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Adapting and enhancing the learning environment through technology

Adapting and enhancing the learning environment through technology

Dr Devon Allcoat, Technology Management and Systems Engineering Teaching Fellow - WMG

Head and shoulders shot of Dr Devon Allcoat, Technology Management and Systems Engineering Teaching Fellow, WMG at the University of Warwick.Deploying technology as a mechanism for learning

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly changed how we approach teaching and learning in the education sector. Over the last 12 months there has been an emphasis on utilising technology to teach, and a rapid digital conversion from more traditional and physical learning approaches to those that can be engaged with virtually. Whilst individuals in the education sector may have had experience with specific software, the majority have needed to learn how to use tools for the first time in order to implement teaching online and ensure that levels of student academic experiences are at least maintained and actually improved where possible.

This emphasis on digital has created a surge in the use of certain tools and technologies; in particular video conferencing software, collaborative online platforms, and visualisation software. Whilst the overall situation has been a negative one, for many reasons, it has given educators the opportunity to discover new approaches to teaching and learning, and this discovery process has been accelerated somewhat when compared to the trajectory of digital learning techniques being applied prior to the pandemic. Many of these changes were initially made as short term fixes to a problem of reduced contact time with students. However, as the benefits of such approaches become more and more obvious to us, it’s likely that many of these digital approaches will make it back into our longer-term plans when we return to being able to teach in the classroom. The well-known proverb “necessity is the mother of invention” is certainly true in this case - the education sector has had to be innovative in order to continue to work effectively, and technology has been a core enabler here.

The evolution of the learning environment

Extended reality is a great example of technology that can be utilised for distance learning. This includes Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality. Virtual and Mixed Reality (VR and MR) have been effective learning tools offering the flexibility to enhance both classroom and distance learning settings.

In particular, it is a great tool to visualise 3D objects, as well as enhancing interactivity for the students as you can twist, rotate, walk around, look under, and move objects to understand how things look but also how they fit together and work together. In VR you can also do more than just move things around, you can pick them up, change and manipulate them, and make them interact with other things to see how they affect each other. This is predominantly used in particular subjects that benefit from visualisation, such as chemistry, biology, physics, medicine, and engineering. These technologies are also being used to enable digital representations of things that the students might not otherwise have access to, which enables safe and detailed digital explorations of elements such as dangerous materials, expensive equipment and restricted or more remote environments.

The technology is surprisingly accessible and affordable these days, but it does have its limitations. It can be timely or costly to develop the software for this technology in the first instance, and in order to teach using Virtual, Mixed, or Augmented Reality you need custom-built software that demonstrates exactly what you want to teach. Also, when we think about this technology in the context of being applied in the wider education landscape, outside of Higher Education, there are barriers such as age recommendations on the technology. Most VR headsets are not advised for young children. For example, for the Oculus Quest there is a minimum age of 14 recommended. Equally, the Google Daydream VR Headset is suggested for ages 13 and up, and the Sony PlayStation VR has a recommended minimum age of 12 and up. Therefore, it is unlikely to be suitable for primary school teaching.

Trends and developments throughout the next few years

Student feedback has highlighted the appreciation of engagement and interaction as part of their class work. Collaborative exercises and group work are valued, beyond simply reading a textbook or watching a video. Therefore, even when distance learning, this interactivity is vital.

Educators have found novel approaches to incorporate student interaction during distance learning, both with synchronous and asynchronous learning. I would expect that the education sector will evolve over the next few years by integrating some of the newly developed tools, techniques and technologies, as well as innovative approaches, back into traditional teaching methods. In particular, blended learning approaches, combining online materials and interaction with traditional classroom-based learning, will likely become increasingly common, utilising strategies such as flipped classroom teaching.

The increased capability levels around distance learning for education institutions has resulted in a level of flexibility that we have never seen before in the education sector. With robust digital infrastructures being implemented over the past 12 months, we have the option to deliver distance learning as we consider new blended approaches to courses, safe in the knowledge that the technology, software, understanding and acceptance of such approaches are already in place.

As we reflect on how we can take the learnings from the past 12 months to shape future education delivery, and prepare for similar situations in the future, we must proactively develop and invest in technologies that can support distance learning. Extended Reality is a great example of this - the majority of students in higher education have access to smart phones which are capable of supporting VR and AR to complement distance learning, enabling visualisation and interaction for a variety of subjects for students.

Find out more about Dr Allcoat’s research into Virtual and Mixed Reality with studies into the effectiveness of lecture slides or video content when compared with new and emerging technologies.

For more information about Dr Allcoat, visit her LinkedIn pages here.