Education needs to move beyond tablet devices – a perspective on mixed reality #NDLW17


The education technology landscape has changed considerably over the last few years. Emerging devices and new approaches to learning are at the fore of new teaching pedagogy, with an increased focus on the use of digital technology in the classroom. The blended approach to teaching through virtual learning environments is accentuated by the increase in hardware availability and the exponential growth of holographic computing and software development. The social shaping of technology presents a paradox in many forms. It can be difficult to establish the purpose and use of technology beyond recreation and this is a challenge that we need to accept. A similar model exists within social media. We know that it can change the way that people live, work and play, but it is unclear if society is shaping this technology through demand and use or if the technology is actually transforming our human interaction. Humanity is very good at innovation and our only limit is our imagination. Yet, many people are unable to visualise education beyond the use of tablet devices, laptops and personal computers.

It may seem like substance of a science fiction movie, but holographic and immersive technologies are becoming more mainstream within society. In the past, education has been slow to react to technological innovation. It’s time to change that paradigm. The initial exploration and application of virtual reality may be within the computer gaming industry, but the potential to mix our physical and virtual world in the classroom is a game changer in the making. Major research development and investment from corporations such as Microsoft, Intel, HP and Pearson, all illustrate the seriousness of this new business. There are many challenges facing this technology and in its infancy, we still have some way to go before we fully immerse ourselves into a Star Trek holodeck. There has been some advancement though, and we are now beginning to recognise the real opportunities that these technologies can afford.

Sadly, the terminology is often misused. Many confuse the terms virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. Think on it as a continuum. It’s a straight line that exists from one point to the next. At one end, we have our physical world; the natural environment in which we normally interact. The other end is fully immersive and only exists virtually. Everything that you see and hear is an illusion, presented to you via augmented technology, such as a headset or worn device. It is actually the midpoint of our continuum, the part in the middle between the physical and virtual world, where we really want to play. The ability to mix our realities and to interact with virtual objects in our physical environment is an attractive prospect. Imagine a scenario where a single immersive classroom could be used to teach in a medical lab, an engineering workshop or even on a space station. A safe, secure and interchangeable environment that is pre-programmed to deliver learning within a given context. This has the potential to re-focus many theories of learning, whilst providing a platform to integrate artificial intelligence and constituents that can provide us with interactive commentary, participation and holographic tools for collaboration. Through shared experiences, anyone, anywhere in the world, would be able to learn together. The lines between synchronous and asynchronous learning would become blurred.

There are many examples around the world to illustrate such an application. Industry is already working in partnership with academia to develop this technology. Together, they are seeking to enhance and support mixed reality experiences for learners. In Australia and New Zealand, Hololens has already been deployed in three high schools. Pearson and Microsoft are currently working with the University of Canberra, exploring practical pedagogies and content within their Faculties of History, Mathematics, Chemistry and Health. In the UK, Trimble is working closely with the Construction Information Technology Lab at the University of Cambridge to explore ways of advancing the use of technology, empowering companies to be more innovative and efficient and this collaboration has resulted in new ways to bring mixed reality to the architecture, construction and engineering industry. Other applications exist in developmental projects with the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal School of Military Engineering. It’s only a matter of time before others begin to explore the technology for themselves.

Hololens 1

Hololens offers an immersive experience via holographic computing. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

For now, the costs and lack of viable learning content means that widespread adoption is not realistic. Yet, the trends tell us that once these technologies are out there, society will drive innovation and determine their success. Hololens is not the only player in town, with new versions of Samsung’s Gear and the HTC Vive in the pipeline. School children are already using products aimed at the entry end of the market, with Google Cardboard providing augmentation for smartphones. Within the next eight years, in our classrooms, we will begin to see holographic and mixed reality devices become as common as tablet computers. It’s time to embrace them now, so that we can truly begin to explore the educational purpose and effective use of these emerging technologies.

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