Teachers and professors have been working for decades to integrate the latest technologies from computers to laptops to tablets for reading electronic textbooks. Now immersive technology is being tested for application in the classroom.
Supporters say it could change the face of education, but only if educations can push students beyond the exhilaration of a virtual world and into real-life learning.
“This is really pushing the limits of everything we do technology-wise right now,” said Case Western Reserve University professor Mark Griswold described a fall performance by the school’s dance department.
“Imagined Odyssey” paired five student performers with a technology the university is adapting for the academic world: HoloLens.
A Mixed Reality Experiment
For nearly three years, Griswold has been working with Microsoft to develop uses for the product.
While the dancers took the stage, an audience of 80 people wore the devices—headsets Griswold describes as self-contained computers with transparent visors—that allowed them to see the real world, but the digital too.
“It actually projects holograms into your eyes and when you look out into the world, you see objects that are not real,” Griswold explained.
Mixed reality, he called it.
“You have to imagine that there’s people on stage dancing and we have a way to detect where they are, where they’re standing, their movements,” he said. "And then that information gets fed to another computer that then distributes it to a whole audience of HoloLens that then draws the environment around these dancers.”
The device is a type of immersive technology, and the technology’s use in Ohio classrooms is starting to gain popularity.
In The Classroom
On a Tuesday morning about 45 miles south of Case Western Reserve at Barberton High School outside of Akron, teacher David Kaser gave his class of 19 sophomores, juniors and seniors some instructions before he cut them loose to set up their laptops, sensors, and headsets.
His class is experimenting with Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that provides a 360-degree visual and auditory experience.
“If you were to walk in on any given day, we would have ten groups of students working together. You would have one of the students inside the headset, viewing an application or experiencing virtual reality, and you would have the other one outside of the headset, taking notes and asking questions,” Kaser described.
The is the first year for the Barberton class that Kaser both wrote the grants to purchase each $1,700 system for and had to come up with curriculum, or a course outline and lesson plans, for district approval.
“I was on my own,” he said. “I drew most of [the curriculum] from the technology standards because the focus of this class is more about collaboration and evaluating new technologies and finding the best fit between the two.”
Barriers To Integration
Think of Ohio’s technology standards as the broad concepts about digital tools teachers should be helping their students learn—like how to access information through technology to answer questions or communicate ideas.
The standards are not specific to any one type of technology, and do not provide teachers with the specific day-to-day lessons that help students grasp those larger concepts, but that’s what Kaser took on - writing the curriculum for an entire course on virtual reality himself.
Jaime Donally, a former educator who now trains teachers to identify and use technology in their classrooms, said that’s not typical.
“This is a fantastic tool, but what you need to realize is there’s missing niche out there and that’s the resources with the lesson plans, really tying in with the standards,” she said.
In her book Learning Transported, Donally tries to guide teachers through the complex process of choosing the best immersive learning tools for their students. She said teachers are often excited about the virtual experiences they can offer in their classrooms, but most have no idea how to use the technology to teach the required content, whether it be math, science, or geography.
That’s preventing the technology from being adopted on a wider scale, Donally said.
“There is a need for those things to be directly laid out for educators,” she said.
Developing Teaching Methods
Although higher education doesn’t have the same educational oversight as K-12 schools, Griswold said at Case Western Reserve, assuring professors have the resources they need is a crucial part of their mixed reality project.
Although the dance department’s performance was innovative, Griswold and his colleagues have been largely focused on HoloLens’ uses in healthcare and science, and are writing curriculum for a new anatomy course based on the mixed reality experience.
Imagine stripping away a body’s organ systems layer by layer as it stands in front of you, Griswold said, watching the heart beat and the lungs infuse with air. That’s what HoloLens can do.
The technology will replace today’s cadaver labs when the university opens its multi-million-dollar Health Education Campus in the summer of 2019, and Griswold said dissections will become a thing of the past.
“The way that we’ve learned anatomy for hundreds of years is going to end there,” he said.
But beyond the resources for educators, Griswold wants to prove the technology also enhances learning.
“It’s not good enough just to make this work in HoloLens, or to make this work in VR. It’s not enough,” he said. “You actually have to prove that the outcomes are good. You have to prove that you’re able to teach students, at least as well as before.”
That’s why the anatomy course will serve as an experiment in learning as well.
Case will create control groups of students who take traditional courses in cadaver labs while others take anatomy via HoloLens, and at the end of the semester, their test scores will be compared.
Griswold is confident students using the new technology will have similar, if not better outcomes than their peers, which he said will have major implications for the expansion of its use in the future.