Entering a new dimension: goggling at the future of education

Virtual and augmented reality allows students to roam ‘impossible worlds’ and gives new depths of knowledge and emotional intelligence, says the UAE Ministry of Education

As Albert Einstein once remarked, ‘I never teach my students, I just provide the conditions in which they learn’, so does the UAE Ministry of Education (MoE), piloting a new project that allows students to experience ‘impossible’ realms, from the International Space station, earthquake aftershocks and landscapes transformed by climate change, to famous historical sites.

Groups such as the military have long used virtual reality (VR) to model extreme scenarios, and the technology is expensive – Facebook recently donated 500 VR classroom kits to Arkansas’s public school in the US, a gift valued at US$1m. However, 17 elite science-stream public schools in the UAE have found an affordable and practical way to utilise the technology.

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An immersive journey to Antarctica could help children better understand and analyse tricky topics like climate change

Gemma Escott, an education specialist at the MoE says children are more likely to engage, develop emotional intelligence and soak up knowledge when deeply immersed in the new technology which partners with platforms such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Google Expeditions.

Google Expeditions provides everything teachers need to take their students on a field trip that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to access; whether it’s to an underwater coral reef, or to see the Pyramids. Partnering with iconic cultural hotspots such as the Natural History Museum in London and the Australian Museum in Sydney, there is huge potential to the treasures students can unearth from their archives.

The programme ‘Second Life’ is another well-tested VR platform eagerly trialled by schools in Australia, allowing students to experience and engage with Chinese culture by creating a virtual persona and navigating a new cultural landscape and language before visiting in reality.

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A VR journey to the Great Barrier Reef could visualise the dangers of invasive species

Languages, science, medicine and maths are subjects are a good fit for VR and AR; abstract concepts can be explored and mistakes made without life-threatening consequences. Florida State University, another learning institution to adopt Second Life for its Department of Chemistry and Biology, gives students the opportunity to explore a crime scene and analyse the evidence, working critically and independently.

According to educational philosopher Edgar Dale’s ‘Cone of Experience’ model, students remember roughly 10 per cent of what they read two weeks ago, 50 per cent of what they hear and see, and 90 per cent of what they say and do. Programmes like Second Life allows students passports to far-flung lands such as Antarctica to better understand and analyse tricky topics like climate change, to Easter Island to explore the fall of the Rapa Nui culture and to the Great Barrier Reef to understand and visualise the dangers of invasive species.

Dr. Leung Lim Kin, vice chairman at Net Dragon, a Chinese company that develops multiplayer online games and mobile applications, already runs remote learning classes, and aims for his company to leverage VR and AR in the classroom. ‘We’re looking at learning in a 360 degree way and we think AR will be the first’, he says. But students won’t be wearing VR headgear for two hours, he says. ‘VR will be a complementary teaching tool’.

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By beholding the celebrated Easter Island sculptures, children could learn more about the fall of the Rapa Nui culture

Dr. Kin was attending a conference this month at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to investigate how virtual and augmented reality will be used for education, and his comments chimes with that of Christopher Dede’s, professor of technology, innovation and education at Harvard, that ‘VR isn’t magic and we have to be smart about it’.

Indeed, educators have to be careful that software does not homogenise or sanitise information, and insist that human interaction remains important, but the positive impact of virtual learning is undeniable says Andrew Robinson, director of higher education at Cengage Learning, an educational content and technology concerned with accelerating student engagement.

‘The UAE is focusing on advancing its teaching and learning methods in schools and universities to offer quality education and that is why we are here. It’s not just about us providing products to meet today’s requirement; it’s also about us assessing what the future will bring and how we can effectively gear up to provide solutions for tomorrow’s generation of educators and scholars.’