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Virtual reality teaching tool: mixing physical, digital realities in learning

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eric Hawkinson has more people than ever before reaching out to him for a virtual reality teaching tool.

The search is on for the latest technology in education to support face to face learning, lab work, or any other type of learning activity that’s difficult to do over Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or an asynchronous learning management system.

It’s an interesting time to be an immersive technologist, according to Eric, who is a learning futurist, tinkering with and designing technologies and virtual reality teaching tools that may better inform the future of teaching and learning. 

So while there’s more interest in immersive technology and artificial intelligence in education, it may be surprising to hear that Eric is recommending it less than he’s ever had in his career.

“When we mix our digital and physical realities to create learning environments, we can be susceptible to problems in both worlds,” he says. With immersive technology, “We’re bringing digital things into our real life, and we’re bringing our real life into digital worlds.” 

Eric’s day job is at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies where he teaches courses and conducts research on issues related to technology in tourism and education. 

The following is adapted from Eric’s presentation on virtual reality as a teaching tool at LEARNTech Asia Virtual Conference 2020:

Virtual reality as a teaching tool, interrupted

At a time when we need more immersive learning and we need to go into VR worlds more often, the current health crisis is limiting us because teachers and learners cannot get together. Or we don’t have the bandwidth, the resources, or the facilities available to correctly implement immersive learning in a way that’s economical and has equal spread amongst all users.

I like to use Pokemon Go as an example of what’s happening around the world of mixing digital realities and the real world.

Pokemon Go’s digital design had real-world consequences. Niantic, the company that developed Pokemon Go, had to change its algorithm to keep people from going outside. They changed it in a way that is fundamentally against the original way that it was designed.

So while users were initially encouraged to get off the couch and walk around, Niantic had to quickly adapt to the current pandemic. Even other large scale augmented reality platforms such as Microsoft’s Minecraft Earth have been tweaked so you can play at home. 

This is also affecting our immersive learning environments. In our school of global tourism in Kyoto, students were designing augmented reality tours and that has all changed because of COVID-19. So we’re having to adapt this technology very rapidly, just like everybody else. 

There are challenges moving forward in creating digital environments which is the next evolution of the medium from which we communicate anything and everything.

Paradigm shift in communication

What’s happening with COVID-19 and education is how immersive technology will be a paradigm shift in the way that we want to teach and learn. 

One example is the evolution of someone like me growing up in the television and radio era. My daughter grew up with a mobile phone. When she was young, she used to go up to the TV and swipe it.

A person that’s used to mobile phones and having that interaction with a screen goes up to a TV and nothing happens.

With books, we needed the wordsmith. How poets arranged words was very important. We moved on to recordings where your voice and pronunciation was very important. Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” talking about how the ubiquity of television communication, with everybody seeing the same thing, actually changed the message.

Now we have all that stuff in our pockets. All things that came before it — the books, the movies, the music — we’re carrying it with us. We are teaching and learning in the mobile era. 

In this next era of immersive learning, all that stuff that used to be in our pockets will now be connected to everyone and everything around us. It has a lot of implications in how we design learning and how we think about what’s important to teach. 

Rainbow connection

The most basic way to think about this technology is that it’s going to connect digital worlds with our real life. It’s going to become a rainbow of worlds that we’re creating with digital contents and connecting it to our lives in different ways. 

Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, and cloud-based edge computing are all going to get connected through augmented and virtual reality. 

Mixed and augmented virtual reality is a spectrum of what we experience in real life. As educators moving into this age, we’re going to have to think about this spectrum and where we want to be on it for our own curriculums. 

It’s harder to come by these days because we’re staying at home and using digital means to get our instruction and to teach. 

Man in a box

There’s still a fairly low adoption rate of higher-end virtual reality headsets. But educators like myself have found this to be a great way to actually teach through virtual reality to people that are not in virtual reality. 

My office is a green box. Making this last year prepared me for teaching online through virtual reality to my students. So I stand in a green box, I block out everything behind me. 

I’m able to show students what I see through my eyes in real time. I move a virtual camera around as well as a real camera, mixing both my physical self with virtual and digital contents. You’re able to bring out these new, neat ways to explain and visualize content. And this could be a very powerful and fun way for instructing complex concepts. 

We also have augmented reality amongst the latest educational technology where we’re putting digital contents on the real world.

My students are using it to create augmented reality tourism, games, and simulations on campus. They are connecting what’s physically around them to digital contents. And just with that simple concept, we’re making all types of new ways to explore physical worlds. 

Plus and minus

Immersive learning is heavily Internet-connected. It relies on instant communication and possibly edge servers as it communicates with a system that’s crunching numbers and analyzing things that you’re looking at. 

With immersive learning, you can get information from what you’re looking at, what you’re doing, and who you’re talking with. We see that come about with the extension and the rise of deeper and more meaningful learning analytics, almost to a dangerous level.

We can analyze so much more about what students and users are doing in virtual environments. We get body movement, eye movement, eye tracking, how many times someone is actually being attentive, or someone loses their eye gaze on the person speaking. It’s exciting in the way that we can design our content a little bit better, getting that feedback. 

We can always see benefits from immersive learning in special education or in treating PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). For example, a war veteran is put back into a similar situation that gave them trauma, and they get to work through their issues. 

Some of my colleagues in Japan are working on public speaking anxiety through VR. You can be put in front of a group of people, perhaps a mix of digital people in real people, and you can program the digital people to do different things, to be aggressive or to look at you or not and see how that helps you reduce your anxiety when you speak in front of other people. 

We’re already seeing individualized and contextualized learning in the mobile devices for education, as e-learning is being customized for each student. Just as we get our specialized feeds on Facebook and through algorithms on YouTube, this is happening more in immersive learning. Because you can collect more data from immersive learners and we can customize it for each user. 

Virtual Reality Education Technology
Photo by Stella Jacob

The Empathy Machine

The thing that makes me most passionate about this technology is the idea of the empathy machine. When you immerse anyone in a situation they have more agency. It could be as simple as just being able to move your head and your vision. You empathize more with that situation. 

Some research members in our group are using virtual reality to help inform academic writing on very controversial issues. One example is the refugee policy in Japan. Talking to students about it, they don’t have any direct experience with refugees. They get it from a third party or the news.

You can immerse someone in these worlds and let them feel what it’s like to go through the process. To see what it’s like to be a refugee. To feel what it’s like to be put out of your home. 

You can tell through this research that it immensely changes their voice and how they approach the issue. And they start to empathize more with the situation. They’re able to speak more as to the nuances and perhaps different perspectives with that issue.

Immersive learning concerns

The first one is obvious — it’s privacy. We can get so much information about people using virtual tools. Right now, the most commonly used VR headset outside of Google Cardboard are the Oculus products which are owned by Facebook

It’s quite alarming the amount of data that is being collected through these immersive learning systems. We’re in danger of possibly harming students and users if this data should get into the wrong hands.  

There’s been a big debate regarding immersive learning with young children that haven’t fully grown. These devices are highly calibrated to our eyesight. If they’re not calibrated properly, it could cause eye strain and give us headaches and nausea. Facebook and Oculus recommends that their headsets not be used for children under the age of 13. 

There are also psychological effects in being shown things. The power of that empathy machine and using it in nefarious ways can be damaging psychologically as well. 

A lot of times, I’m not recommending it because of bandwidth issues and the exacerbation of the digital divide. If it’s not rolled out in a specific way, some students can be left behind. If the infrastructure isn’t right, it won’t be able to be used to its full potential.

Automation in learning

A lot of people on the business side of things are looking to solve issues by scaling e-learning to feed artificial intelligence systems. For that, you need large data sets. 

Augmented and virtual realities are a great way to collect copious amounts of data. So companies need to deploy augmented and virtual realities to train their systems to teach and learn from.

An example is Tesla cars. Your car is learning how to drive when you’re driving it. The ubiquity of all these cars driving all over the world is helping the automation of driving. The same thing is going to be true for learning, especially when we start to deploy augmented and virtual realities.

I’m very wary of using new and unproven products in virtual and augmented realities in education because they are perhaps not fully developed in their policies and collecting data. Or the business model is collecting data for the future use of exploring that data for some other means, or training systems from which to make a profit. 

Bypassing intelligent inquiry?

Say you’re learning about flowering plants. In the past, you hike to study a flowering plant. You ask informed questions to help you discern the species of this flower — How many petals does it have? Has it been raining a lot recently? What part of the world am I in? Is it seasonably warm?

But if you have augmented reality, you’re able to get straight to the answer. You take a picture of a flower, put it against an artificial intelligence algorithm, and it will check millions of other pictures of flowers around the world until it finds appropriate matches and give you a specific answer to your question.

So you’re robbing yourself of the process of learning, and we have to think about this as learning designers moving forward. This concept of being able to get to the answer when we want it — or do we want to go through the learning process for the sake of learning? 

Students in the mobile age are more inclined to go straight to the answer. We might have to build in extra modules or extra learning environments to help reinforce the actual process of learning. 

Immersive learning during COVID-19

Immersive learning during COVID-19 is being sought after more than ever. But it might not be the best fit for most situations because it will not replace face to face learning by any means yet. But the implementation of VR Labs is getting more popular over the past couple of years.

For example, you have a chemistry lab at your higher education institution, or perhaps even in your high school. Those labs can be expensive to maintain and possibly dangerous. So you can put on a virtual headset or even go on your desktop PC and go into a virtual situation where you’re walking around and conducting experiments, mixing chemicals or doing whatever you might do in a real chemistry lab. 

Some higher education institutions have developed and implemented virtual reality labs with higher end VR headsets where learners can come in and have lab time for chemistry or physics. It’s also being used in vocational training such as underwater welding, being able to repair or build a jet engine which is very expensive to do in real life. 

VR Lab and Labs in VR are quite different things. With a VR Lab people actually have to get together in one place. So a lot of these higher education institutions that were in the midst of developing their VR Labs and having the ability to have students come in and enjoy these VR environments in high fidelity can no longer do so due to the pandemic.

There’s also the issue of sharing headsets because of concern with spreading contagion. Putting on a headset where you’re touching your face and breathing on things in very close quarters and sharing that equipment with other people becomes a very big concern. There are some solutions from companies providing services to clean your equipment for reuse.

With Labs in VR, you need a way to have your remote students enter that virtual space. Now you need to get headsets to your students. Some companies have a direct to learner customer relationship and they have virtual worlds that are bundled with the hardware, so they’re actually thriving in this environment.

What we’re seeing all around the world is a lower access to technology. A lower access to the Internet than we once imagined. And yes, this is also a problem in Japan. Many people think of Japan as one of the epicenters of technology. But even at our university, we have started to struggle with getting access to all of our students.

Low end virtual reality teaching tool

To facilitate learning inside of VR it depends on how it’s designed and how you’re delivering the content. There’s a lot of opportunity for doing synchronous learning or asynchronous learning with immersive learning.

In addition to Zoom or Microsoft Teams, you can set up a world in a web browser window and have some synchronous learning where you can show physical items. Or you can set up an area to do asynchronous learning where it’s a little more interactive.

One of the most accessible ways to get VR to your students in the past 10 years has been Google Cardboard. It’s very cheap and you can use your own mobile device to experience a 3D video or maybe a social VR environment.

But Google has discontinued their Daydream line, which means the end of officially supporting the Cardboard software updates. Things like Google Expeditions that teachers all over the world have been taking their students on virtual field trips is now up in the air. Cardboard and Daydream has been open sourced and given to the larger community.

Understanding Immersive Technology – The Reality-virtuality Continuum

Tools to get started in Augmented Reality

Augmented virtual reality is on the top tier of technology use and digital literacy. Skills like 3D modeling, video editing, computer programming are required.

If you want to support large scale AR VR environments for large amounts of students, you need to have somebody in your organization that can handle the coaching and support that comes with that.

That said, here are three recommended virtual reality teaching tools to explore with your students to quickly develop prototypes:

It’s getting easier all the time for educators with no experience to adapt their material to AR and VR. Even students are making these, with little to no on boarding and making an augmented reality world with just a few videos and images within a couple of hours, with no prior training. 

Just like video editing and making websites, you don’t need to know HTML coding anymore to make a website. Same is becoming true for creating virtual worlds. The ARrientation platform is a great “no programming, get started in minutes” tool to prototype augmented reality learning environments. 


Find out more about virtual reality teaching tools and Eric Hawkinson’s work at www.erichawkinson.com and his passion project ARientation which is an award-winning, free-to-use, privacy-by-design augmented learning platform to rapid prototype augmented learning environments, also aiming to spread awareness of increasing aggressive data collection models using immersive technology.

LEARNTech Asia
LEARNTech Asia showcases innovation in learning in Asia. We feature stories and resources in online learning, workplace learning, adult education, EdTech, and creative solutions by teachers and trainers in learning institutions, non-profits, and enterprises that enhance human capacity and inspire communities of lifelong learners.