Extending reality

The education sector is rife with change. While rote-learning methods (unfortunately) remain, it seems like they’re on the way out, making way for more inclusive, suitable and engaging teaching and learning methods – such as the use of extended reality technologies

Extended reality (XR) is the collective name for technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). In the classroom setting, these creative, cutting-edge tools support a level of immersion in situations or environments that would be impossible to replicate in the real world, allowing students to visualise new concepts and acquire new skills in a way that’s both fun and engaging. The growing use of technology in the classroom, driven by COVID-19 and home learning, has made some schools more open to the continued use of such systems and tools in the future.

Given that 23 million jobs will use AR and VR by 2030, according to a study by PwC, it seems essential that these tools feed into the classroom, today and tomorrow. Lorelle VanFossen, co-founder and director, Educators in VR, says that “VR and its related XR technologies are our future, and, as educators, we must prepare our students for it. Whether or not we include it in our daily classes, the workforce demands it.”

“Whether or not we include it in our daily classes, the workforce demands it” – Lorelle VanFossen, Educators in VR

Evidence is positive, but limited

The rising presence of XR in the classroom is good for student outcomes in many ways; we know that every child learns differently, and XR comes into its own for visual and spatial learnings, as well as those who thrive on collaboration and social interaction. Yet experiential-designed studies are often based on subjective measures – more rigorous studies are in their infancy and limited longitudinal academic research has been done in the space.

The jury is out, but meta studies report that the incorporation of sound, animation, pictures and multimedia can enhance the ability to recall facts and improve understanding of complex systems.

A 2018 study by Stanford researchers looked at VR field trips on the topic of climate change and found that participants who explored more of the virtual space formed deeper cognitive associations with the science content and could learn, recall and retain the causes and effects of ocean acidification better than those who did not explore the underwater world as much. Case studies provided by Accenture generally show VR supports better and faster learning, with some learning situations providing a 75% retention rate versus only 5% using traditional, lecture-style methods. In addition, a 30–40% increase in learning times, and 30–40% fewer mistakes compared to those conventionally trained, can be achieved. A recent study, supported by the Korea World Bank Partnerships Facility, provides a systematic review of skills development and says that it’s more effective than traditional training, in terms of development of technical, practical and socio-emotional skills.

Yet Adrian Cowell, innovation lead at Imperial College, is more cynical. “The ‘wow’ factor engages people, but the impact is still up for debate. We’re seeing good use cases, but more studies need to be done. When it comes to the average classroom, I’ve not seen anything that makes it much better than getting a book, to be honest. Plus, the average teacher doesn’t know how to use this technology, and there’s a level of education before we can even implement it.”

“We’re seeing good use cases, but more studies need to be done. When it comes to the average classroom, I’ve not seen anything that makes it much better than getting a book, to be honest” – Adrian Cowell, Imperial College

Professor Bob Stone, XR & telepresence applications, emeritus professor at the University of Birmingham, says that the “community, both education and HR, must accept that technology as a whole, and XR itself, will not deliver for every branch of the educational sector – blended learning is essential”. Virtual field trips are one thing, but this could be preparatory. Collaboration in the metaverse is exciting, but so is running around the playground.

XR options out there

History, heritage and science have been the main areas where we are seeing development of XR options.

The Google Expeditions app offers hundreds of adventures so that students can embark on immersive simulated experiences to museums such as the Louvre, or exploration of Mount Everest, and Froggipedia is an AR app that can be used to study the internal organs of a frog, without the need for actual dissections. Professor Courtney Cogburn at Columbia University created the 1,000 Cut Journey, an immersive VR research project where participants embody an avatar to experience various forms of racism. At Imperial College, experts have been working closely with the medical faculty on delivering ward rounds through a hollow lens, which has been incredibly powerful but requires a huge level of investment and research. They’ve also enabled students to experience a complex pregnancy and birth in a way that goes far beyond just watching a video. At a more accessible level, House of Languages and Mondly allow for immersive learning to enhance language acquisition.

Image source: ksandrphoto/Freepik

Take up limitations

The democratic classroom requires better use of technology; from personalisation through to learning and languages, but also allowing people with mobility or economic barriers to access more resources. Yet, at the same time we need to also democratise the technology. Access is still limited, and costs are prohibitive for many.

Often a large financial outlay is required, and whilst higher education (HE) generally has the time and resources to invest in exploring new and innovative teaching methods, at a primary level, where teachers are responsible for not only education but development of their pupils, capacity is limited to take on a new technology. Everything from headsets to 360° explorable and free-roam offerings are available, with prices ranging from £20 to many thousands. Initial costs of large-scale deployment may be high, and there comes additional investment for maintenance, upgrade and technology refresh in a sector where updates and new developments are frequent, and innovations become quickly obsolete. With the UK government’s ambition to enhance the creative capabilities of the nation, there may be further investment, but that remains to be seen. And since 64% of those polled for the 2021 UK Immersive Tech: VC Investment Report believe, investment will rise across the board for XR, there’s reason to be hopeful.

Teachers need to be well-equipped in terms of the knowledge and expertise required to maximise the use of such tools within an education context, and resources and time are already stretched. Many find that their students are already a few steps ahead. Dr Robert O’Toole, national teaching fellow, University of Warwick, says that there’s huge potential across subjects, “but teachers need better access to kit and appropriate experiences that can fit well with the content and concepts being taught. It’s no use just having apps that look good, they need to be academically correct. We need to carefully design the whole experience to care for the students.”

“It’s no use just having apps that look good, they need to be academically correct. We need to carefully design the whole experience to care for the students” – Dr Robert O’Toole, University of Warwick

But Brian Moynihan, who leads immersive education solutions at Lenovo, argues that we “need to think about long-term return on investment. Using XR can actually save schools money in various ways – whether by helping offset some of the cost of setting up a physical lab space or travelling to remote locations. In addition, if something’s difficult or impossible to do in the real world, then that’s a really good situation for XR to step in.”

A person-centred approach

XR behonds unparalleled data collection abilities. This raises privacy concerns around potential use of marketing for young people, but also allows for personalised learning, led with student and institutional outcomes in mind, catering for diverse populations. As such, identifying a robust framework for implementation with cost profiling and development needs is essential.

To really thrive, the education sector must adapt and scale for modern teaching environments and harness the step changes that XR has for delivering student-focused experiential learning. Those that do well are collaborating across institutions and industries to create a sustainable ecosystem for durable learning, having a significant impact on adoption and participation, and opening up the potential for XR for all.

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