-In 2013, I was observed teaching a class about genetics by using one of the original social VR programs, Second Life. Second Life has an entire world created by users and that world is built on virtual replicas of real places, learning experiences, and recreation like events. People live an entire "second life" there and in moments like now, during the COVID19 pandemic, it never made more sense. Every day since the emergency pause order, Governor Cuomo has held press conferences guided by data and logic. He so accurately expressed how we shouldn't be merely trying to reopen the schools, but we should be reimagining education. We shouldn't be trying to go back, we should be imagining a better future.
When I reimagine education, it is adaptive, personalized, immersive, and, perhaps more importantly, social. In an information-based society, our importance as teachers is more reliant on our ability to make a connection with the students than on the distribution of information which can be difficult in the spatially constrained video conference communication model currently used in software like Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype. Social VR rooms are surprisingly more analogous to real-life even when avatars are the only representation of the individual present, since we can move around, talk with specific individuals in the room without interrupting the room and talk without having to make full-blown eye contact for long periods.
As we're being asked to reimagine education, why not recreate what we can in a virtual space to instill a sense of "normalcy", recognition and comfort? We can also use the power of VR to teach things that would otherwise be too dangerous (ie. Chernobyl and nuclear radiation), expensive (ie. how to use Crispr), or impossible (ie. deep-sea hydrothermal vents).
A quick Google search for VR classroom or virtual reality classroom will reveal how many teachers are thinking along the same lines as I am. Humans are social, spatial thinkers and although our cognitive talents have enabled us to develop a technological society capable of seemingly unlimited streaming multimedia services to binge on and witty Zoom virtual backgrounds, we are restless and inquisitive by nature; constrained by squares on a computer monitor and forcing eye contact with a camera lens.
Although Second Life is still around, it can only be used by Windows and Macbook laptops, no Chromebooks. This is a challenge since the district gives out Chromebooks to students without sufficient technology in the home. AltspaceVR is also available for Windows and Macbook but there are talks of it coming to Chromebooks soon. Luckily, Mozilla has developed a perfect solution; Mozilla Hubs. These private VR spaces can be made for up to 30 individuals, and various permissions can be selected for those individuals (including the ability to draw in the space and fly). It is open-source (yes, it's fully free), can be embedded in a website or LMS and I have not found a limit to the number of rooms you can create or resources that can be uploaded to each room. This makes Mozilla Hubs perfect as the backbone to my "Virtual School".
As with every adventure into VR, it all starts with an appropriate looking avatar.
Loom.ai has recently released a virtual camera so that instead of a video of my face being stuck in that box on the screen, it's a 3D avatar that looks exactly like me, animated by my voice and can provide a sense of fun, immersion, and consistency among video conference and Mozilla hubs avatar. LoomieLive is exceptionally easy to use. After making an avatar of yourself using the mobile app for Android or iPhone and installing LoomieLive on your computer, you can login to your account on the computer and choose a background for your avatar. Once you open up the video conferencing software (such as Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype), and open up the settings of that program, you'll see a new camera in the webcam selection dropdown called LoomieLive Camera.
Selecting that camera will replace your video with one of your avatars.
Eventually, it would be great to use a LoomieLive animated avatar as my Mozilla Hubs avatar but it's understandable to think that it may not come with the capacity to be animated. Since LoomieLive is a virtual webcam, it can be used in all video conferencing software and that includes Mozilla Hubs webcam share feature! So luckily, my LoomieLive avatar can still guide students in the virtual class by sharing the webcam, a perfect solution!
Tomorrow I will try out my "virtual classroom" made from Mozilla Hubs and LoomieLive, and I will report back before delving more into ways to use both resources in remote instruction in future blog posts.
As I reimagine the field of education I can't help but think that this not as much of a reimagining but an acceptance. The picture of education as it was during industrialization is no longer appropriate in a world where assembly lines can be automated; the ability to innovate becomes more valuable. As I mentioned in my last article, educational technology developed in the last decade and on the fringe of adoption for those years has been thrown into the limelight during the COVID-19 quarantine and educators who have been resistant to learning the new technologies found themselves in a situation where they had to try to catch up quickly.
So many educational technologies have sat, gathering dust on the Horizon Report future trends list that it’s hard for educators without a technical background to see the variety of resources and pedagogies available now. Adaptive educational resources like Inq-ITS and ASSISTments personalize learning experiences for the individual learner. No more do teachers need to drown in a class of 28 students who all learn in different ways and at different paces. Adaptive resources typically provide teachers with invaluable information about their students learning processes so that they educator can continue to guide and provide necessary resources to supplement what challenges them. However, as we saw at the start of the pandemic closedown, catching up with the current technologies can be stressful if you haven't been keeping up.
This all goes back to lifelong learning. All too often individuals get attached to information they learned before all of the facts were in or from a non-expert. It is human nature to become attached to information you were told when a topic was new in your brain. In neuroscience and psychology, this is referred to an anchoring bias. According to neuroscience, this is because in an effort to conserve resources, the brain takes many "shortcuts" in order to quickly reconcile new information. After the brain encounters new information and considers all possible interpretations and consequences, it can be considered redundant to go through that same thought process every time that same information is encountered. So the brain creates a shortcut assuming that the information it has encountered and the meanings that information was interpreted as containing currently has is accurate That's what leads to the dreaded confirmation bias. When an individual begins research to confirm their previously held beliefs they will typically be successful since their previous bias serves as lens in which the individual interprets the research. Ever talk about an article you read with someone and wonder if you were even reading the same article since your interpretations were so different? That's because of confirmation bias. In research, we aim to disprove possible hypotheses as opposed to prove one.
What we need to reimagine is the structure of the school day for student in various phases of their K-12 journey. We need to rethink how to have less students in a classroom so that we can adhere to social distancing guidelines, but a good student to teacher ratio has always been desirable and a change educators have requested for at least a decade.
To me, reimagining education in a socially distanced way, means that we are using spatial computing to educate. Immersive educational resources like Augmented Reality (AR), for example Google’s new embedded AR, can be used to engage and educate from a distance, while Virtual Reality (VR), especially social VR programs, can be used to combat the mental effects and isolation involved in social distancing and quarantining. For example, Mozilla Hubs is a free resource to make social VR rooms which can be shared at the click of a button and on any device which makes it ideal for distance learning and apps like Spatial, Rumii and EngageVR enables educators to run their own virtual classroom and AltspaceVR has events including mindfulness training with EvolVR (for VR headsets and 2D on PC). In fact, recently I attended a few presentations conducted about the use of VR in Demark schools which to me, is what education in 2020 should look like. Students use avatars in class where teachers can use presentations, interactive elements and 3D animated models. Using avatars can be helpful for anxious students and to help students to feel comfortable as they are in control of their appearance. Want to teach students about deep sea hydrothermal vents? Bring them there! Teaching students about an ancient civilization? Bring them there! VR can be used to teach things that were too costly or dangerous to bring into the classroom before.
For years educational technology specialists have yielded the Horizon Report as the prophecy on the future scope of educational technology in our schools. Since 2002, the NRC has published the report which focuses on recent and upcoming trends in edtech and for years we have tried to incorporate new technologies and introduce our colleagues to the ways of the future only to be met with derision and laughter.
How often have those colleagues said: Why fix what ain't broke? The way that we teach is the way that I learned and students learn with direct instruction, worksheets and practice multiple choice questions. Those are the people who have always referred to digital resources as “bells and whistles” which don’t really teach. For years I fought back against the monotony and the common thread but I was the odd one.
It's amazing how all it took was a few weeks and a global health crisis to change everything. Really all it took was the horrible response about the pandemic from the US to take educators from across the country and throw them into a living horizon report.
Up until 2020 the Horizon Report has always given forecasts as to when you can predict to see specific tech in classrooms from immediate (less than a year to a year), to soon (2-3 years) to future (4-5 years). It's amazingly coincidental how they gave up on that practice this year for the 2020 report. They explained that it wasn't considered the most informative aspect to the report since for years some technologies waited patiently on the list of upcoming edtech, never fully reaching mainstream adoption.
It took a national crisis for the people who could never imagine the adoption of this technology to, not only see how it could be useful, but to start singing its praises. If we were to have spent these years on creating good practices and having educators learn these new technologies instead of being resistant to change, then when the pandemic hit we would have been in a much better position. The reality is it's so hard for many of us to change what's so comforting and what we already know.
So we don't change until we're forced to and that's what this was.
This was all of us being forced to acknowledge the technologies that have been developed in the past decade. Those technologies have changed the way we access information, how we socialize and how we learn. We need to adapt to this new world and as educators, we need to keep up or else we are teaching our students about a world that no longer exists. When information is so easily accessible and digital resources are developed to personalize learning for individual students, the role of the educator changes from content delivery to facilitator.
This may be the most uncertain and stressful time period this century, but I always look for the silver lining. The silver lining here is that we're being forced to really rethink the way that we do things. And, because the status quo is not as comfortable as it once was, we really have to think about if we are attached to past practices because we're comforted by having learned that way, or if we really believe that that's the best way that people learn. I believe it was the former. Once people realize the benefits technology presents in education, and that we may learn better in different ways, then we can work together in order to make a new educational system using that new knowledge. I think the fear that we’ll be replaced by technology needs to be reexamined because one really important lesson that we've learned from this entire pandemic and social distancing situation is how important social experiences are for people and how important it is to nurture us as social beings.
That which does not bend brakes so we need to be flexible. We need to change the way that we teach; to go with our current reality as opposed to fighting against it and being brittle. Now is the moment for us to reimagine our educational system so let's think about the best way for students of different abilities to learn together. Perhaps leveraging technology and using machine learning we can create personalized learning resources using adaptive technology tools.
How do we teach and support the individual student in a class of 28 students of varying abilities? In a traditional classroom, that has always been a challenge but the environment is not all about learning, what about the social aspect of learning which is challenged in this remote educational scenario and supported in a classroom?
No matter what, this pandemic has forever changed the world of education. The faster the world develops and things change, the less useful it is for us to teach what we learned before because now it's irrelevant and obsolete. What's better is to teach students skills necessary to learn and then learn alongside them.