When eLearning Evolves from Electronic Learning to Enhanced Learning via VR

I got into virtual reality way back in 2015, to the point where my secondary computer engineering program was making VR systems for other schools in our board and we developed a board-wide Ministry funded research project on it.  Having worked with this emerging technology from the very first commercially viable system, I’ve watched with interest as the field matures and it has me thinking about how we can move beyond the prejudices in our very conservative education system and toward a mindset where the ‘e’ in elearning stands for ‘enhanced’ rather than ‘electronic’ and is considered a necessity for a superior pedagogical experience rather than an evil to fight against or an excuse to cut funding.

Back in 2017 the only way you could do VR was with the processing power of a desktop computer.  We built those machines to spec and then set up a variety of fully interactive, high resolution headsets on them ranging from HTC Vives to Microsoft supported setups by Samsung through our board’s SHSM program.  I’m still providing hardware support for those machines years later.

We travelled to other schools and conferences around the province demonstrating immersive VR for students, parents and other educators.  In most cases they got stuck on the games, but games are often the early adopters, like the first-returners after a forest fire, they push technology and create systems that are adopted by later industries, like education.  Many people turned their noses up at VR even as they were stunned by how immersive and engaging it could be simply because it’s ‘all about gaming’, but (of course) that isn’t the case.

At Skills Canada Nationals in Moncton in 2016 I wandered the floor while our IT & Networking finalist duked it out in competition.  I came across a VR training system to operate one of the all-in-one lumber cutting systems (the kind that grabs the tree, cuts it, trims it and stacks the finished poles for transport).  These complex mechanical systems cost millions and the only way to train on them was to train on them, before VR got involved.  The VR training system they had cost upwards of $80,000 to put together, so it was far from cheap, but what it did was allow the company to train operators prior to putting them on the real multi-million dollar equipment and it reduced user-error in new operators by over 80% when they finally got into the real machine.  The end result was millions saved in broken equipment and lost productivity.

In applying immersive VR in our classroom I’ve come across instances where students with special needs could suddenly express their genius and I’ve had students produce complex VR based games that gave them the portfolio they needed to move on into high-demand post-secondary digital media programs.  It has also reframed for me how 3d modelling and emerging digital media have their own literacy requirements that many people are oblivious to.  This ongoing work culminated this year when we won Skills Ontario provincials in 3d animation and then went on to win Skills Canada nationals to become the top 3d animation school in the country.

All of these experiences and development feels like it’s leading somewhere, and that somewhere is beginning to come into focus.  A digitally enhanced classroom offers many benefits and improvements to pedagogical practice, but it requires staff and students who are fluent and proficient with the technology.  This is an ongoing problem in an education system that diminishes the potential of technology and clings to old ways, usually to the benefit of the organizations involved in public education.

Things have been, let’s say ‘rough‘ during COVID as the system fell into repeat rounds of remote learning without any kind of plan or expectations of success.  The new normal became to just do and expect less as the limited and atrophied format of elearning became evident to all, but any educator who approaches the job from that angle should probably be looking elsewhere for work.  As things come back toward some kind of normal I’m hoping we can explore virtual and digitally augmented learning without the entrenched prejudices surrounding webpaged based/screen delivered elearning because this emerging media offers some powerful opportunities.

In the time we’ve been in pandemic-limbo VR technology has moved along.  Those 2017 ‘coming soon’ stand alone systems are no longer lower resolution options and they are now pretty much where a desktop top driven wired system was in 2016, for one quarter the price.  The evolution toward fully interactive, high-resolution virtual reality will continue and education needs to get over it’s e-prejudices to better understand and leverage it.

My son gave the Hololens a go back at the ECOO conference in 2016.  It was very much a prototype-proof-of-concept device, but the idea of eye glasses sized headsets is where VR is headed.  Along with a pair of haptic gloves and other IoT type sensors, we should be seeing portable, capable, fully interactive systems in the next couple of years that continue to expand the bandwidth between us and our rapidly expanding digital infrastructure.  Interacting with digital information through a two dimensional low-resolution/screen will look as archaic as dot matrix printers in a decade.

During the pandemic I got to try Meta’s latest Oculus Quest 2 headset.  These are completely wireless, have school-day long battery life and offer interactive, immersive digital media access for close to the price of a Chromebook.  Early adopting programs (like mine) will be able to offer VR experiences much more easily with this gear, but it’s the next step that is most exciting:  the convergence of virtual, augmented and mixed reality into a readily accessible digital media-scape for most subjects of study.
“Education will be transformed into something far more vivid. History teachers will transport their students to the beaches of Normandy or the Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam. In biology class, the entire room will become the inside of a mammalian cell.”
We’re getting to the point now where the hardware engineering isn’t the limitation.  The next few years will be about developing the software engineering in this new medium because having the tech in hand doesn’t help when the media isn’t there to make use of it.  The focus I’ve placed on our game development program has always included a big push beyond games as students develop increasingly complex digital portfolios.  It’s why we’ve crept into animation and 3d modelling in our engineering as well, because these skills are going to be in short supply to fulfill the needs of this emerging medium.
Our success with Skills Canada this year in 3d animation lies very much in the realm of digital media as this kind of 3d media is exactly what is needed for both virtual and augmented reality experiences to work:
Made over 2 days (2×6 hours), our team of 2 had to storyboard, script and animate an 11 second video.  They were allowed to pre-model and rig 3d character models (the loon and the beaver) but the metal pot was a wild-card model that had to be made in the competition window.  All sounds were prescribed for all teams, so the animation is storyboarded to fit them.
Our success at Skills (and the fact that it was 2 grade 11s who achieved it) means we’re integrating 3d animation into the game development training curriculum next year.  This all grew out of me pushing for better narrative structure in last year’s game, Rigged.  That led to several students (including our Skills competitors) branching off and forming animation teams to better frame the narrative in the game:
All the modelling, animation and sounds in that video were made from scratch in our classroom by grade 11/12 students in our TGI3/4M Software Engineering/Gamedev class.  We were unable to develop a VR based game as we have in previous years due to COVID restrictions, but I’m hoping to get back to it sooner than later.
It won’t be too long until you see teachers asking students to take out their headsets and join a virtual classroom where avatars allow students to be whatever they wish and the level of interactivity means teachers will be able to know whether or not a student is engaged and present.  Many online teachers during the pandemic experienced the ‘logged-in-but-absent’ student.  That kind of low-resolution online interaction would be rendered obsolete once Meta and the rest of the industry has education-ready virtual reality ready to go.  If you’re inhabiting an avatar online you can’t hide behind privacy as an excuse to not participate, and an inactive avatar in VR would look like an inactive student in class, making avoidance much more difficult.
This also means that the idea of a brick and mortar classroom as we know it is going to quickly become irrelevant and our schools as we know them will require rethinking – something that the drag-inducers in education (the vested interests in how things run right now) aren’t going to want to cooperate with.  I fear the public education system in Ontario is going to need a hard reboot to make this happen.  That may be the only way to break our ties with a past that makes little sense in the 21st Century and craft a ‘world class education system‘.  Thinking that the way things were is the pinacle we need to get back to is a big part of the problem.
Instead of passive information delivery, interactive, immersive learning opportunities mean students will experience history, science and literature first hand, bringing formerly static information to life and allowing them to explore it rather than have it land on them.  Living Lord of the Flies is much more memorable than reading it.  I did a role play of it over a decade ago in an English class and former students still talk about it today.  Interactivity is the key to engagement with modern students as this is the mediascape they live in when not in class.  They will no longer be forced to step back a decade in terms of media in the classroom if we can engage with emerging digital mediums.
In the book (and film) Ready Player One, after the collapse of an oil based transport economy virtual reality becomes the default schooling option.  A better future would be a bit less apocalyptic but the idea that VR would augment learning and help teachers produce engaged classrooms with interactive and powerful learning opportunities also suggests that we don’t need to burn tons of diesel every day transporting students to remote schools since any local school could provide digital enhancement.  Even in augmented situations where students are building in technology classes or experimenting in science, augmented reality could offer insight and direction that would enable far more students to enjoy success while also making our schooling more green; yet another aspect of our ‘perfect’ system that never was.
From the early days up until now, virtual/immersive/interactive digital tools have offered the hope of a future that finally removes us from a static relationship with information and offers radical differentiation of learning for all students.  In our increasingly information rich (or overwhelmingly information overloaded world, depending on how you look at it) we need to find better ways to find and make effective use of the information at our fingertips, and this augmented, virtual mediascape will be the key to that as well.  That it also offers a solution to our current wildly unsustainable educational transport habits is icing on the cake.  Now it’s just a matter of getting a system mired in political self interest to move forward.


VR isn’t the only emerging digital technology that can empower our pedagogical practice.  Artificial Intelligence is also opening doors to radically individualized learning opportunities that would benefit all students and make our rows of desks in overcrowded classrooms look positively medieval:

Virtual possibilities back in 2016 (education has made little effort to engage in any of them):

Our MoE grant research into VR in 2017. No follow-up there either:

Reaching out to industry at the FITC conference in 2018.  Industry doesn’t know how to engage with the prickly world of public education either:

In 2016 I was looking to escape the staid and restrictive world of #edtech in order to try and explore emerging technologies.  Six years later we’re churning out national champions in fields ranging from cybersecurity to 3d animation:

Meta’s Project Cambria, the next gen in VR:

Facebook is morphing into Meta in order to drive a more complex interface with digital information:

VR in education:

10 best examples of VR in education (Forbes):

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