Exploring the Classroom of the Future - Today
Why It’s Time to Make the Classroom an Immersive Experience
When you’re a kid, the very thought of spending another day staring at an out-of-date stained textbook is mind-numbing. Your only escape from long, tedious lectures is by passing notes to your equally bored classmates. It was when a TV rolled into the classroom, or we were able to spend 15 minutes avoiding dysentery on the Oregon Trail — a beloved problem-solving video game — that we were excited about the day’s lessons.
From VHS tapes of Bill Nye the Science Guy to Math Circus PC games, there was something special about the days our teachers brought a little tech to class. Today my childhood classroom could be considered ancient — or so I was recently told by a couple of high school students. While technology in classrooms is quickly evolving, the topic continues to be a hot one. In the past institutions introduced technology to students that they might not have readily available at home. My first experiences with CD-ROMS, LaserDiscs, and — painfully slow — dial-up internet was all thanks to my elementary school. We were always excited to check out the latest Magic School Bus game or see what we could discover on the world wide web. But it seems like the tables have turned and schools are now trying to catch up to their students.
Kids today can navigate a mobile phone before they utter their first word and gaming consoles are becoming increasingly prevalent at home. Schools need to focus on finding a way to use devices to stimulate their student’s imaginations and get those creative juices flowing. While smartphones, tablets, and laptops are important instruments, they can also quickly transform into tools of distraction. A classroom where students are fully engaged with the content and are free from disruptions would be the ideal environment for learning. With the help of immersive technologies — like virtual and augmented reality — a classroom could cultivate the ultimate educational atmosphere.
Incorporating virtual and augmented reality into lesson plans can transform how students understand and absorb content. I remember having a difficult time grasping certain theories in my chemistry class because I wasn’t able to visualize the concepts. Recently I stumbled across a video of an augmented reality (AR) chemistry
app that highlighted the molecules and their bonding structures — mind blown! The Arloon Chemistry mobile app ($3 USD) uses printed markers — visual cues which trigger the display of the virtual information — and generates a model that can be rotated and adjusted. For those who are visual learners, it’s the perfect tool to accompany a lesson. Had this been available when I was in school I wouldn’t have been crying over covalent bonds.
Described as “the hologram you hold in your hand,” the Merge Cube ($14.99 USD) is an AR application that has become popular in classrooms. A collection of mobile apps accompany the foam cube and transform it into digital 3D objects and scenes. From exploring the bottom of the ocean to examining the human anatomy, there is an array of worlds that can fit in the palm of your hand. Merge has helped to make VR and AR accessible to schools and teachers have been filling up their shopping carts with these award-winning cubes. Their simple design and ease of use make them an engaging and educational toy. And they’re not just for kids...I keep one on my desk!
In addition to AR applications, there are a variety of virtual reality (VR) experiences that can enhance the learning environment. Virtual reality field trips have become a popular way to introduce the medium into classrooms. Transporting students to places that they might not have the chance to visit, or are just downright impossible! Discover the Great Wall of China or explore the inside of a blood vessel, there are no limits when it comes to VR. With immersive adventures, there are many ways that they can be incorporated and executed in a classroom environment. From a couple of Google cardboards to a complete VR/AR system, there is an option for every institution. For groups or full class field trips, there is the Google Expeditions Kit. This system allows the teacher to act as the guide and lead a group of students — called explorers — on a virtual trip. Here the explorers can visit museums, the ocean, and even outer space. The collection of VR panoramas feature annotated details, points of interest, and questions that will help drive a class discussion. The kit comes with a teacher device (a tablet to control screens), virtual reality viewers, router, charging station, and a 360-degree camera (starting at $3280.99 US for a kit of 10). While Google Expeditions is a great tool for virtual field trips, the system still relies on headsets that require mobile devices — which can be prone to overheating. If the devices get too hot, they can shut down and interrupt the student’s experience.
If you are worried about overheating there is an alternative system that doesn’t require smartphones to operate. Specifically developed for the classroom, ClassVR features standalone headsets where overheating mobiles are no longer a problem. This VR and AR platform is similar to the Google Expeditions Kit and provides students with controlled experiences. In addition to the hardware to run the system, ClassVR provides educators with lesson plans and the ability to align content with their curriculum.
Whether it’s an integrated system or a couple of head mounted displays, providing these activities allows students to deepen their understanding. While some schools are testing the waters when it comes to VR and AR, many are still yet to be convinced. Researchers from the University of Maryland conducted an in-depth analysis that reviewed whether people learn better through immersive environments — like virtual reality — or if traditional mediums like desktop computers and tablets offered a better setting. Their results suggested that immersive environments offered improved outcomes in education through higher retention rates. Many of the study’s participants noted that the presence they felt while using VR helped to improve their focus. Hopefully,
institutions will take note of these results and the results of similar studies and help drive the adoption of these technologies for education.
While promising study results and the thought of a captivated class is easy to get excited about, introducing a new medium to students has to be done carefully. It is essential when implementing a new system that you are not incorporating ‘technology for technology’s sake.’ Deciding how virtual or augmented reality will supplement lessons and enhance the learning experience is essential. If we can provide children with a deeper understanding of concepts and a higher retention rate, immersive mediums should be included in the curriculum, but we also need to ensure there is quality content that will produce these desired results.
The classrooms of the future will include VR and AR, but today we rely on the advocates for the technology and their ability to introduce it to interested institutions. All we can ask for right now is the willingness from these institutions to play and participate with this technology and hope it becomes a standard tool in the classrooms of tomorrow.
The Merge Cube is a “holographic cube” that can be transformed into 3D objects and scenes.
This is what the actual Merge Cube looks like.
The Arloon Chemistry app uses augmented reality to teach students the basics of chemistry.
The Google Expeditions Kit allows students to visit locations around the world, in immersive experiences, from the comfort of the classroom.