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Transforming the Learning Experience

by Deirdre kelly

Picture this: you’re in your bedroom or, if you’re lucky enough to have one during the mandated school closures, your home office. But not for long. Strapping on a VR headset, you log onto a game environment on your desktop and hold onto your chair. It only takes a few minutes, then whoosh! You find yourself on a raft on the Amazon river, gliding by vine-laden trees populated by screaming birds and jumping monkeys. All around you in the amber-coloured waters swim crocodiles and piranhas, so you know you must keep your footing. You must stay the course. Your grades depend on it. For this isn’t just a diversionary journey. This is a major scholarly project enabling you to get up close and personal with a subject in ways you could never have imagined before. It’s what your education has become in the pandemic: a whole new boldly reimagined reality. Welcome to your new digital classroom, where school is no longer a building of bricks and mortar but a multimodal network of connections that impart a visceral experience. 

At a time of distance learning, immersive technologies have become a student’s new best friends – expanding and enhancing their educational experience while providing insights and heightened perspectives on subject matter far beyond that found in books. This is an educational model as all-encompassing as an IMAX film, and just as immediate. The above example is hypothetical, but it is illustrative of where education is capable of going in the 21st century. Virtual reality, to highlight but one piece of popular technology being introduced to education as a pathway for positive change, isn’t just about turning the learning experience into a joyride. It’s about creating possibilities and, yes, opening the mind to new forms of inquiry and knowledge production. Even if some educators are leery of embracing the new tech – worried about turning their classrooms into video arcades, or simply worried that they’re just too out-of-the-loop to get what all the excitement’s about – there’s no denying that tech is sparking new approaches to education now and into the future. 

My suggestion is to move away from traditional uses of technology toward enabling students to use tools to create artifacts that have meaning to them and their communities

For Kurt Thumlert, a professor in York’s Faculty of Education whose field of study involves inquiry-driven video production and other hands-on creative multi-literacy projects, digital technologies are just a means to an end – that end being progressive change in education. Educators who use computerized teaching tools simply to deliver content are missing out on tech’s potential to stimulate students’ creativity. When students are encouraged to make their own video games and other interactive fictions, learning shifts from being a passive to an active experience that imparts knowledge in novel and relevant ways, an approach especially recommended in situations of online learning. “My suggestions to people, as much as possible under conditions of emergency response teaching, is to move away from traditional uses of technology to deliver content and toward enabling students to use tools to create artifacts or digital stories that have meaning to them and their communities,” Thumlert says. 

For some, that’s a scary proposition. We are so accustomed to the old ways of learning – seated at a desk before an instructor imparting wisdom and computational formulas shared brain to brain. But with classrooms and lecture halls emptied since mid-March of this year, the familiar chalk-and-talk stereotype is on its way out, if not already gone. In its place is a new digital order that borrows heavily from the simulation genre of computer games. Digital education advocates believe the new tech will help raise awareness of the immense benefits and untapped potential of digital education across the entire sector. Millennials and even younger students have already encountered simulated 3D environments under other guises in the sphere of digital fantasy and play, diminishing resistance to the introduction of new learning technologies and methods in the virtual classroom. 

Students actually can see the thing they are learning about, they can explore it in detail and with a heightened perspective

“Gaming and virtual reality can be used to enhance student learning and engagement, and can transform the way educational content is delivered by creating virtual spaces in which to learn. They also allow users not only to see what it is they are studying but also to interact with the subject matter,” says Eva Peisachovich (PhD ’14), a professor in York’s Faculty of Health. Along with York colleagues Lora Appel (iBBA ’07) and Celina Da Silva (BA ’18, BEd ’20), Peisachovich is the co-founder of SimXSpace, an interconnected collective of labs at York where experiential education meets various forms of simulation in the online learning environment. “We know from research that visual learners can benefit from this approach, because instead of reading about a thing, students actually can see the thing they are learning about, they can explore it in detail and with a heightened perspective. It’s an enhanced learning experience,” Peisachovich says, and one that will create positive change in ways that are only now becoming apparent.

Simulated persons (SP) technology, such as Peisachovich employs in her teaching practice at the University’s School of Nursing, provides students with an opportunity to investigate health conditions like strokes and heart attacks in simulated patients at a time when interacting with a real-life patient for learning purposes is not an option, such as during the present global health crisis. “Applying SPs as an educational approach enables students to learn and practise interpersonal and interprofessional communication skills through meaningful, realistic human encounters followed by guided reflection in a safe setting,” Peisachovich says. “It’s also what makes virtual reality and gaming in education so powerful, as these technologies allow leaners to develop communication skills, cultural sensitivity, ethical conduct and professionalism, among many other applications.”

The relevance of simulations to both the theory and practice of remote learning is drawing interest across the University in departments and faculties as diverse as social work, law, business and education. Future collaborations will involve other post-secondary institutions such as the University of Toronto, Western, Wilfrid Laurier, UOIT and Lakehead Universities. But the aims of SimXSpace extend beyond academe. The York-based project’s stated goal is to become “a global leader in realizing the full potential of simulation technologies and methodologies to drive a new era of experiential education and research through collaborations with health-care organizations, intersectoral disciplines, and the corporate sector across Canada and internationally.” It’s not beyond reach.

The pivot to remote learning at the time of the coronavirus has created a boom market for educational technologies, one of the few industries growing in the pandemic. According to a 2018 Forbes report, the global e-learning market is projected to reach US$325 billion by 2025, a figure that is triple its current estimate of US$107 billion. In big demand are simulation and virtual reality, tools which promise to make the digital experience unique for each learner, finds a Royal Bank of Canada report on the future of higher education released in June of this year. “Adapted for smartphones, these tools could usher in a new wave of remote learning, including virtual laboratories and situation-based learning that may be impossible in a physical environment,” the RBC study concludes. The continued growth and expansion of artificial intelligence in education hardly surprises researchers at York. “The education market is shifting to virtual learning methods and approaches,” Peisachovich says. “As universities transition to online and remote learning, it becomes increasingly critical to introduce and create innovative virtual-learning opportunities to support learner success and graduate transition to the workplace.” 

Not everyone’s convinced of the benefits. A spring survey conducted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers in collaboration with the Canadian Federation of Students found a significant number of students – 75 per cent – worried that distance learning will amount to a poor learning experience. Teachers feel stressed about making the transition from in-class to online learning too, mainly because a shift of this magnitude has rarely happened in education before. Remote learning and the technologies that come with it are largely a gigantic real-time experiment. 

But for Kurt Thumlert, who continues to investigate new media and how students can engage with it in impactful ways, it is an experiment not to be feared. 

While unwilling to weigh the positives and negatives of remote learning, the York education scholar allows that the current health crisis has presented educators everywhere with an opportunity to embrace change and move with the rapidly evolving times. To do otherwise would be to set the clock backward. “Under conditions of pandemic,” Thumlert says, “we can return to entrenched archaic and stultifying pedagogies or – hopefully – begin to reimagine what teaching and learning might actually look like with innovative pedagogies that situate students as makers of knowledge, art and culture.”  ■

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