THE SOCIAL DIMENSIONS OF IMMERSIVE LEARNING

This post is based on my keynote presentation at the iPeda mobile learning conference on November 17th, 2017 in Savonlinna, Finland.

I’m inspired to think about the potential positive impact of immersive learning to solving the three biggest challenges in global education: access, cost, and engagement. Instead of the latest headsets, let’s take a moment to think about the social aspects of immersive learning. Why do many teachers see it as an opportunity ?

Connecting with the real world

Some weeks ago, I attended an extended reality in education conference in Redwood City. One of the presenters was Chris Chin, the executive director of VR content at HTC Vive. Chin shared results from a study asking teenagers about what they would like to experience in virtual reality. The number one answer was: reality.

The technology for documenting and experiencing reality has dramatically changed since 2015. First, YouTube and Facebook started supporting 360 videos (and Facebook also images), and then Ricoh and Samsung launched their first under $500 360-degree consumer cameras. This has made it possible for schools to think about, not only the adoption of ready-made virtual lessons in the classroom, but also authoring lessons themselves and building 360 experiences with students using tools such as ThingLink and Unity. Even though viewing these user generated experiences with VR headsets is still at early stage, some large school districts are already planning to invest in high-end headsets such as the Windows Mixed Reality headset, Samsung Odyssey, or the upcoming Oculus One.

Three aspects of immersive learning: exploration, creation, and sharing

Teachers and students on ThingLink create about 3,000 interactive 360 images every month. These examples give us a good opportunity to understand the motivations and expectations behind immersive learning in the classroom.

The first thing we have learned is that immersive learning is not just about exploration. It may start as such, but most teachers and students who view VR experiences created by others, get interested in authoring these experiences themselves. Creation is thus an essential element of immersive learning. But there are still more aspects to this. The same way that exploration inspires creation, so does creation inspire sharing. Sharing, as you will see later, can take many forms from revisiting shared experiences in the classroom to showcasing student’s work to parents or other audiences. The social dimensions of immersive learning should thus look into exploration, creation and sharing together as different but connected aspects of immersive learning.

Image: Three aspects of immersive learning: exploration, creation, and sharing

A closer look into immersive learning on the global, local, group and individual level

When I first started sorting out ideas and examples for this presentation, I quickly noticed there are several levels and aspects both to the immersive and the social, so I wanted to try approach both on several levels: global, local, group and individual.

Global: Improving access, reducing cost, and increasing engagement

Immersive exploration of real places and situations gives us wings through time and distance. Are you learning about prehistoric cultures in Europe? Great! Maybe you would like to visit the village of Komornica in Poland where the oldest traces of settlements date back to 8000 years BC? Or maybe you are just generally interested in the history of modern cities? In that case, hop on a journey to Rome, Barcelona, Chicago, and Shanghai to see some of the masterpieces of modern architecture. This is the future of long-distance field trips; students can go on several trips per week, there is no logistical hassle, and no fundraising needed to experience foreign cultures or ancient cities. Virtual field trips will be a natural part of any subject in the curriculum giving students a contextual experience of the subject of the study.

And here is why it is valuable: Contextual learning takes place when students are able to construct meaning based on their own experiences. 360 images and videos of real places — as well as computer generated simulations of real environments — open up new doors for contextual learning. They give students an opportunity to virtually visit places and situations, and make observations at their own pace. For an example, travel through this virtual field trip to women’s rights in 11 countries.

Local: Making connections through creation and sharing

On the local level students take an active role in building understanding of their own environment. An immersive storytelling project may include creating an introductory tour of the school or library, city or community.

In regards to the curriculum, a project may link to social studies, history, or sciences, that require students to actively seek connections between their physical world and its various meanings, and make those connections visible in an immersive 360 story. The background research of each topic may include interviews with local experts, photography, audio and video planning, all requiring collaboration between internal and external interest groups of the school.

An important part of the ‘immersive social’ comes through sharing. It’s good to remember that local stories and documentaries can at their best bring together younger and older generations in a very natural way. For example, the 9th grade students in Savonlinna gave a new meaning to watching photo albums together by visiting a local nursing home and showing the interactive 360 stories of Savonlinna with mobile VR headsets. This is a win-win situation for everyone: students get a very enthusiastic audience for their work, and an opportunity to connect with older generations. The same way the older generation will get a unique opportunity to virtually visit many places they grew up in, and places they have seen change over the years.

GROUP: Practicing critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration

Most technology developers underestimate the effort of bringing new technology in the classroom. This is true especially in the elementary school, where a successful application of any technology depends heavily on the teacher and the lesson plan. At higher levels from middle school to college, students have more freedom to plan and schedule their work, and with careful pre-planning, they are able to independently create elaborate 360 tours and documentaries.

As any other creative project, immersive storytelling typically includes four main phases: 1) Planning, 2) Data Collection, 3) Production, and 4) Sharing. In the best case, creating immersive experiences can be a holistic method for practicing the four Cs: critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration. Below are listed the different tasks that connect to developing each skill.

Image: Improving the 4 Cs through immersive storytelling

INDIVIDUAL: Sharing individual experiences using student’s own voice

Compared to quick snapshots and selfies, a 360 photo or video is an uncovered capture of a real situation or a real space. When it carries the voice of the author, it becomes a new kind of experiences that is at the same time professional and personal. Professional in the sense that student steps into the role of the author, but does that using their voice and their own style. This makes the production of (various kinds of) text more engaging than just writing an essay. See this example of high school students describing their dorm room in Spanish.

I recently worked with 5th graders at the Barron Park Elementary school creating a 360 documentary from their field trip to Levi’s Stadium. During a session with the sound & audio team, one of the students said “I don’t really know what to say about the field, but can I sing it?” “Absolutely”, I said. “The style is free as long as the content is appropriate”. “Oh, how exciting!”, the student exclaimed. Here is the ‘singing narration’ he created.

Similar to the other levels, sharing is an important part of the learning experience. Firstly, the idea of a specific audience has an impact on how the author builds their story. I recently experimented this myself through recording and sharing a personal introduction to Finland on its 100-year anniversary. I created a 360-audio tour thinking about my American friends, and the thought of them shaped my narration. Would they get my sarcasm and jokes?

A second aspect to sharing relates to empathy, and how the presence of the author through their voice has an impact on how the viewer or listener receives the story. Here, the power of immersive experience lie in its ability to transmit a first person view of any kind of place or situation and this way, to evoke empathy more efficiently. Here is an example of a 360 tour of the Tombohuaun village in Sierra Leone created by WaterAid UK. The story transmits the perspective of the villagers and their struggle to find clean water to live.

Summary: 5 key points

With this presentation I wanted to contribute to the discussion of immersive learning and its social dimensions that play part in thinking about the future of education and related investments in new talent as well as hardware and software. There are five main points I wanted to make:

1 Immersive learning in schools promotes connections with the real world through exploration, creation, and sharing.

2. On the global level immersive learning can mediate a contextual experience of any subject of the study, and this way increase student engagement.

3. On the local level it can help build and visualize connections between time, place, and people.

4. On the group level it can help develop critical thinking, communication, creativity and cooperation through immersive storytelling.

5. On the individual level it can help expressing and sharing personal experiences, and building empathy.

Going forward, I would love to continue thinking about this topic, hear your thoughts and learn more about immersive learning projects with a strong focus in connecting people globally, locally, within the group, or through sharing individual experiences. You can reach me at ulla@thinglink.com.

Founder & CEO of ThingLink, education technology company for building visual learning environments in the cloud. Winner of UNESCO ICT in Education Prize.