The Virtual Revolution: Augmenting the Reality of Learning
By Rob Spierenburg, CEO and Co-Founder of All Things Media
School was a long time ago for me (25 years, but who’s counting) and given everything that’s changed since then, it’s not surprising that I don’t remember much from those days. I don’t remember the nuances of “Great Expectations” or the equation that will calculate the diameter of a circle, but I’ll tell you one thing — I remember where a frog’s liver is! I remember because we dissected frogs in my high school biology class. I’ll tell you what else I remember — how candles were made in Colonial Williamsburg, how big the blue whale is in the Museum of Natural History, and the primary components of a hydro-electric dam from my 8th grade diorama.
I remember these things because I experienced them beyond a description and picture. I remember because I interacted with them either by manipulating them, building them, or simply by being in their presence. I was lucky that I went to a school that had the resources to offer frog dissections and lucky my school was close to the Museum of Natural History. For many students, these experiences are out of reach due to economic and geographic limitations. And that’s where real-time 3D, Augmented and Virtual Reality come in; technologies that have the potential to make experiential learning an everyday component of every student’s education.
Let’s take a step back and quickly go over these technologies. First let’s look at real-time 3D. Real-time 3D is a way of displaying 3D objects that allow the viewer to manipulate them. Put simply, it’s the difference between watching a 3D movie and playing a 3D video game. When you watch a movie like Toy Story, you see what the director wants you to see, when you play a 3D game like Fortnite (I know there are some of you out there) you choose where you go and what you see.
So as an example, look at this 3D animation of a frog.
Now, click and drag your mouse (play with the mouse wheel too) on this real-time rendering of the same frog.
The real-time rendering allows freedom in how you view the frog and could be enhanced to allow you to pull the pieces apart, trigger animations and so on.
When we look at Augmented Reality, we can take a real-time rendered model (like our frog) and place it in the real world. A student can point their phone at a page in a textbook and see the 3D frog appear as if it’s sitting on the book. But this is just the beginning, the student can move around the frog viewing it from different angles, move closer and further away to see details, and yes event dissect it. In this way, what was once just a textbook has been augmented providing rich interactive content that enables experiential learning.
Take a look at this example of the same frog in an AR application.
Now, what about the trip to the Museum of Natural History? How are students able to experience locations from the comfort of their classroom? That’s where Virtual Reality comes in. Using a pair of VR glasses, or their phone placed in a VR viewer such as Google Cardboard, students can virtually visit any environment both real and imagined. The main difference between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality is that VR completely replaces what you see with a different environment, allowing you to look around (and with some devices walk around) the space. Suddenly a student doesn’t need to get on a bus to visit a museum, they can experience it virtually from their desk.
These technologies have the potential to enhance the classroom in ways we are just beginning to explore. True, they can be used to re-create experiences and make them accessible to larger numbers of students, but value can also be seen in their ability to go beyond what is physically possible. Imagine being able to pull the skin off that virtual frog and then see its muscles and organs as it jumps or take a field trip to the surface of Saturn or witness the Boston Tea Party first hand. McGraw-Hill recently launched the Inspire Science 3D app, available now for download from the App Store. This app allows students to interact with science course content using real-time 3D, augmented, and virtual reality. By integrating this technology with existing course materials, McGraw-Hill has established a bridge between traditional learning methods and these exciting new technologies. This application and others like it represent a dramatic shift where experiential learning takes on new meaning and broader reach.
The technology shown in this article is still limited by the devices available today. Soon, new Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality headsets will become available with more features and lower price points. As this technology becomes ubiquitous the classroom experience will be limited only by our imaginations. As educators, you will drive these engagements, your input will decide what experiences are built and your guidance will determine what students will take away from those experiences.
So, take a minute to think about what and how you will teach when there are no more limitations. We’ve already accomplished so much and we’re just getting started.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob Spierenburg, CEO and Co-Founder of All Things Media (ATM), has been at the forefront of digital innovation for nearly two decades. Over the past three years, he and his team have developed Virtual and Augmented Reality experiences for Mercedes-Benz, Pepsi, and many others. Most recently, he and his team created the McGraw-Hill 3D Science activities for the Inspire Science program.