Virtual Reality and E-learning – Endless Possibilities

Since Windows 95, the term virtual has been used to describe aspects of computer system interfaces, to make them easier for users to understand. Creating icons to look like actual folders or files and displaying windows on a virtual desktop, allowed users to relate computer programs and their various components to items in the real world.

More recently we have seen the term virtual reality (VR) in the media, particularly with the recent purchase of Oculus Rift (a prominent company selling VR headsets) to the social media behemoth, Facebook. In this article we will take a look at virtual reality and the possible applications of this intriguing approach to education.

First person gaming


Screen from Doom (video game)
Source: Doom mapformat screen
Author: Fredrik – License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The introduction of personal computers (PCs) brought more computing power to the home market in the late 1980s, which allowed developers in the early 1990s to create games that gave a first person perception of three dimensions. A notable example is ID Software’s game Doom, released in 1993.

Although these were dubbed 3D games and presented the user with a representation of a virtual environment, they were still displayed from a two dimensional device, typically a computer monitor or television. This level of immersion was enough to revolutionise the gaming industry, turning it into an estimated $30 billion industry in 1998, which was largely driven by 3D games.

Stereoscopic imagery


View-Master
Source: A GAF View-Master vewer model G red
Author: IlPasseggero – License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Another 3D technology, stereoscopic imagery, is an important aspect of virtual reality that is much older than computer games. You might be familiar with the perception of 3D provided by the famous View-Master based on an invention by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. By using slightly different images for each eye, this process creates the effect of 3D.

Virtual reality


Oculus Rift
Source: Orlovsky and Oculus Rift
Author: Sergey Galyonkin – License: CC BY-SA 2.0

While virtual reality is a broad term, it is mostly associated with hardware and software technology of 3D gaming in conjunction with a stereoscopic headset. The combination of both technologies greatly enhances the level of immersion experienced, as I can certainly attest after enjoying a virtual roller coaster ride at a recent Australian Virtual Reality Association meeting. While I remained aware, on some level, that it was a computer simulation, the visual and audio experience was enough to give me some of the bodily feelings of motion and adrenaline that I have experienced on real-life roller coasters.

Education and virtual reality

There are currently many discussions in the media about how technology is transforming education. The possibilities for virtual reality in an educational setting are thought-provoking and seemingly endless. The following statement from the book In Search of the Virtual Class (1995) is an excellent summation of the possibilities that virtual technology offers:

[Virtual technology] offers us the possibility of a class meeting in the Amazon Forest or on the top of Mount Everest; it could allow us to expand our viewpoint to see the solar system operating like a game of marbles in front of us, or shrink it so that we can walk through an atomic structure as though it was a sculpture in a park; we could enter a fictional virtual reality in the persona of a character in play, or a non-fictional virtual reality to accompany a surgeon in an exploration at the micro-level of the human body.

What an exciting time it is in e-learning!

Minecraft, motivation and the technology gap

Recently, I was asked “Can e-learning close the technology gap?” My answer was yes, in the same way a hammer can drive a nail into wood.

The question misses the human factor. Technology is, like the hammer, just a tool. Sure it’s an awesome one, but I argue that learner motivation has much more impact on whether learners succeed in any educational pursuit, regardless of the delivery mechanism.

Like many 10-year-olds, my daughter loves Minecraft and is constantly coming up with ideas for modifications (mods) that change or add different aspects to the game. I explained that her desire to create Minecraft mods was going to require some training in how to code.

Screenshot of a Minecraft gamePhoto by Reece Bennett // CC BY-SA 2.0

As a school holiday project, we started working through the exercises at learn.code.org. This MOOC provides a balanced curriculum, incorporating lesson plans that lead the learner through theory and concepts both on and off a computer. It has been a great experience for us both and she is getting more confident with programming techniques. Coming back to the Technology Gap question, here are the two most important factors in this example:

1. Motivation

My daughter really wants to make Minecraft mods, not to code JavaScript. I am not sure how long you would bang nails with a hammer if you didn’t understand why you were doing it.

2. Collaboration

Sometimes during the course, she gets stuck with an exercise and we need to talk it out rather than me just showing her. MOOCs offer educational opportunities to every potential learner with access to the Internet. They provide a reach unobtainable with brick and mortar, face-to-face and paper-driven education practices. We see high non-completion rates in these digital delivery methods, but I argue that low-completion rates are a symptom, not the root cause. For example, many people sign up to MOOCs, perhaps out of curiosity about the content, with no intention of completing the modules. (Stay tuned for further discussion on this issue in online education.)

Online delivery does not mean isolation for learners. Flipped classroom techniques, for example, are a nice balance of technology and human interaction. It is this human interaction that is an important part of cultivating intrinsic learner motivation. And it’s this internal drive that will empower learners in the information age; technology is merely the hammer.

What’s your view or experience on learner motivation? Continue the conversation on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Android and iOS apps guide

Teachers and trainers within the VET sector will benefit from a new Android and iOS apps guide. The guide has been developed by the New Generation Technologies for Learning business activity, managed by eWorks staff, and outlines some of the considerations involved in app development for vocational education and training.

Developed using an online survey to rate different aspects of development environments, the guide, named Android and iOS App Development Explained, includes:

  • definitions of the various types of mobile apps,
  • a list of websites where the technically-minded can undertake self-training,
  • process descriptions defining how apps can be distributed to both platforms, and
  • an exploration of the reasoning behind creating a native versus hybrid versus web app.

"The business activity generally recommends that web apps are developed in order to maximise the ability to share across different mobile devices", says Business Manager Kristena Gladman.

"There are scenarios, however, where it will be beneficial to develop apps that use device-specific functions, and the guide resulting from this work is intended to help decide when that is the case", says Kristena.

The New Generation Technologies for Learning business activity is funded by the National VET E-learning Strategy, a joint initiative of the Australian and State and Territory governments.

For more information please visit the New Generation Technologies for Learning website and follow eWorks on Twitter.

Collaborative Mapping

I just discovered GroupMap, an online tool for collaborative mind-mapping that works across multiple devices – a simple idea that, if well executed, could be a winner. The app is browser based and works on Chrome, Safari and Safari for iPad.

A mind-mapping diagram

A map created with GroupMap

I have been trying to work out possible applications and the immediate thing that comes to mind is that it could be used in conjunction with a video conferencing tool such as Collaborate, as a more lasting and effective activity than the whiteboard.