Pivot Fast - education in the new reality

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The Pivot Fast web series turned its attention to education and how best to adopt immersive technologies to take learning to the next level. This recap is from VRWorldTech editorial board member Sophia Moshasha, of Brightline Interactive

Pivot Fast is a live web series that began as a direct response to the current pandemic. The goal of the series is to help the community at large pivot fast to virtual platforms. Each episode of the series covers a new topic area that is critical to understanding the correct ways to implement digital technologies. The last two installments covered virtual events and conferences.

As we shift into a period of a new normal, the education community is navigating how to create efficiencies and achieve effective learning methodologies. This discussion aims to help organisations better understand the landscape of digital and virtual platforms, as well as to help educators develop informed, actionable short and long-term strategies in their transition to digital and virtual spaces. 

The value of teachers has spiked across the world as parents begin to realise how much effort it takes to run a classroom and engage students. As the spring semester comes to a close and fall quickly approaches, there are 1.5 billion students, teachers and families that are looking for alternative methods for learning.

We brought together some of the world’s leading experts in the XR education space to help contribute to this discussion of the strategy towards virtual educational technology.

The panellists were Alvin Graylin, president of HTC; Dan Ayoub, general manager of education at Microsoft; Ed Metz, ED SBIR programme director at the US Department of Education; and Erin Reilly, director of innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Texas’s Moody College of Communication. They are all true proponents of the incorporation of immersive technologies into educational curriculums.

Beyond hardware and financial donations, Microsoft has been making strides to help with the transition to virtual learning platforms. It has seen a large shift in interest in its digital tool offerings, such as language and translation services, to allow educators to take their classrooms online.

Through the popularisation of the web, organisations have gone from figuring out how to have an ‘online’ presence to looking for ways they can implement better tools to engage students, as well as overcoming the challenges of distance learning.

Seeing is believing, and many just need a reason to try immersive technology. In the world’s current circumstances, there is no better time to realise the benefits of XR.

Getting XR into schools

Many are already using the technology and are experiencing great results. Case Western University is the largest remote XR learning experiment Microsoft has implemented to date. Almost 200 medical students across 10 countries were provided the HoloLens to learn anatomy and perform dissections remotely.

Educational game developers have been making their technology available to educators and schools to boost access to content and technologies that can accommodate distance learning. The developers have taken measures to ensure proper implementation of these technologies within classrooms.

As part of the effort to propagate interactive and immersive technology adoption in schools, the US Department of Education (DOE) plays a substantial role in connecting thousands of teachers with new technologies to give them an opportunity to test new models of learning.

The DoE’s annual conference, led by Ed Metz, helps connect educational game developers with teachers and school systems to continue to drive interest and collaboration with emerging technologies.

The ED SBIR programme supports research and development and provides funding for new innovations to be created and evaluated. Through research grant programmes, educators will continue to better understand new models of learning as we transition into this new normal of education. 

Educators are preparing for many challenges with the new school year quickly approaching. Among many other educational institutions, the University of Texas (UT) is stepping up to prepare for the transition to digital learning. Erin Reilly leads virtual technology initiatives for UT.

Her perspective is that of an educator on the front lines, going through the hurdles of implementing an unexpected virtual strategy. UT is one of the more forward-thinking educational institutions, which has been making an effort to provide opportunities for faculty and students to innovate in learning methods.

The Imagine Lab, at Moody College of Communication, was created for students to interact with and test immersive technology. In an effort to become more accessible to students, while utilising XR tools, the lab will be moving to AltspaceVR, a social VR platform made by Microsoft.

There is also an experiential learning task force to help teachers understand educational technology tools and how to effectively utilise a blended learning model—both in the classroom and virtually.

In addition to learning, universities are working through how to continue to bring value and engagement to the institution’s social community, in order to bring back the feeling of campus life. 

XR in the Eastern market

There are more than 200 million students in China transitioning to screen-based education. China is several months ahead of the US in this crisis and is taking great measures to facilitate collaboration with industry and government in order to ensure schools across the country are introduced to the benefits of immersive learning.

HTC is working with various education ministries to make immersive learning a part of the curriculum, including implementing tests and assessments in immersive technology. In an effort to deploy technology earlier than expected, as part of a five-year plan, the Chinese government has committed to investing $5 trillion for various types of technology infrastructure. 

HTC’s XR evangelist and president, Alvin Wang, is a true advocate of enhancing education through personal and professional initiatives. Through his tremendous leadership efforts to grow the XR industry, Wang has led HTC through many studies that continue to help people understand the benefits and value of immersive technology for the educational system.

One of the studies proved students’ concentration improved six times more when learning through immersive means. Often, children who cannot master subject matter are misconstrued as not being smart. However, for the most part, it is because they have problems with focus. This is a basic hurdle that could potentially be solved through XR technology.

Students’ concentration improved six times more when learning through immersive means
Students’ concentration improved six times more when learning through immersive means

Along with this, XR has also been proven to help improve grades, memory, creativity, focus and attention. In VR, there are no distractions. That fact alone significantly improves learning outcomes. 

HTC hosts a programme called ViveX that helps XR startups to acquire funding, business mentorship and other resources to help them go to market. Thirty percent of those funded last year were actually education-focused. Once considered ‘nice to have’ technologies, these are now looked at as critical to continuing to develop the possibilities for enhanced education technologies.

In an effort to help support this effort, HTC has announced its investment in Engage, a leading education and corporate training platform in VR. Using the Engage platform, along with Mozilla Hubs and AltspaceVR, Educators in VR hosted a six-day conference that brought together thousands of educators from around the world to share information to those looking to better understand XR technology. 

Innovating with digital mediums

There has been a long-standing controversy surrounding the appropriate amount of screen time and how it can be used more effectively to enhance learning methods. Over the years, through utilising screen-based learning, screens have actually proven to be able to connect students more than separate them. This is particularly relevant for those who live alone with no other human connection.

Recently, educators have discovered the true benefits of interactive learning technology and how to implement technology in a meaningful way. The UT’s Faculty Innovation Center is designed to help educators use educational technologies to maximise the intended purpose and deliver true results.

In order to test their theories of effective learning technologies, UT brought together multiple universities to conduct a ‘Zoom Jam’. This event was designed to find opportunities to optimise what video conferencing offers. This was to be accomplished by exploring how to engage in various ways, understand alternative methods to collaborative learning, as well as to learn how to utilize tools such as Zoom for more than just video conferencing. The key to understanding what each medium offers, and how to best utilise them, starts with realising what students need to be engaged and productive outside of the classroom.

In the process of transitioning to virtual mediums, many think it is as simple as ‘taking it online’. The reality of making a class virtual involves much more than people think. Effective platforms will have a curriculum specifically designed for virtual mediums, content management systems, learning management systems, ways to communicate virtually, and much more that is pertinent to maximising the effectiveness of the platforms.

Many are finding that some of the available virtual platform options are not meeting current demands for a fully transitioned digital learning model. Although virtual platforms are important to consider in an education strategy, it is also important to understand where we are now and what potential the technology holds.

Immersive technology was originally driven by passion—now it is driven by purpose. In combining both passion and purpose, it gives significant meaning to the future of XR technologies. The increase in financial investment in education technology from $18.6 billion to $350 billion by 2025 exemplifies the significant rise in both need and demand.

Several questions remain: what do we do right now to be prepared for the coming school year to solve for an immediate need? How do we prepare for the future long-term strategy of moving to the virtual setting most effectively? 

In considering the accessibility of technology applications and hardware, we are seeing the mixture of digital technologies through the combination of VR and AR with web-based platforms. The spectrum of immersion ranges from web-based interactivity to full-scale immersion. There is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. The immediate solutions for entering the new school year will most likely be centered around web-based interactions, or web VR, because of the ubiquity of access.

Regardless of which technology platforms are implemented, this new phase in the world will certainly pave the way for more immersive types of technologies to continue to be adopted in the longer term. Eventually, we will get to an ‘immersive first’ model, which will have a huge effect on many aspects of our lives.

About the author

An evangelist in immersive technology, Sophia Moshasha spends her time educating the community on applications of virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR). She is currently director of immersive platforms at Brightline Interactive, an immersive technology company that produces custom interactive technology, to include VR and AR experiences, for brands, agencies and government entities. Sophia is also vice president of the VR/AR Association Washington DC chapter, co-chairs the association’s marketing and defence committees, and co-hosts the association’s podcast, Everything VR & AR.

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Main image: Episode 3 of Pivot Fast. Credit: Brightline Interactive