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Betsy Herbert reviews new and existing gadgets that could accelerate learning and understanding for students.

Times are fast evolving. Technology is expanding at an alarming rate, pervading and transforming almost every aspect of our daily lives. But what does this mean for the day to day life of a student and, indeed, the whole concept of ‘school’ or ‘university’? Is there an educational revolution on the horizon?

All of us can attest to being bored in lectures. The teacher-centric, ‘sage-on-a-stage’ approach to teaching – nearly unchanged since the emergence of Western European universities in 1050 – is widely criticised for being outdated and ineffective.

The shared and engaged participation of an audience is proven to help learning, understanding and recall

Could, with the aid of technology, the impersonality of such a large-scale delivery of information be transformed into something engaging, stimulating and collaborative?

Most of us are accustomed to using electronic voting systems such as TurningPoint “clickers” to respond to questions posed by the lecturer – but what if this could be done directly from our smartphones?

Intuitive, user-friendly presentation-design platforms such as Glisser and Visme might have the answer. They first allow lecturers to forgo PowerPoint and design lively, engaging and professional-looking animated presentations, then enable students to stream the presentation live to their devices, answer interactive polls and provide feedback comments in real-time whilst the lecture is taking place.

Students can then download the recording to their phone and revisit it in their own time. To build in further interactivity, an e-learning software named Rapitivity offers thousands of ready-made game and quiz templates that can be implemented into the presentation.

The shared and engaged participation of an audience is proven to help learning, understanding and recall – so not only would it make the lecture hall a more desirable place to be, but may also improve marks at the end of the year.

Future technology may also influence the very designs of our lecture halls and classrooms. An initiative in Ferris State University, Michigan is overseeing the conversion of many of its campus spaces into ‘smart classrooms’. This consists of redecorated interiors enhanced with integrated lighting control, assistive listening devices and classroom performance systems to digitally register real-time student responses and feedback.

A lecturer at Sichuan University in China is implementing facial-recognition technology in his lecture hall, to monitor not only the attendance of his students but also individual micro-expressions and movements to assess the level of boredom or confusion.

Perhaps the most exciting prospect of all is use of simulated realities, or ‘virtual worlds’, as a tool for education

On a larger scale, one imagines, this could enable the collection of metadata to assess which topics pose the biggest challenge to students, and therefore catalyse a refinement to the curriculum or teaching style.

Perhaps the most exciting prospect of all is use of simulated realities, or ‘virtual worlds’, as a tool for education. As flexible, adaptive and experimental environments which already engage millions, they are seen by many as an excellent platform for the curriculum.

Take, for example, the World of Warcraft in School project, devised by Lucas Gillispie and Peggy Sheehy: a complete curriculum for English Literature, Mathematics and Social Science designed for use in massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs).

Or the popular and pervasive online virtual world, Second Life, with its user-generated content, simple scripting language and employment of a highly personal ‘alter-ego’ in which, as of 2010, at least 500 real-life universities and institutions teach courses or conduct research.

An alter-ego from the online virtual world Second Life

Within it, virtual continents known as ‘SciLands’ host a number of organisations devoted to science and technology education, ranging from NASA to the National Institute of Health – and indeed, some organisations operate and exist exclusively within the platform.

It is used as a background for business and economics training, an online manifestation of libraries and museums, a context for virtual field trips, and even the stage for exhibitions and shows hosted by the London College of Fashion. It’s also a breeding-ground of collaboration, and the opted location for many a meeting and conference when distance is a hindrance.

The alternative to Second Life, should one not want to pay the subscription, is OpenSim, an open-source server platform for hosting virtual worlds and the Metaverse. This is the leverage for Intel’s ScienceSim, a collection of 3D spaces built for ‘collaborative visualisation, experimentation and education’.

It is used to transform large, complex data sets into highly visual outputs – for example, to decipher the optimal growing conditions for virtual ferns or to simulate the outcome of reconstructive surgery.

Others include Active Worlds, a 20-year project featuring visitable replicas of historical locations, Kitely, in which one can practice chemistry with large-scale molecules or learn a second language with native speakers and Unity, used by the U.S military for trauma training and terrorist and evacuation drills. Huge advantages clearly lie in this ability of virtual realities to transcend safety, distance, and the fixed parameters of our physical world.

A UK academic from Virtual World Watch, which monitors the use of these worlds in education, states “we are moving into a phase where virtual worlds are taken very seriously as potential environments for learning. [They are] Emerging as a meeting place for the most prestigious universities, non-profits and academic institutions in the world”.

And bearing in mind the ongoing development of augmented reality devices such as Microsoft’s Hololens, or Facebook Inc.’s Oculus Rift, the experience of these virtual worlds could be more enriched and enriching than we previously could have imagined.

But is all this digitisation, gamification and virtualisation truly a step forward? Certainly, the shift from instructor-centric to learner-centric, didactic to collaborative and investigative, and textbook reliance to real-life or virtual experience is something many education experts could get behind.

However, as with all technology, the tidal drift towards enrichment or impairment lies not in the technology itself, but in the way we use it. We are traversing unchartered waters, and must only hope we take the right route.

Let us know what you think via Facebook, Twitter or in the comment section below!

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