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Contributor: ThinkFWD
Bringing new worlds of education to every classroom

How can educators leverage the transformative technology at their disposal? 

Video conferencing has been commonplace in Australian boardrooms for years, spanning the globe and time zones to bring colleagues and clients together in virtual face-to-face meetings. Now even a mobile phone can connect you to a video conversation with a person, or people all over the world.

Rapid development of new technology continues to offer new ways for people to connect with the world around them, rendering time and place inconsequential. So surely there are opportunities for educators and students, particularly in the context of the growing focus on technology implementation in schools?

In fact, just like businesses, some educational institutions around the world and in Australia have already been using video conferencing for years, connecting students to classes, virtual excursions and experiences with other cultures and countries all around the world. And it’s even more exciting when you consider how the advent of affordable virtual reality technology will soon change the landscape again. Seamless connectivity to people and places, both real and virtual, can bring a wealth of educational opportunity to every classroom, especially for remote communities and students who have difficulty attending regular classrooms.

Crossing oceans with a webcam

A fascinating example of how schools have been making the most of video conferencing comes from Kodiak Island, 400 kilometres south of Anchorage in Alaska, where students have been using webcams and broadband to cross the oceans that surround them.

Key areas of success from the area were outlined in a recent article in The Journal are: 

  • Connecting classrooms for collaborative projects: Whether it’s Israel or Ghana, students can be exposed to different cultures and ideas as they share project material with other kids from around the globe.
  • Making courses available anywhere: Speciality subjects, such as European languages, can be taught remotely where there is no teacher available in a community.
  • Overcoming rural isolation: Remote communities don’t always have the resources to deliver the education available in larger urban settings for their small classes ranging from just 12 to 40 students.
  • Virtual field trips: Whether it’s a visit to a museum or a remote national park, sometimes the logistics of a field trip are too challenging. Via video conference, children can still have one-on-one interaction with a guide, asking questions as they are taken on a virtual tour.*
  • Vocational education: Students interested in medical careers can be taken through a live operation, interacting and asking questions as they go.
  • Including homebound students in class: Some students can’t make it to school because of injury or disability, but can virtually attend normal classes via video conference.

Virtual worlds, real opportunities

Already widely used in engineering and healthcare education as well as military training, virtual reality (VR) is on the cusp of going main-stream. With VR headsets promised at mass-market prices within a few months and with major technology manufacturers set to compete in the space, an explosion of this exciting technology seems imminent.

VR allows students to explore places and interact with scenarios that would not be possible in reality. They can see, hear and manipulate things in real time and in collaboration with other students and educators in a safe and controlled environment. The possibilities are really only limited by the scope of our imaginations and the content on offer for the platform. The gamified quality of a VR interactive environment makes it a highly engaging medium for both students and teachers, and has been shown to increase students’ attention levels by up to 92 per cent, with a resultant uplift in test scores on related material.

But at present one of the most promising uses of VR is for assisting students who would benefit from an alternative approach to learning than the traditional classroom model. A pilot program run in 20 primary schools by the University College Dublin, School of Education has reported great results in tackling social issues with VR. The VR world helped to level the playing field, enabling children with low confidence, home life issues or learning difficulties to more freely interact as equals with peers and educators, resulting in some uplifting positive outcomes.

At the Jackson school in St Albans, Victoria, the VR headset Occulus Rift is already in use, with educators able to create calm and nurturing learning environments for students who find school and its stimuli overloading. Some children affected by autism have also been more comfortable engaging in new experiences outside their comfort zone when in a virtual environment.

Putting structure behind seamless

The effectiveness of connective technologies like video conferencing or VR is of course hugely dependent on the quality of the devices and infrastructure available to students. Challenges for education institutions include internet speeds, compatibility and the quality of their PCs, network bandwidth and protocol limitations – and the scale of these challenges vary greatly across Australia.

In some cities, we have already seen the arrival of super high speed internet via the National Broadband Network (NBN) that is a massive improvement on the older infrastructure and the roll-out will steadily become available in more and more rural areas delivering the capability to support bandwidth-hungry streaming services.

In remote areas, where students and teachers could conceivably benefit most, access to technology and supporting infrastructure is predictably more difficult – but there is hope in the form of the NBN’s planned delivery of broadband access via satellite. This means that teachers even in less populous areas will be able to access advanced online educational services as well as professional development resources and have more opportunities to interact with peers – all of which are crucial to maintaining education standards and retaining staff.

Technology is brilliant – but only when it works – and like a chain, it’s only as strong as the weakest link. For remote video and VR to deliver on their vast potential to create impactful educational experiences, a robust and dependable infrastructure supporting reliable PCs that can handle the graphics and processing load is essential.

*Resources for virtual field trips within Australia include the Distance and Rural Technologies Connections (DARTConnections, program run by the New South Wales department of education, the Australian Museum and others. Some international programs are accessible too.


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