The Classroom of Tomorrow

Exploring the power of Extended Reality Technology in Education & an Interview with a Program Manager of Google’s ARCore

by Kathryn Minnick

Image Credit: vectorfusionart/Shutterstock

The dream of becoming Indiana Jones and exploring hidden temples in remote lands is now possible.

Virtual, Augmented, along with Mixed Reality technology, collectively known as Extended Reality, or XR, is making this life-long fantasy come true.

The development of modern-day XR has come a long way since its introduction in the late 1960's when Ivan Sutherland created the first actual VR Head Mounted Display (HMD) in 1968. However, when looking at the modern-day version of this tech, we’ve seen outstanding progress and use cases just in the past decade.

So, with XR becoming a cornerstone in today’s digital culture, we must also consider what opportunities this technology can have, and will have, on the next generation. How will this technology be integrated into the lives of the youth and what trends are we already seeing, specifically in education?

Through smartphone applications or full head sets such as the Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard, students can have a better understanding of what life is like on other parts of the world, walking through famous museums, such as the Louvre using YouVisits, or stepping inside iconic paintings like Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night to explore the methods behind the artist’s work.

However, these experiences don’t stop at present. Students can virtually travel back in time to see how the Romans built their empire or watch Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in The Globe Theatre.

But more importantly, through this exploration, students gain a profound understanding of real present-day problems that are otherwise hard to conceptualize, such as visiting a refugee camp in Syria and see the lives of the residents.

While the opportunities XR brings for classrooms are endless, there are three predominantly discussed topics which are driving forces behind this technological development. These topics are: creating more empathy, furthering help for struggling students, and the idea of learning by doing

Creating More Empathy

Being able to put oneself in another person’s shoes is a major motivation behind the advancements in VR and AR in education. This is the creation of more Empathy. By using XR in the classroom, students will develop their perceptions beyond learning the mundane facts usually presented to them. Instead, they can develop the capacity to feel what others feel and to empathize with those around the world by putting themselves in others’ shoes. These are experiences one cannot simply understand from reading a book.

Chris Milk, Film Director and VR developer has a fantastic TED Talk on the creation of empathy through Virtual Reality and how it connects the world. In this talk, he presented a project in collaboration with the United Nations called “Clouds Over Sidra”. This VR film explores the life of a young girl, Sidra, living in a refugee camp in Jordan.

“It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media” — Milk

Help for Struggling Students

Another major topic addressed is the recognition that not all students learn in the same way. Now, more than ever, educators are exploring different methods of teaching to address the needs of those who don’t fit into the “one size fits all” notion. There are 7 million students living with learning disabilities in the US, public schools alone. Virtual and Augmented Reality can provide various learning methods on multiple levels for these students. As a part of occupational, or societal therapy, these interactions can provide special need students with lessons that go beyond the classroom and act out real-life situations. VR, specifically, can help students act out purchasing items at a grocery store, speaking in front of a group of people, or other realistic scenarios in a safe and trusted environment.

Furthermore many children are visually or physically inclined learners, and oftentimes traditional teaching methods adopt auditory or verbal practices to engage them for 8 hours a day. By creating a learning experience on multiple levels with XR technology, teachers can address students who need more exploratory means for understanding the material. These new methods of learning through XR are now being adopted in many schools around the world with programs from organizations such as The Digital Frontier.

Learning by Doing

Finally, one of the more discussed reasons for educators to adopt this technology is the idea of Learning by Doing. You may have heard about the initial use of this technology in education — medical students having lessons through VR or AR mediums. Whether it’s for virtually performing delicate surgeries, treating real-life illnesses, or exploring the human anatomy, XR has created an advanced method of learning that effectively saves lives every day.

The same principle of Learning by Doing can be applied to other areas of education. Studies from the Medical Virtual Reality group at the University of Southern California show that children and students learn best by doing or by being.

“So, they shouldn’t just read about history — they should ‘be’ historians. They shouldn’t just study archaeology — they should ‘be’ archaeologists.” — James Corbett, Medical Virtual Reality Group.

A different, more social learning by doing subject includes building students’ foreign language comprehension. A VR conversation exchange with a class from the language being studied can amplify the learning process by having this “real-life” experience and one-on-one exchange with those who are native speakers.

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Image Credit: Gorodenkof/Shutterstock

These discussed benefits have already made a small yet present impact on our students. However, when speaking to the professionals, i.e. those actually developing this technology, what can we expect in the future and the realities of adopting XR in the classrooms?

I had a chat with Moon Park, a Program Manager for Google’s interactive Augmented Reality platform, ARCore, to discuss his experience. Like Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, is a similar interactive experience within the real-world environment, whereby the objects around you are augmented by computer-generated perceptual information, through visual or auditory functions.

“…to have a fully immersive experience really adds a new element of engagement within the user experience. Watching a video or playing games on a 2D surface is great, but to be immersed in a virtual world really enhances your ability to get lost in it.”
“Something that got me really excited was Google Expeditions, which incorporates VR/AR into education. The Expeditions team works with schools to provide immersive experiences within the classroom. Something like placing planets in the middle of the room or creating a virtual model that shows the anatomy of the human body, can really make a learning experience special.” -Moon Park

While there are many exciting projects and possibilities for these projects to scale, there are, of course, some challenges associated when expanding this tech to users and to education. This is especially true when education generally takes longer to embrace these new technologies.

Park explains “…the most challenging obstacle has been technical feasibility. In other words, tech isn’t at the point — yet — where we can easily integrate a smooth AR experience onto things without some groundwork required.
The concept of VR/AR gives birth to so many exciting ideas that the market wants to move on, and we’ve proven that we can build them, but developing something robust takes a lot of engineering effort.”

However, the challenges presented have only created more room for growth. According to the AR Insider, by the end of 2020, we can expect around 1.5 Billion Augmented Reality-compatible smartphones and devices, with that number rising to 3.4 billion by 2023.

…by the end of 2020, we can expect around 1.5 Billion Augmented Reality-compatible smartphones and devices, with that number rising to 3.4 billion by 2023.

I then asked Moon, from his own experience, how likely is it to see public schools using these advancements in the future. When answering, he then brought up the additional benefit of educating remotely.

“I think it’s just a matter of time before VR/AR is utilized in all schools.
..the idea of not only enhancing an experience but improving accessibility is very exciting to think about. For example, if a professor could teach a course virtually that was accessible remotely through headsets — you could, in theory, teach a real-time class to thousands of people. Not only does this reduce the cost of education, but it also broadens the range of people you can target.”
“I’m personally bought-in to the vision we have for AR/VR. I think right now we’re in the early stages of a trajectory that will increase exponentially as we optimize our technology.”

And so, the next technological revolution is upon us, and as Moon mentioned, it’s only a matter of time before we see schools around the world adopting this technology. If, and when, this happens we can teach younger generations to have a better understanding of one another by seeing the realities of those on the other side of the world, students who need different methods of learning will get the educational attention they deserve, and more students will have a better understanding of real-life situations when it is time for them to perform. Collectively, this will create an even more empathetic, creative and innovative global society.

“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless,” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Geneva philosopher