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Immersive Tech For Distance Learning pt.1

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change"

This widely known quotation attributed to Charles Darwin seems more apt than ever right now. Notwithstanding the fact that Darwin never actually said this, the sentiment definitely holds up as we watch the entire human race adapt to a whole new paradigm of self-isolation, quarantine, remote work and remote learning. These unprecedented times have really forced the education community to adapt to survive like never before. Mass roll-outs of Teams, Seesaw and Google Classroom have taken place worldwide and teachers have demonstrated incredible determination and dedication to try and keep their schools afloat on uncharted, tumultuous waters.

(NB this baby is actually completing a first draft of a thesis on particle physics😁)

So where does immersive tech fit into this new world? Is it part of the adaptation we need to survive or a skin we shed as we evolve as an industry? In many ways we have seen it be firmly placed on a backburner. Even schools that had dabbled with AR and VR have had to shift their focus towards the efficient and accessible delivery of remote learning on a daily basis. Not only is this understandable, it’s definitely the right approach right now especially when you factor in the army of parents who are now not only working remotely but having to facilitate their children’s distance education.

But as we settle into a longer term of distance learning (here in the UAE confirmation has just come out that schools won’t reopen before the summer now) and educators and students become more accustomed to the logistics and systems for content delivery, the need to innovate, captivate and inspire will increase again – and this is where immersive tech will be incredibly useful. We do need to think carefully though - AR and VR both have some serious limitations now schools have been forced to adopt distance learning, mostly due to acces

sibility and hardware.

Augmented Reality is the easier option of course, since so many kids now have an AR-enabled device but schools do still need to consider equitable access. If you have a standardised BYOD program and you know for sure that all of your students have a specific generation of device (like an ARkit-enabled iPad) then you’re totally able to deploy AR-enriched learning experiences. If not, you may find that the only fair way to embed AR equitably would be to deploy older AR experiences that rely on markers (of course this then relies on families having printers…)

VR hits a bigger roadblock in terms of equitable access because quite simply VR headsets have not hit mass adoption yet. I’d love to say that we’d hit that RP1 sweet-spot where everyone has access to a connected Oasis of experiences but it simply is not the case. A limited number of students will currently have access to a VR headset at home but even then many of these will be PSVR or cheap mobile VR headsets (possibly without access to phones). Schools who have invested in banks of headsets – perhaps to kit out a small VR lab or in the form of some Class VR sets, are not able to harness these devices remotely.

It really is a shame that students don’t yet have broader access to higher level VR hardware because connecting in a truly immersive, interactive, social VR world is the epitome of what we need right now. But whilst some businesses and conferences have already shown that this is a viable option, hardware limitations and accessibility put this apex just out of reach for most schools.

It’s what I sometimes refer to as a “Marty McFly moment” - remember that part at the end of Back to the Future where Marty rocks out a blistering guitar solo in front of a bewildered crowd of 50’s teens? As he screeches to a halt and realises that he it is too much for them, he tells them, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…but your kids are going to love it.”

I genuinely think that if what we are currently facing happened 5-10 years from now, we’d be talking less about Teams and Zoom and more about AltSpace or Engage as the core platforms for remote classes. The truth is that multi-user virtual worlds really do represent the ultimate way for us to come together despite imposed barriers that have been forced upon us so it is a shame that this tech remains just beyond the reach of most students right now.

So does this mean VR is unusable during this time of remote learning? Well the answer is both yes and no. Whilst we can’t rely on students having access to VR headsets, we can still harness some immersive content remotely – we just need to make sure that it is device agnostic and will support access from tablets or PCs as well. As such, 360° media becomes a pretty clear lifeline for educational VR though there are a few other options to look at too. In fact some of the social, multi-user platforms, such as Engage, AltSpace and Rumii offer 2D access via tablets or laptops. Obviously this level of access is somewhat limited and the loss of presence within the virtual space definitely limits their impact - but they can still be harnessed pretty effectively – especially if the educator leading the class DOES have a proper 6DOF headset to access the platform with.

Ultimately I do understand that right now educators are hastily doing their best to adapt to using core platforms like Office 365 to deliver their entire curriculum and in many cases, this alone is a monumental shift for them. I would not suggest that any educator who is still finding their digital feet starts looking into something like immersive technology tools. However as the term moves on and this way of teaching and learning does start to feel more like the new normal, I think more and more educators will begin to look for new ways to augment the content they are sharing with students. Innovative thinkers in our industry will seek new ways to bring remote learning to life and in this respect, even lower-end immersive tools, which are accessible to all students, can help redefine tasks in unique ways.

As McFly said – your kids are going to love it!

In part 2 of this piece, I share my top 10 immersive tech tools for use during distance learning. Click here to read it.

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