Educating in new realities

Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality have received quite a lot of press over the last couple of years – and not just here in the King’s Online Blog! As computer processing power and other necessary technologies have advanced, finally these exciting fields are truly able to come into their stride.

What is especially interesting for us at King’s Online is how these technologies will impact the sphere of education and, in particular, what uses they might have in enhancing the online learning experience.

Studies demonstrate that stronger memories are created when the brain is fooled into thinking it is in a 3D environment, rather than looking at a 2D screen. Getting a wee bit technical for a moment, this sense of ‘presence’ triggers an emotional response that causes the amygdala to modulate the storage of memories in the hippocampus.

Anyhow…a few years back our Senior Video Producer, Dan Childs, penned an article on 3D films and memory. While researching this piece, he contacted neuroscientist Dr Larry Cahill from UC Irvine for his take on this fascinating topic:

“It is certainly the case that emotional arousal tends to produce stronger, longer-lasting memories. And, we have some good ideas as to why that happens in the brain. I have no idea whether 3D movies are more emotionally engaging than are standard movies, but if they are, they probably activate the brain’s emotional memory circuitry more than would standard movies. The answer involves the relationship between emotional arousal, memory, and the body’s stress hormone or adrenaline response. In high school biology classes, many people learn about the fight-or-flight syndrome. It is possible that this same fight-or-flight syndrome that helped Neanderthal Man escape from the sabre-toothed tiger also helped him remember the incident better. Therefore, he could use it better the next time.”

So it seems that VR and AR, through the strengthened emotional responses they can generate, could help form stronger memories. This has the potential to be notably beneficial for learners – though, of course, until the hardware necessary for high end VR becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, it will not be possible to include such experiences in affordable online courses. The only option which currently offers a broad enough reach Google Cardboard – which, while interesting, is unlikely ever to be described as ‘high end’…

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Keen to experience the educational potential of this exciting technology for themselves, our ground-breaking video team attended the VR World conference at Kensington Olympia. They were not entirely sure what to expect, but were looking forward to trying out some of the most cutting-edge tech and seeing what elements, if any, might be integrated into what we do here at King’s Online.

One of the most memorable talks they attended was by Pearson’s Global Director of Immersive Learning, Mark Christian. Pearson are, for now, targeting just the lower end of the spectrum, and are attempting to be device-agnostic in order to make their content as accessible as possible. To this end, they are currently producing 2-3 minute experiences or installations.

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Mark stated that an impressive number of students (some 3.5 million) would be using Pearson VR next year. It also became clear to the team that, as the technology matures, Pearson would be focusing very much on augmented reality, and that they saw collaborative AR as the future of classroom learning.

Mark also showed off some impressive mixed reality medical training examples, with interactive holographic patients overlaid in real world environments. This will enable any student, anywhere in the world to get practice interacting with patients presenting different disease symptoms, using Microsoft’s HoloLens technology.

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Wandering around the various exhibits at VR world, the team were most impressed by the haptic interface by Generic Robotics. Dan was invited to sit down at a desk and insert his right thumb and index finger into two harnesses attached to two small robotic arms. When he put on the VR headset he could see that he was sitting at a table with a tray of objects in front of him. He picked up a pool ball and could immediately feel the weight and hardness of it in his hand. It is amazing what a difference the sense of touch can make to one’s feeling of presence. It was not long until he was completely immersed and playing a virtual game of Jenga as if each brick were real.

And wouldn’t you just know it, but General Robotics is already working with King’s College London – with King’s Dental Institute to be precise, suppling students with virtual, haptically-enhanced practice suites! The AR/VR revolution is, it turns out, already at our doorstep here at King’s Online, and we – and our video/tech teams in particular – could not be more excited by the prospect.

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