Reality, a drag-and-drop AR platform, provide technology that can add such interactive features to presentations. View a demo video to see how it works at www.postreality.io.
Third, unlike the information in printed textbooks, AR information can be updated easily and continually, eliminating the need for expensive or environmentally unfriendly revised print editions. Finally, AR can support many positive learning outcomes, according to a paper by Iulian Radu, formerly of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. In “Augmented Reality in Education: A Meta-Review and Cross-Media Analysis,” Radu finds “that for certain topics, AR is more effective at teaching students than … other media such as books, videos, or PC desktop experiences.” According to Radu, the use of AR can help students improve their understanding of content, retain more information, collaborate more effectively, perform better on tasks, and feel more motivated to learn.
However, if not deployed well, AR has its downsides. For example, Radu writes, “although low and average achiever students showed learning gains through the AR experience, [high achievers] did not receive the same benefits.” In addition, AR that’s difficult to use might “contribute to the challenge of the [learning] experience.” But when deployed effectively—to offer additional representations of content, provide opportunities for learners to interact with concepts, and direct users to relevant content at the proper time—AR can be a boon to the classroom.
ENHANCED LEARNING THROUGH VIRTUAL REALITY
While AR superimposes digital elements over the physical world, virtual reality (VR) places individuals into entirely digital worlds. Through VR, students can practice complex tasks such as scientific and medical procedures in virtual labs filled with the most advanced equipment or extremely rare materials. They can even “travel” through time by stepping into virtual experiences that recreate important moments from the past.
More important, the immersive quality of VR can support increased focus and retention—while in VR, students are free of distractions. For example, in “3D Virtual Reality in K-12 Education: A Thematic Systemic Review,” which appeared in January in Emerging Technologies and Pedagogies in the Curriculum, the authors found that VR affords young students opportunities to “experience weather, time, and different environments, and virtually touch and examine objects.” Such integration of three-dimensional VR technologies into education, they add, “leads to enhanced learning experiences, leading to increased achievement and motivation.”
Such interactions with concepts and content fit right into Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning (see graphic below), which suggests that people report higher learning outcomes when they are able to experience and experiment with the lessons they learn in classrooms. Ideally, this would mean placing students in real-world situations, but that is not always possible. That’s especially true during a pandemic. When we must engage in social distancing and travel is still discouraged, we can create VR simulations where students can interact with objects, virtual avatars, and places in ways that otherwise would not be available to them.
Education powered by extended realities can provide the type of hands-on learning experiences promoted by Edgar Dale's Cone of Learning, even when in-person interactions are not possible.
There is a Chinese proverb that reads, “I listen and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” This proverb has great relevance to the use of VR in the classroom, in which homework becomes synonymous not with memorization, but with engagement and interaction. Through VR, we can fundamentally change the way students perceive education.
BUT CAN SCHOOLS AFFORD IT?
Right now, thanks to the pandemic, most students are learning remotely, so most schools already have made a significant transition to online learning platforms. And if students have access to smartphones or tablets, AR components can be added to online assignments affordably. In fact, there are plenty of AR experiences that are free or inexpensive to purchase.
If students do not have access to smart devices, there are other ways to make the experience accessible to them. For example:
Start small with AR. Post Reality has a web viewer where people can experience AR from their desktops. Faculty can start using AR in small ways, such as testing it with one assignment and gathering feedback. They can incorporate into their curriculum 360-degree videos, available on YouTube, which can be viewed via a desktop, smartphone, or smartphone paired with a cheap cardboard VR headset. These 360-degree videos are not as powerful as more advanced VR, but they can introduce students to the technology and give them a sense of being immersed in new environments.
Incorporate VR headsets. Schools that can allocate some funding to the use of AR/VR could purchase portable, standalone VR headsets, such as those made by Oculus Quest. These headsets are easy to set up and cost about the same as a basic tablet or computer. Once students return to campus, schools could even set up AR/VR labs, in the same way they have set up computer labs and maker spaces.
Apply for grant funding. If schools have no money in their budgets to purchase headsets, educators can look into grant opportunities. In fact, often their own universities will offer seed grants to support technology adoption.
For example, Pennsylvania State University has offered grants to select faculty across all disciplines as part of its strategic plan. One group of Penn State engineering professors received funding to support the use of “three-dimensional computerized simulation models of a system—when physical access to the actual system is not possible.” Another recipient, a geology professor, will use his funding to explore how VR and AR might be used in areas such as “environmental communication and decision making, emergency management, or digital heritage.”
Partner with tech companies. Another way to mitigate costs is by partnering with companies that provide AR/VR technology. For example, my own school, the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University in New York City, partnered with my company The Glimpse Group, as a way to affordably integrate VR/AR into its courses. This lower-cost partnership gave the Gabelli School an opportunity to test out the technology before making a bigger investment; in return, The Glimpse Group was able to explore the possible applications of the technology in a higher ed environment.
I believe that the impact of the coronavirus has advanced the education market’s adoption of remote learning technologies by at least five years—and what we think of as the “classroom” is likely to change even more in the months and years ahead. In the short term, AR and VR are ways to teach our students in more interactive and engaging ways than video lectures or conference interactions. In the long term, working and learning in XR environments will prepare our students to use this technology effectively in the workforce of the future.
With the education environment changing so quickly, now is the time for educators to act. They can integrate AR into remote assignments and lectures. They can take some time to get comfortable with VR and begin to explore how it can make their courses more immersive.
It’s a great time to experiment with the technological possibilities now available to educators. These technologies have a good ROI for students. And the best thing about today’s technologies is that many are available at little to no cost. Given that, there is no downside to a business school in starting small and seeing where XR can take teaching and learning.
Lyron Bentovim is an adjunct lecturer at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in New York City, New York. He also is president and CEO of The Glimpse Group, a virtual reality/augmented reality platform company.
Learning in the Virtual Round
Creating a Virtual Campus