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Virtual reality learning?

February 28, 2016

I am watching the development of virtual reality with great excitement.

I remember back in the 1990s when early virtual reality came to a mall in Johannesburg. Evil mother that I was, I sat my young son down with instructions to “stay” and put on the helmet, vaguely concerned that he might not be there when I took it off. The experience was well worth that anxiety. VR enables us to create ever more interesting worlds.

It’s been more than twenty years, but it seems that the wait might be over. So now, as this tech emerges, I am starting to think about how I might incorporate it into my daily life.

Recently, getting to and from work has been getting more difficult. A trip that used to take 10 minutes (on a six-lane freeway) has deteriorated to around 30 minutes as tens of thousands of students descend on campus with the freeway under repair. Taking back roads is no better because traffic lights are out of order after every thunderstorm, and we have daily thunderstorms in Johannesburg at this time of year.

So, I am thinking about what it would be like to conduct lectures, tutorials and student consultations using VR. These activities do not require much moving around, making them ideal candidates for the current state of VR tech. But the presence and interaction with others that are important for effective learning can be provided in a way that current online learning systems don’t come near. Here’s what I imagine…

Attending a lecture means making yourself comfortable at a desk, putting your helmet on and turning up at the appropriate virtual lecture room. (I imagine that students will line up to be photographed for their avatars during registration, much like they currently line up to be photographed for their student cards.) The VR will put you into a traditional lecture theatre, with a view of the lecturer, your fellow students, material being shown to the class as well as your own notes in front of you. No climbing over people to get to your seat, you can be assigned a seat as you log in. There would never be too few seats in the venue, so no more sitting on the floor in the aisles when you arrive late. During the lecture you can raise your hand to ask a question, whisper to the person next to you, turn around to hear a question being asked by someone behind you, and even leave the room when you want to, without causing a disturbance. No problems seeing the front, or hearing what is being said, no matter where you are seated.

For the lecturer, it means being able to teach from any reasonably clear space. I like to walk about when I lecture, but a clear strip of room about 4 meters by 2 would be adequate for that. I could write on a virtual board and then switch to prepared slides (without having to pull a mechanical screen up and down, or having to clean the board when I run out of space). I could see the students, with their names, attendance records and even recent grades above each face, so I could address questions and comments to individuals. I could listen to and answer questions in real time. An added bonus is that I would not have to listen to them whispering between each other, and I would not know which of them were watching videos on their phones “under the desk”, so much better for my blood pressure. There would be no traipsing out of class because someone has set off the fire alarm, no sweltering because the aircon is on the blink, and no trying to talk over the sounds of drilling from the building next door. Much, much better.

When I want the class to divide into groups and discuss something, I could transform the traditional raked lecture venue into a flat one with small tables and instantly assign students to groups. (At present we don’t have large flat venues, so this kind of group work can’t be done.) I might have to say: “Now I am going to assign you to groups. Close your eyes for a few seconds if you find the transition disorienting.” Walking between the tables to talk to each group might be difficult, but I can imagine a function that could “fly” me to each table to join in a discussion or answer a question. Students working on group projects could meet between classes without the usual complaints about how hard it is to get together.

Finally, for one on one consultation with students, I would like a virtual office where we can sit down over a table and look at their work, virtual paper to write on and a virtual whiteboard for discussions. Kind of a VR Skype, perhaps? Come to think of it, I’d like a virtual meeting space that is configurable. Sometimes I meet my PhD students at a coffee-shop (usually to avoid the traffic!) and it would be nice to switch the surroundings and ambient sounds accordingly. I could even enjoy my own favourite beverage, made just the way I like it.

So VR promises me a space to do all my usual teaching tasks without leaving home, without the time wasted and without polluting the planet as I idle in traffic for half an hour each way. It also offers me better infrastructure which is more flexible and suited to teaching tasks than the current physical lecture venues I have to use. Distractions are removed and the environment is enhanced with information collected automatically about student engagement, activities and progress. Sounds idyllic.

Make no mistake, I am a great fan of the real world. Walking around my neighbourhood and digging in my garden are two favourite real-world pastimes. In the same way that a good Internet connection enables me to work from home some days or to answer my e-mails while waiting for rush hour (or rush hours) to pass, I like the idea that VR will give me more time for real-world fun.

Roll on the future; I can’t wait.

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