Teacher, Virtual Teacher


The way we teach has remained mostly the same since the time of Socrates. The instructor talks, the students listen and then the person in front of the room asks questions. It has been a successful method for many years, starting in preschools and continuing through on-the-job training for skilled professionals.

But who among us has not sat in such a classroom, and felt our minds wandering, drowsiness mounting and yearning to be somewhere else far from the tutorial voice at the front of the room? How many lessons have you had that were forgotten as quickly as your notebook or computer was closed?

Mixed Reality offers the greatest hope of improving how people learn in many centuries. We talked about it earlier in our enterprise chapter where Caterpillar, John Deere and Boeing talked about how headsets are helping workers learn and retain knowledge better.

We are happy to report similar techniques are coming into the classrooms of the world and they promise to modernize the Socratic methods of pop quizzes and to keep students immersed in more memorable ways than have previously occurred in classrooms.

And it is easy to see how that would work:

Instead of memorizing dates like 1066, or 1492, students can be present as William the Conqueror takes down his kid brother at the Hastings, or look over King John’s shoulder as he signs the Magna orsail the ocean blue with Columbus; a music student could play a Paganini opus with the London Philharmonic.

This would be true for the next generation of surgeons who will follow those we told you about in the last chapter. In the very near future a med student will explore heart valve problems, long before making incisions into the chest of someone you love.

Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic are partnering to develop a new 485,0000 square foot health education campus intended to be the world’s most advanced medical teaching facility. A university spokesperson said it prides itself on developing programs that other med schools will emulate.

The technology flagship is HoloLens, which will replace cadavers with mixed reality interaction with living organs and tissues. The project was launched in April 2016 at the Microsoft Build developer conference in San Francisco.

It was generally regarded as a dazzling demo to developers considering HoloLens for diverse projects, most of them having little to do with human anatomy.

It began with Pam Davis, Case Dean of medicine, who showed a hologram of a six-foot tall male standing on the dais. Two students joined her to watch and learn how Davis used a gesture to zoom into the abdomen, where she spotlighted the stomach, liver and intestines.

Then, she asked her students to locate the pancreas, not visible from the frontal view. Responding to her simple gesture, the holographic figure spun around 180 degrees letting the students immediately identify the organ. Another gesture, allowed Davis to enlarge the pancreas by removing it from the figure in the form of a new hologram which rotated slowly in mid-air so that viewers could understand and identify it from all angles.

In other examples, the demo showed most of everything inside the human body, from the brain to bones, so that students would not just locate, identify and examine, but would practice repairing and replacing broken or damaged parts.

This same approach can be used to teach anyone how to do things when there is an advantage of being hands free.

It is how you can learn to cook, or weld, or repair expensive machinery. 3D sensors can warn you when you make a mistake that needs correcting. It is how future sea captains will learn to steer ships before they go to sea.

Mixed Reality headsets are also likely to change the geography of learning as well. Case Western has stated it plans to use HoloLens for a distance instruction to medical students, in conjunction with other medical schools. At the Microsoft Build conference, part of the demonstration being seen on the stage was actually being performed in Cleveland.

And again, MR anatomy instruction today shows how anatomy art history, civil engineering, ceramics, environmental science, gardening, home repair or anything else will probably be taught via MR in the short-term future.

Right now, there are just a few impressive programs. But in public schools and academia, the toe of innovation remains at the base of a mountain that stands as a barrier to widespread adoption. In fact, cost remains an issue in corporate learning programs that cannot meet the expense of mixed reality designed studios.

In both schools and the enterprise, subjects that change often will have budget issues, when incidents such as Brexit changes what needs to be taught in political science, economics or geography.

In the public sector there are also social and philosophical barriers, where conservative administrators and teachers find comfort in doing what has always been done: we are reminded of a story in the late 1990s, when an Indiana school teacher banned her eighth graders from using Google for research reports because she considered libraries the one true source and the search engine was a form of cheating. There is also the omnipresent factor of public school budget constraints in most districts.

Fortunately, in 2016, we found that despite these barriers, thousands of U.S. classrooms were already benefitting from VR and the prospects were far brighter in China.

Virtual Learning Tours

In the west, there are two big players. They are taking similar approaches and we would guess they are destined for the sorts of competitive clashes that accelerate innovation while lowering costs.

Google Expeditions, is a kit for teachers who want to take their pupils on VR journeys. It uses Cardboard viewers and elegant software from Alchemy VR to provide 3D tours of more than 200 destinations on land, in the ocean and in outer space including coral reefs, Antarctica, museums and landmarks such as Buckingham Palace.

The expeditions dovetail existing curricula in the form of virtual field trips. The 360° panoramas and 3D images — are annotated with details, points of interest, and questions for students.

In the Buckingham Palace production, Expedition takes children on a tour similar to what actual visitors see on palace tours, strolling through state rooms, admiring works of art, and soaking in the story telling of virtual docents.

Today, the kits are expensive: including software, a ViewMaster, Cardboard, and other teaching tools retailat Best Buy for a 30-student kit goes for $10,000.

We imagine sales are starting in more affluent school districts.

Nearpod, is the other current player. It is a fast-growing learning company backed by a group of investors that includes Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff. The company is taking a similar approach to Expedition and has virtual reality software being viewed on Cardboard by grade school children in thousands of US schools. It also takes kids on educational tours of global current and past wonders including Easter Island, the Great Pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s tallest buildings.

Nearpod appears to be less expensive than Google Expedition with license packages starting at $1,000, and providing some economically deprived districts with kits for free.

We can’t judge the merits of these two programs, but we have to admit we favor Nearpod. In Lethal Generosity, Israel wrote about urban U.S. school districts where neither students nor teachers could afford school supplies nor hot lunches.

Being generous toward economically deprived school districts seems to us like an investment in solving income inequality. Our hope is that VR learning will be available to all children.

Immersive VR Education is another educational software player to watch. It specializes in educational story telling. One of its first productions, a VR version of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, won a Unity Vision Award for the Best Film of 2016. Unity is the company that builds the world’s most popular and powerful game development platforms.

The award in itself, gives Immersive credibility, or so it seems to us.

Fun with Chemical Compounds

zSpace, another educational startup, builds VR labs for public schools. Their system involves a touch-sensitive monitor, with an inkless cursor pen, that students use to tap and draw on the screen. They wear 3D glasses that let them experience a variety of topics in a much better way than is possible on a flat screen.

Sixth graders in the Utica County, Michigan school district draw animations that move with a natural fluidity. In preparation for tomorrow’s medical school students, kids can take tours of a human heart, the inside of an eyeball, or disassemble and reassemble a bionic arm. When they tap on an object, text boxes explain the necessary details.

It is designed for schools and can be used for new forms of quizzes. In one, living creatures appear such as a preying mantis or a manatee, and the kids need to identify them as insects and marine mammals respectively.

Of course much educational AR and VR will begin on phones and tablets, the digital tools of choice. We would be surprised if Google’s Tango-sensor-equipped mobile phones did not introduce a suite of 3D programs for child and adult education.

And where there are phones, there must be apps. Books & Magic plans to sell children’s illustrated classic books in paper versions and has started with The Little Mermaid told in the time-honored words of Hans Christian Anderson. But the book is filled with new artwork, and when the child hovers the mobile app over the picture, the photo springs up in a 3D rendering. The mermaid almost reaches out and touches the reader.

We found a really cool app that teaches one of the toughest lessons we recall from high school, one of the many we promptly forgot shortly after passing the test: Arloon Chemistry uses AR to teach element compounds in a morememorable and effective way than we endured back in the day.

Virtual Teachers

China has done more than most countries to slow population growth in no small part through social engineering programs. Since 2005, its annual rate has stayed below half of one percent. But with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people in 2016, it is still producing seven million new babies each year. Most will go to public schools.

This creates a problem, while China is aggressively recruiting and training teachers, it has been unable to keep up with the growing pupil population.

The growing gap is of concern to a government, that has made an ever-improving education system. Add to that a culture where many parents are obsessed with quality education and you have a situation that requires alternatives that need to be explored. This includes using AR to aide, substitute or replace teachers.

This last observation creates interesting economic opportunities. NetDragon, a hack-and-slash video game developer, apparently sees a potentially bigger market in educating kids than arming them to slay video monsters and pirates.

In August 2016, NetDragon acquired British online education provider Promethean World for $100 million. Promethean is a global player, serving 2.2 million teachers and 40 million pupils worldwide with AR applications for handheld devices and smart whiteboards.

These whiteboards are a growing classroom asset. They are touch sensitive screens connected to computers. Augmented Reality adds 3D capability, a clear advantage over previous whiteboards. Promethean competes head-to-head with Smart Technologies, a U.S. based player with Promethean receiving more favorable reviews, but Smart, so far, has outsold Promethean in North America.

But now Promethean has an enormous upside opportunity in China, a much, much larger market, with the government backing it. There is also another cultural issue favoring NetDragon: privacy.

NetDragon educational software watches students who use the application on handhelds and on whiteboards. This is needed to optimize effectiveness. When the software sees attention trailing off, it creates a pop quiz on the lesson being taught, as one example.

In the West parents may balk at this as an incursion into the personal privacy of their children, but in China, this is not an issue since the public is used to surveillance literally everywhere they go.

Even more significant is the Chinese teacher/student ratio issue. Chinese parents, may be more accepting of virtual teachers, than higher teacher/student ratios.

There are some advantages to machine teachers. Software will be more objective, yet able to behave with empathy in a deeply personal style with each student. Pupils can decide whether their instructors are male or female, young or old, and so on.

We have to admit, there is something slightly Orwellian about this concept. Still, it may be the best solution to a previously unsolvable problem of parents making babies faster than China can produce teachers.

Finally, there is the issue the issue of gamification. NetDragon will undoubtedly use the power of fun to make education programs more addictive and memorable.

We dwell on these cultural issues because there is a general recognition of China having growing momentum at becoming the world’s most powerful and influential country. To achieve this, they seem to understand that having the best educated population is an asset both domestically and globally.

It seems to us that the best educated societies are those most likely to lead the world.

Secret Sauce

How and what we teach our children determines not just who they will grow up to be, but how our communities will be effected and how our culture with develop and change

Writing about the future of learning on the Singularity Hub blog, Jason Gantz observed, “VR education will allow us to learn faster and more interactively than ever before. And VR collaboration spaces will allow us to work from anywhere to solve the world’s grand challenges.”

We think Gantz gets to the soul of these new technologies, the secret sauce that makes mixed reality technologies so much better than what has proceeded it.

We learn and communicate faster, more enjoyably and with deeper learning than has ever been possible. If we were to boil down the essential point of this book, it’s that everything can be learned and communicated better via Fourth Transformation technologies. AI is the engine of this new era, ad in most cases, it works best in a headset, rather than a handset.

Keep in mind, however, that we are tech champions. We tend to embrace new technologies that work better than the old ones. But our smart glasses are not entirely rose colored.

There are unintended consequences to this new technology that should be taken under consideration, some of them dark and troubling.

Let’s take a look.