6 Uses for Virtual & Agumented Reality in Education: Promising Practices & the Need for Small Experiments

Look at the many lists of predictions about important trends in education over the last couple of years, and both augmented and virtual reality show up on most of those lists. In fact, they made it on my “top 15” list for 2017. With growing media attention about Microsoft’s Work in this area, Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, and the many other developments, it is easy to see why we are all thinking about it. I had a chance to chat with a leading expert in this area recently, Steve Aukstakalnis. Steve is the author of the 2017 released book, Practical Augmented Reality, and he was a wealth of insight on the subject. Look for the podcast release on the MoonshotEduShow in the upcoming month or two, but following are some of my initial reflections from that conversation.

There is a danger here when it comes to education and new technology. The field of education does not have an amazing record of significant educational improvements by simply throwing more technology in the classroom and seeing what happens. This is going to be true for augmented and virtual reality as well. We return to a persistent problem of thinking that adding the technology is the goal, and just assuming that it will magically (or technologically) create something amazing. It does not work that way.

To improve things, we have to start with our philosophy, values, and goals. Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we value? What do we want to accomplish? How will we measure how we are doing in these areas? However, we can certainly explore the technologies that arise, experimenting with their potential application. It is just that we need to actually set up experiments as Michael Scrhage illustrates in one of my favorite innovation books, The Innovator’s Hypothesis. In my interview with Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools, he suggested something similar. We need to pilot, test, and experiment. Gather insights and then we can decide where to go from there. This is true when it comes to augmented and virtual reality, especially in these earlier days of the educational applications.

While the technologies themselves have been around for decades, the educational applications are newer and growing all the time. If you are an innovator or early adopter, now is the time to shine. Now is your chance to experiment, but in ways that help you add new and important insights for your own work in education, and in ways that might offer insight for the field at large. I offer a few themes for us to consider.

Abstract to Concrete

Can augmented reality make more abstract concepts taught in school easier to understand and master by making them more concrete? We have research about visualizations as teaching and learning tools. Knowledge and data visualization are ever-growing fields of study. Now we need to extend that research to more virtual and augmented reality settings. How can we create small tests and experiments with augmented and virtual reality lessons to determine their impact on student learning and engagement?

New Experiences

Another potential accordance of virtual reality is that it gives us access to places that might not be possible for learners to visit in person. This might be a journey into the past, a present distant location, or even various potential future destinations. As such, we can benefit from tests to determine the extent to which there are indeed benefits for such experiences compared to traditional classroom activities as well as the “real thing.”

New Perspectives

Another possibility is using augmented and virtual reality to explore very familiar environments, only with alerts and other elements that help us to look at the familiar in new ways, to see and understand that which we overlook on a typical day. Again, we need more research and simple experiments to test the benefits and limitations of such practices. How might this work for building numeracy, scientific literacy, social studies, fitness and wellness, and other areas?

Safe Experiments and Experiences

Still another possibility has to do with creating virtual simulations and experiments that help prepare us for real-world situations with risk factors associated with them. We practice and develop skills in these environments before stepping into the higher risk, real-world context. We already know about research in this area for someone like a fighter pilot, but how might this also be used for teaching social skills, math, literacy, and other areas? Now is the time to begin designing experiments focused upon such possibilities.

Skill Acquisition

Others are using virtual and augmented reality to help people practice and develop new skills. It might be to manage risks, but sometimes this is a chance to practice a skill when other resources are limited, or there are factors that make it difficult to practice in the real world. With augmented reality, the supplemental data serves as a real-time tutor, giving constant and immediate feedback to guide your practice. Yet again, we need to engage in lots of small experiences about the efficacy of such possibilities.

Augmentation and the Extension of Human Capabilities

In some cases, the virtual and augmented reality environments are preparing people to live with and amid a growing world of such contexts. If future work demands that we be able to think, interact, and work with such tools, then one purpose of using these technologies is to develop proficiency with them. In this instance, the technology proficiency itself is part of the curriculum.

The Future

I am sure that there are many other potential applications as well, but now is the time for us to dive into this realm of experimentation for education. The technology is finding its way in work and the world of gaming. Hardware and software is increasingly and readily available. However, it would be wonderful if we could do what we often failed to do in the past, to take a more experimental approach to the many potential educational applications.

Is Educational Technology Making a Difference in Education?

I had the opportunity to lead a recent webinar on whether educational technology making a difference in education? Are we seeing increases in student engagement and student learning? Or, is this billion dollar industry known as educational technology just misleading us, absorbing our time and money? In fact, this is not a new question. It has been debated and written about for decades now. It is a valid question, one that is certainly important before we starting devoting the amount of time and money that can easily go into educational technology efforts and investments.

Yet, there is not a straight-forward or black and white answer. That is because it is a bit like asking whether teachers are making a difference in education. A wise respondent to suck a question will point out that you can’t give a simple answer to that question because it depends upon the teacher. Some teachers enhance learning while others do not. Some teachers make a difference at some times and some contexts more than others. It depends upon the learners, the context, the teacher’s competence and confidence, and probably a dozen other factors as well. We can say that “teachers make a difference” or that “educational technology makes a difference”, but any honest answer will probably need to start with “it depends.”

Yet, this doesn’t mean that it is a useless question. We should be asking about whether or use of educational technology is helping or hindering, and in what ways. Consider the meta-analysis conducted in 2014 on the use of educational technology with at-risk students. This looks at 70+ studies on the use of educational technology with this specific population and the researchers noted that it can indeed make a difference, but that there are three important factors.

First, educational technology that promoted “interactive learning” had a more positive impact of student learning. In other words, simply digitizing worksheets, workbooks, and textbooks is probably not especially effective. A digital “sit and get” will not necessarily make more of a difference than a more traditional one, unless the digitizing resulted in more interactive learning. Interactive learning provides each student with multiple ways to explore a challenging concept. It promotes deeper thinking, choosing, analyzing, grappling, engaging, exploring, and more. This should not come as a surprise since these are things that enhance pretty much any learning environment.

As an example, consider the countless drill and kill math applications that you can find for mobile devices. Why would we expect those to be more effective than less digital drill and kill? Yet, other math applications are true enhancements, creating greater interactivity and giving learners tools with which to think and analyze. Contrast a simple math app that quizzes someone on fractions and another that asks fraction questions but then gives students a collection of visual tools, like pieces of pie charters, that allow students to figure out the answer to the question.

A second finding in the student was that exploring and creating was more effective in educational technology than passive content. Again, we know this to be true in almost all of learning. This means that the more impactful educational technologies are beyond drill and practice. They are immersive games, simulations, and data sets that student manipulate. They are technologies that promote creation over consumption. Students create reports, digital stories, presentations, visual representations, artistic expressions and more. Notice that much of this can even be promoted with productivity software and not always dedicated educational apps.

Finally, the study pointed to the importance of having the “right blend of teachers and technology.” It is not necessarily just throwing these at-risk students in front of a computer with educational software. The teachers serve as learning architects, game and learning experience designers, curators, sources of support, coaches, mentors, and facilitators of peer mentoring and meaningful peer interaction.

In fact, these three distinctives like resonate with many educators. While not all research turns out this way, these three attributes make intuitive sense as well. In fact, we could say that educational technology seems to be most impactful when it amplifies what we already know to be true about quality learning experiences. As an amplifier, educational technology used to amplify our worst or least effective strategies will propagate expected results. Educational technology used to extend or amplify best practices spread positive results.

Yet, this is not the entire picture. Technology also has the capacity to think about possibilities for teaching and learning that were previously not possible. We can extend the walls of the classroom around the world. We can increase access and opportunity to learning experiences and resources. We can personalize and differentiate in ways that serve those previously treated as defective because they don’t seem to learn within the standard system, only to find that these students have immense potential. These are just a few of the possibilities that have become more visible to us as we explore and experiment with educational technology.

Does educational technology make a difference in education. It certainly can and does. Yet, it is not like some pill that you take and it does its work apart from other factors. This is something that quite often calls for design thinking, planning, strategy, and support. It is often best used when combined with an understanding of current research about quality learning, but an openness to imagining new possibilities and surfacing future best practices.

6 Starting Points for Place-based Learning

“As you stroll down the halls of your neighborhood school at nine o’clock on a Wednesday morning, you notice that something is different. Many of the classrooms are empty; the students are not in their places with bright, shiny faces. Where are they? In the town woodlot, a forester teaches tenth graders to determine which trees should be marked for an upcoming thinning project. Downtown, a group of middle school students are collecting water samples in an urban stream to determine if there’s enough dissolved oxygen to support reintroduced trout. Out through the windows, you can see children sitting on benches writing poems. Down the way, a group of students works with a landscape architect and the math teacher to create a map that will be used to plan the schoolyard garden. Here’s a classroom with students. In it, eighth graders are working with second graders to teach them about the history of the local Cambodian community. In the cafeteria, the city solid-waste manager is consulting with a group of fifth graders and the school lunch staff to help them design the recycling and composting program. Students’ bright shiny faces are in diverse places in their schoolyards and communities. ” – David Sobel in Place-Based Education: Connecting Classroom and Community

This opening paragraph comes from David Sobel’s 7-page overview of place-based learning, an educational philosophy that he helped popularize. Place-based education is an approach to teaching and learning that quite literally turns the community into the classroom. Some focus on learning that engages students in solving real problems in the community, but others just focus on the idea of place.

Oftentimes, educators begin their task of teaching a group of students by accepting the restraints of a given physical room. On occasion, the teacher might plan a field trip or even a series of outings. Yet, the classroom is still seen as the base and primary learning center. Teachers and students often design classrooms in wonderfully diverse and creative ways. Yet, the classroom is still the hub. Place-based learning is an approach that challenges that assumption. It begins with letting go of this dominant and age-old premise that most teaching and learning happens or should happen in a classroom.

Instead, a place-based learning philosophy begins with a couple of simple questions. What places in this community or the nearby community would create rich opportunities for student learning about a given topic or subject? What new possibilities for teaching and learning a given subject or topic emerge if we consider the entire community to be our physical classroom?

The moment that we allow ourselves to ask such questions, wonderful things start to happen. We find ourselves able to imagine new and promising opportunities for teaching and learning. We begin to think about the partnerships that might be needed or possible in other parts of the community. We rarely find ourselves focused upon a more narrow set of approaches to teaching and learning. In addition, we gravitate toward learning through service, projects, experiences, and any number of hands-on learning activities.

It is often amazing to see the power of reconsidering what we mean by space in learning contexts or to observe the change in attitude and mindset of teachers and students when we change locations. You can find a professor who persistently turns to lecture as the dominant form of teaching in a classroom suddenly become more of a tour guide who invites students to explore. We find teachers begin to think about learning through experiments and projects who previously leaned on textbooks and worksheets. As one article referenced by Sobel describes it, place-based learning allows us to imagine learning contexts where the river becomes the textbook. The place is not just a box with walls, windows, doors, and desks. The place is an intentional and thematic part of the learning experience.

Place-based learning is a philosophy that creates greater alignment between place and curriculum. It is one thing to study nature in a textbook. It is a completely different one to let the forest become at least a large part of the learning experience. We can sit in a social studies class and talk about social challenges, or we can actually engage in activities in the community we learners seek to understand the challenges firsthand, brainstorm solutions, create interventions, and test them out. We can complete math problems in a classroom or we can solve math problems in the community or experience math at work through architecture, the natural world, and much more. This is the spirit of place-based learning.

While there are schools that have made place-based learning a central part of pretty much everything that they do, even a single teacher in a traditional school can begin to tap into this power and possibility. It just takes a little creativity, preparation, and persistence.

Here are six helpful starting points.

  1. Consider the possibilities – This begins with simply refusing to accept the physical classroom as an unchangeable constant. Start to look around for possibilities in the community that might align with the curriculum.
  2. Think Beyond the Field Trip – Don’t just think about one-day trips. Those can be rich and valuable but stretch yourself to actually think of the community and specific places or organizations as your classroom, not just a brief reprieve from the traditional school room.
  3. Start to Build a Network in the Community – Begin by reaching out to various groups and people in the community who own or work in places that align with the curriculum. Reach out to these people. Share a bit of what you are trying to do. Invite them to serve as partners. Brainstorm with them.
  4. Learn from Others Who Have Done It – The web is full of teachers and schools that promote or embrace place-based learning. Reach out to the people and organizations with your questions. Learn from their challenges and successes. Get their input on your ideas and refine from there. Your community and resources will likely be different from their community and resources, but there are often transferable lessons.
  5. Get Internal Support – You obviously can’t just throw the students in a bus and take off. There are usually policies and the like to work through. This might mean building a case with certain leaders. Be ready to address concerns about safety and cost. Both can be addressed, especially if you have some good partners.
  6. Give it a Try – Once you have the place, connections, feedback and internal support; give it a try. Invite students and other colleagues into the experiment, and treat it as that…and experiment. Learn from what works and what does not, then refine the next attempt based on what you learn.

Place-based learning is not new, but it is gaining traction. The more we begin to accept the idea that the classroom need not be four walls with desks, the more we begin to imagine a new and incredible breadth of teaching and learning opportunites. Place-based learning can help us do that.

The First School on Mars

It might seem like science fiction to you, but it is time for more of us to start thinking about the first schools on Mars and beyond. Of course, I’m not the first to suggest this. Others have been talking about and imagining life on Mars for decades. Yet, I’d like to argue that this is a valuable thought experiment apart from whether there is a chance of it actually happening. Thinking about what it would take to create a vision for learning on an entirely new planet may just be an extreme enough thought experiment to help us let go of some of our pre-existing ideas about learning and education.

Many have been following the Mars One Project which has the goal of sending the first crew to Mars in 2027. They allegedly sifted through over 200,000 applications from around the world to determine who will be part of that first human settlement. They’ve already narrowed the list to a select group of people who have different backgrounds, different areas of expertise, and come from around the world.

This isn’t just a group that they hope will travel to Mars and back. If it really happens, they are signing on for a one-way ticket. They are committing to spending the rest of their lives on that planet. While everyone going (if they do indeed go) will be bringing along their existing beliefs, values, knowledge, experiences, and cultural norms; they will be exploring what is void of any existing civilization . There is no division by country or government on Mars.

I don’t know enough about this group and their capacity to deliver on this bold project to judge its viability, but as I wrote in the introductory paragraph, I treasure this as an opportunity to think about the future of learning and education from a new perspective. There is also no US Department of Education, State Department of Education, regional accrediting body, or other educational regulatory body on Mars, which is actually what is most appealing to me about this thought experiment. If you didn’t have any regulations or rules from outside agencies, how would you design a school?

Yet, notice what I just did with that last question. I connected the entire experiment to our existing model of education by asking how you would design a “school.” Who is to say that school is the answer? Perhaps such a thought experiment, if we are willing to let it, can provide us with a chance to truly let go of our existing models long enough to just play, imagine and muse about the possibilities. We don’t have to pursue them. We are just expanding our sense of what is possible. This is not a simple task because we have a lifetime of mental constructs that are built upon the education system as we’ve known it. As such, all of us are likely to imagine something that has ties to the current system.

As an illustration of that, consider what happened when people began to think about the possibilities of the Internet for teaching and learning? We created cyber-schools, virtual schools, we used the terms and vocabulary of the traditional school and classroom. Many, but not all, of the more innovative and novel forms of Internet-based learning did not come from people in the school system. It came from people who were not leaning on schooling models and metaphors.

Some are skeptical about whether this first settlement will actually happen. Others directly argue that it is unwise to think of Mars as a backup for the Earth, as Lucianne Walkowicz so eloquently argues in her 2015 TED Talk. In that short video, she likens the desire to inhabit Mars as a backup to Earth to the Captain of the Titanic telling everyone that the real part is later on the lifeboats. Walkowicz explains that Mars is far less inhabitable than some of our largely or entirely uninhabited parts of the Earth. Why not continue our interplanetary explorations while doubling down on trying to improve the quality of life and future on Earth, she suggests.

I’m certainly no expert in this debate about inter-planetary habitation, but there is something about the idea of a Mars settlement that intrigues me as a thought experiment because it truly is a new context. Namely, Mars is a place void of existing government, policies, and practices. In that sense, it is a bit like what I wrote in the article on seasteading. While people and the organization sending those people would surely bring plenty of policies and practices along, I find this musing about a new settlement on Mars to be intriguing from the perspective of education systems. It allows me to take my musing about new models of education and learning to a completely different level, and I find that useful in unpacking some of my own assumptions about education.

When I write about talk about new school models within the United States or pretty much any other place on the planet, I’m talking about a school within a larger and existing civilization and country. Yet, imagining the possibilities for education and learning beyond this planet is an interesting exercise in considering the nature of learning when many or all of those external forces are no longer present.

So, if you were to imagine learning in a completely new planet, what might it look like?