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From Immersion to Deep Presence

Guest post by Caitlin Krause

Modern approaches to learning have recently been dominated by the idea of presence — a concept that goes much deeper than attendance in a classroom. In working with mindfulness and technology, I view presence as engagement, a fullness of body and mind. We know, just looking at our students, when they are “on”, involved and invested in the learning, serving as active participants — or, when they are somehow distanced, excluded, absent or otherwise disconnected from the actual learning experience. True, powerful learning can be the most exciting and liberating world. Now, with ability to use technology such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality (VR|AR|MR), the idea of presence and immersion takes on new depths of meaning — with great invitations, as long as we approach its use with equally great intentions.

Just as mathematician and philosopher Lewis Carroll was inspired to write Alice in Wonderland and Beyond the Looking Glass in the 19th Century, our notions of multiple realities and fantastical landscapes have often taken us into other imagined story worlds and magical realms. This virtual exploration, which was always possible through learning, widens our scope of possibilities. One could even say that mathematics is such a virtual world — we dream up the constraints and properties of worlds using the language of math, and then see what is possible given those conditions. The multiplicity of perceived learning worlds, rich with opportunities to connect learners and deepen understanding, is part of why I invested my time and energy into creative education design. I see presence as a timeless priority.

Now, the introduction of VR, AR and MR learning opportunities are broadening the landscape, increasing our chances to enrich student learning by democratizing experiences, making the learning journey even more authentic. The result can be deeper presence. This might sound ironic, given the nature of the materials and equipment. Yes, we’ve all seen the somewhat-goofy looking glasses, in various shapes and forms, and the user donning a VR|AR|MR headset or glasses, often also wearing a broad, toothy ear-to-ear grin, dubbed “wonderface” (see example of several forms of my own wonderface here!).

The trouble with VR|AR|MR public perception is: we only picture the outside (viewing someone external with the device on their head) — we need to get beyond the external and go “through the looking glass” to see what can be discovered there! Yes, the adoption of what is external, artificial, and, often absolutely fantastical might not seem, at first, to increase our sense of presence — yet, it’s my view that, once we’re “inside” of them, these technologies serve to amplify learning by deepening connection, and by liberating students from different constraints and myopic conditions that might otherwise block their learning. It’s about balance: how we use them, and why we choose to do so.

In a 2016–2017 meta-study, Seattle-based learning organization Foundry10 looked at how VR was effectively used in various learning environments, across all disciplines, collecting data from 1,351 students, across six grade levels (grades 6–12) in the U.S. and Canada. While these results are just the beginning, and reserach is ongoing, they are revelatory. “Students are thinking of VR creatively, they aren’t thinking in constructs of what is and isn’t possible. In listening to them, educators and developers alike are able to benefit from the boundless imagination of youth,” the study says.

The imagination is boundless indeed! In developing the application MindfulVR, we’ve been working with creative applications of mindfulness, looking at the ways that the body-mind is connected, and seeing how a VR experience could actually benefit presence and focus. Through lowering stress, increasing awareness, fueling our sense of excitement and curiosity, and also enhancing our body-mind connection, an experience in VR with mindfulness could have benefits by getting rid of everything that inhibits a learning process in the brain. Certainly, my own experiences with mindfulness and focus make me an avid enthusiast, and even a developer.

In addition to allowing a user to have a deeper sense of self and increased level of awareness, immersive VR|AR|MR allows for different approaches to learning materials and communities. Dr. Michelle Zimmerman, Director of Innovative Teaching and Learning Sciences at Renton Prep ( has been working with VR|AR|MR for the past decade, and sees the broad possibilities for various applications and use cases. “Immersive VR|AR|MR are moving content and collaboration into a visual spatial multi-dimensional plane that can be remixed, revised, saved and shared. It can be with holographic images projected into the environment. I can be with filters holding up a mobile device, or completely removing familiar surroundings through immersive virtual reality. There are different use cases for each, and each presents its own challenges in the classroom.”

In ways, form fits function, and Dr. Zimmerman has found different ways to maximize immersive technology’s possibilities while maintaining focus on each student’s learning experience, and their interactions with each other in a community. “Mixed Reality with HoloLens has given me the opportunity to introduce students to the circulatory system and electronegativity with Lifeliqe, as older students mentor younger students in science learning. And, my students learning about William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are taking a step back into ancient Rome with HoloTour. It allows for a more dynamic investigation of time, place and setting, and a connected multidisciplinary, multimodal learning experience where we connected civics, policy creation, the foundations of democracy and connected the learning to current political climates. Ultimately, seeing ancient Rome come alive helps add dimension, texture and humanity to a topic that can seem closer and more relevant today.”

This give a chance for us, as education designers, to rethink classroom communities, and what they mean for future education settings. Will we redesign the architecture of learning spaces based on these immersive opportunities? It’s a question for consideration. There are many immersive applications that are taking learners to new places, literally and figuratively. Ben Creasey, Content Manager at CoSpaces, says “What we are dealing with when it comes to immersive tech isn’t a change in what we learn, but how we learn. We are much more likely to remember experiences than we are to remember anything else, be it studying literature to drawing graphs. With the use of VR|AR|MR singlehandedly creating a simulated environment where we can interact with objects, we are likely to have higher engagement levels.” CoSpaces has programs where students can code their own virtual environments and create storylines, watching everything come to life around them. “When students can create VR rather than simply consume, this puts them in the driver’s seat. Immersive tech is enhancing education for future generations by connecting technological advancements with more traditional teaching approaches,” Creasey says.

It certainly has the capacity to broaden the landscape of expression, feeling and understanding. As Dr. Zimmerman notes, “Mixed reality provides a sense of scale and an emotive component that many students aren’t able to articulate linguistically. Immersive VR|AR|MR require different methods of assessment rather than traditional pre-/post-test models. It will require utilizing a type of mapping to content, standards, and associations, big data, and visual forms of analysis. David Smith, CTO at Wearality Corporation, and CEO of CEO.Vison (formerly Chief Innovation Officer, Senior Fellow at Lockheed Martin), is in the process of developing a way to visualize big data in Mixed Reality. His working prototypes with big data in active Excel sheets demonstrate that the possibility of turning data on ways of knowing into dimensional representations of knowledge may not be that far off. This could not only revolutionize the way we look at multimodal learning outcomes for students, but also for ways students will be able to utilize and analyze data they collect as they’re working with devices such as Raspberry Pi. The connection (of Raspberry Pi) with Mixed Reality and big data could yield fascinating results that may help them in future careers.”

From career paths to compassionate mindsets, the incorporation of immersive VR|AR|MR technology has big implications, and is already beginning to disrupt, influence, change and transform the learning landscape in many remarkable ways. I view this as an opportunity for each educator and/or learning experience creator to think about her individual approaches to mindfully designing learning experiences, with goals and intentions in mind. For me, embracing the creative freedom, choice, and opportunity for deep presence and connection that immersive VR|AR|MR offers makes it a genuine learning joy. And, why not go Through the Looking Glass, from time to time? There are worlds to discover, within and beyond ourselves.

Caitlin E. Krause works in interdisciplinary arenas linking technology, learning, leadership, writing and immersive storytelling. She is passionate about the intersection of expression, experience, and user engagement. A respected leader, entrepreneur and educator, Caitlin founded the company MindWise®; prior to that, she served as an integrated curriculum designer, classroom teacher and coach for 10+ years in schools worldwide. Her upcoming book Mindful by Design (Corwin Press, 2018) addresses mindfulness, neuroscience, creativity and innovative learning with a compassionate, curiosity-driven mindset, focusing on connection at the core. In her workshops, seminars and talks, she explores the immersive experience of mindfulness, empathy, AR/VR virtual worlds, visualization, storytelling and design. Caitlin is a co-founder of The Center of Wise Leadership in Switzerland. She is currently conducting a series of interviews with global leaders about their approaches to positive change and social impact. Promoting active, sustainable, ethically-driven leadership and global learning models, fueled by creativity and the human spirit, is Caitlin’s driving force.

Connect with Caitlin on Twitter.

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