Imagine for a moment that we are 15 years in the future. Virtual reality environments are commonplace and used mainly for gaming and socialising. Computing power is such that most environments have lifelike qualities and tools exist to sample a real world 3D scene and render to virtual reality (Moore, 1965). What would our education be like? For every aspect of education we could create an optimal scenario where the problem can be represented either in lifelike environments or abstract manipulation of objects. A tour of the pyramids for a history unit. Face-to-face communication with Japanese juniors for a LOTE unit. Throwing balls between a group, then replaying the scene for analysis of trajectories in a physics unit.
Through a learning environment such as this it would be possible to offer a vast array of ‘units’ to each student that they have completed the prerequisites for. Students are free to work on units at any time individually, or sign up for group oriented sessions (DfES, 2004).
Teachers are freed up from content delivery to focus more on facilitation of learning. When students are having difficulty with certain aspect of the unit, tracking AI’s alert facilitators to help guide the student further. As virtual environments lessen the need for facilitators to be in the same location, they can focus their efforts on a tighter set of units that can be filled from across the country. Historical conversations by past students (both typed and oral) are available to current students to also facilitate understanding of the unit as well as providing tracking AI’s the content to recognise points of difficulty.
A key component to each unit will be easy adaptation. Once students have graduated from a unit they are encouraged to provide feedback to facilitators to smooth the delivery of the unit, or even implement Wiki-like changes themselves. Graduating students with an affinity for a unit can also stay on as mentors for new students.
Units are designed as assessable components in a network of learning. Each unit has prerequisite skills that are required to succeed in the unit as well as providing a set of demonstrated skills on completion. Units would typically be from 30 minutes to 3 hours so that they can be completed in one sitting. Units would also likely be strung together to create larger modules of work. Multiple units can provide the same skills through different scenarios or teaching techniques to allow the student freedom of choice in what or how to study next (Eg: problem based collaborative unit, individual discovery-led unit, classroom presentation unit).
The choices available can also be moulded by the needs of society. Governments can set targets of minimum skill sets to be attained (<20% of learning capacity). The highest priority will be on communication as the need for disseminating knowledge gained increases importance in a discovery led society. Local communities can also have an influence by setting standards specific to their needs (<10%), as do parents (<20%).
With personalised learning a true reality, the focus can shift to the end result. Do we want specialists or a balanced society? In fact we need both. Students with aptitude for a specific learning area can be encouraged to focus (>50%) their learning there. This could provide students at the top of their field in the peak of their learning years, who are then able to contribute substantially to knowledge discovery. Equally important are balanced learners who are cross-disciplinary. They will provide the bridges of communication to extrapolate new discoveries to other areas (Reich, 1991).
We are surprisingly close to having the ability to implement a virtual learning environment. The key technologies to be developed are:
- Ubiquitous VR: Having a standard is more important than having high quality VR (Polys, Brutzman, Steed & Behr, 2008). Even using Nintendo Wii’s, Gary’s Mod or LittleBigPlanet (programs / hardware existing today) as a base platform could work if determined.
- Content: Once a base platform has been established, content is crucial. The wealth of content needed to replicate the existing curriculum would be in the order of 120 man years assuming tools are provided that make content creation easy ( 10 to 1 creation to consumption timeframe).
- Toolset: Content creation tools are crucial to success. Easy content creation allows a diverse range of units to cover the same content from different perspectives.
- Adaptability: The toolset will also need to be flexible enough that content can be changed rapidly, even via limited users. This is to keep the units at the forefront of learning. Although not mandatory in the initial stages, this component future-proofs the design.
- Communication: In-game voice chat is already available in current games, however there needs to be a considerable effort in recording and analysing spoken word so that participating in a unit with peers is as natural as communicating within a classroom environment. Tie in multiple avenues of help and multiple methods of communication as an intrinsic part of the learning environment rather than piecemeal for each unit (Steam’s overlay mode)
- AI: Although it will be possible to build Artificial Intelligences to help facilitate units, of more use will be AI’s that track the student’s progress. When the student’s performance differs substantially from the tracking AI it signifies leaps in understanding; crucial indicators of progress through the unit or potential difficulty.
- Prediction: <5 years for targeted development, 10-15 years for natural evolution.
- With focused learning we will discover things that will simply not be possible with any other method.
- Flexible learning experience available 24/7
- Tight definition of the requirements of society
- Equity of service across the network. All students are afforded the same choices of development, tempered by local or parental needs. (Inclusion Trust, 2005)
- Cost of startup. Construction of content the biggest obstacle to entry.
- Network Effect. The bigger the implementation the greater the effect. Means small test sites may be inconclusive.
- Cost of equity is raised. Need to invest heavily in outlying areas to enable participation.
- Strong reliance on dependable IT infrastructure.
- Great potential for private funding for content creation. At the most naive level with embedded advertisement, but with companies screaming for VET education they can make units with environments specifically targeted to their needs (unit on “how to extract ore” or “train driving”).
- If another country or society develops this first they could potentially leave the rest of us behind.
- Poor parental choice or societal choice can lead to reduced outcomes
DfES. (2004). Five-Year Strategy for Children and Learners. Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. England, Department for Education and Skills, London.
Inclusion Trust. (2005). What is NotSchool.net. Retrieved July 25, 2008, from NotSchool.net: http://www.thecademy.net/inclusiontrust.org/NS-overview-notschoolhome.html
Moore, G. E. (1965, April 19). Cramming more components onto integrated circuits. Electronics , Vol 38 (Num 8), pp. 114-117.
Polys, N. F., Brutzman, D., Steed, A., & Behr, J. (2008, Mar/Apr). Future Standards for Immersive VR: Report on the IEEE Virtual Reality 2007 Workshop. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications , Vol 28 (no.2), pp. 94-99.
Reich, R. K. (1991). The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st-Century Capitalism. New York: Vintage Books.