Students with Goggles: Virtual Reality and Adaptive Learning in the Classroom

by Daniel Fusch, Academic Impressions

I was recently invited to visit Ellucian's Innovation Lab to speak with Brian Knotts, Ellucian's Chief Data Scientist, and to sample some emerging learning technologies first hand. We discussed machine learning, virtual personal assistants, and I had the chance to don a set of virtual reality goggles to experience what it might be like for college students participating in a virtual reality simulation. After I adjusted the focus (I am afflicted with very poor eyesight), I was at once confronted with what appeared to be skittering, giant cockroaches. To my relief, the scene quickly shifted to a sandswept environment populated by cloaked figures that looked as though it had been plucked from the pages of Frank Herbert's Dune.

Two things struck me as I looked up, down, and around in these VR goggles:

  • First, the incredible speed with which I learned to use them and to operate within the virtual environment. At one point, a "bow" was placed in my hand, and I learned to fire virtual arrows at virtual targets. The learning curve was extremely short, because I learned by doing. I learned the way a baby did: by looking around and testing my environment. It was true experiential learning.
  • Second, the lack of expense involved. The simplest Google Cardboard googles are already available for $6; the goggles with which I encountered the ominous giant cockroaches and desert landscapes, about $200. Citing a Fortune article, Brian Knotts suggests that we are about seven generations (5-7 years) from truly immersive and affordable VR goggle technology.

How Colleges are Already Using this Tech

In fact, some colleges and universities are already putting the technology that we currently have to use, both in and out of the classroom. For example:

  • Regis University and other institutions have shipped Cardboards to prospective students to that they can take a virtual campus tour and experience the campus in 3D.
  • MIT, the Colorado School of Mines, and other institutions focused on STEM have included VR goggles in their innovation labs, allowing students to step inside and manipulate a simulated environment.

Brian Knotts explained some of the affordances to me, with a sense of childlike wonder I could easily appreciate: "You fired arrows at targets. Now imagine you were doing something less martial. Suppose you stepped inside a simulated heart, or a cell. You can actually walk around inside a cell and watch how mitochondria operate, how they create energy for the body. That has been done."

What Knotts is most interested in is some of what real heart and using imaging technology to walk around inside a simulation of the actual heart. He asked me to imagine a virtual assistant that used machine learning to provide not just data but advice, calculated odds, and instruction to a student in such a simulation.

After I had a great deal of fun with the VR goggles, I sat down with Brian Knotts for a more in-depth interview. I wanted to ask some very practical questions.

Affordances and Possibilities: An Interview with Brian Knotts

Daniel Fusch. Brian, first, what are some other applications of this technology? What could be done with VR goggles? Besides a campus tour or stepping inside a simulated heart?

Brian Knotts. Well, pilot simulation, for one. Today, it costs $40 million to go into a real commercial flight simulator. What if you could use VR for that? Or what about bringing experiences into the classroom that the classroom doesn't usually have access to, like a virtual tour of ruins in Greece. In fact, there is a virtual tour of Egyptian temples. Those temples are a closed environment; you can't go there easily. So archaeologists produced a high-quality 3D video. Imagine visiting those sites using VR goggles. Could you go to those places and then write a paper on them? Could you go somewhere virtually prior to an in-person visit, to study and prepare for your trip? Could you go to the Rover on Mars? VR is useful in situations where you answer yes to any of these questions:

  • Would I likely not go? (But if I could, I'd learn a lot)
  • Am I unable to go?
  • Is this a place I can't go to quickly?
  • Is this a place where I will learn more if I have visited a simulation of it prior to arrival?

Going back to the example of walking around inside a cell, imagine that you are in a biology classroom, and mid-lecture, there's a break and you put on the goggles to go inside a blood cell for a few minutes to study it closely. Then you take off the goggles and discuss. When I was a child, we had a room in the Franklin Institute that you could walk inside, and it simulated a living heart. You could stand inside it. With VR, you could do that and explore it deeper. How might that light a student up?

Daniel Fusch. Earlier, you suggested that in the next 5-7 years, this technology could be integrated into universities and into the learning experience. What are the headwinds?

Brian Knotts. One headwind we have to struggle against: Will academics accept this or not? I think that's an open question. Will academics feel that there is a opportunity of going to a place we can’t go to today? Will there be a day when a college hands out goggles for all entering freshmen, the way some colleges now hand out laptops or iPads?

Daniel Fusch. I also want to ask you about machine learning. In the lab, you proposed the idea of a virtual personal assistant. That doesn't exist yet, on the level you're talking about...

Brian Knotts. No, not yet. It's missing. Why hasn't someone developed it? If it's really missing -- maybe someone out there is developing it, testing it, right now. You tried the Samsung goggles and you tried the Google Cardboard. The idea behind both of those is that we are powering them using a smartphone app. So why isn't there a Siri to help us navigate that virtual experience while we do? The next big breakthrough in virtual reality will be when we can ask, while using those goggles, "What am I look at? What will happen if I do this? Why didn't this work?"

Daniel Fusch. Tell me more about that -- about what that will mean for a learner. We're in the world of hypothesis right now, because this technology isn't here yet. But if it was, what would the specific affordances be?

Brian Knotts. I think the questions an educator could ask would include:

  • Could I make data insights available to a student (e.g., through a virtual personal assistant)? Think about the kind of learning that students seek from an academic coach or a writing lab. What if you had a personal assistant to help you access information you need on the fly? To check your work? To help you plan out different scenarios?
  • Could this technology help take care of the basics, the same way that a calculator does in a math class, so that the student's time is spent on higher-order learning, problem solving, critical thinking, analysis?
  • Could this technology help a student spot where they are having trouble with a particular learning concept? Could you help students accelerate via adaptive learning?
  • Could you use this technology to replay your learning and study it in a postmortem?

Daniel Fusch. Jumping back to the present day, we have Google Cardboard goggles that cost a few dollars and a number of basic virtual reality apps and 3D videos that you can experience while wearing them. We have the Samsung goggles that are reasonably affordable. And we have the Vive headgear you showed me, which requires enormous processing power in its current generation. But wow, we are already very close to being able to create a sophisticated learning experience within that simulation. So what should colleges be experimenting with, asking, or preparing for, today? What can they do low-cost? What advice would you give to deans at college campuses across the US?

Brian Knotts. Build an innovation lab. There's that wonderful lab at the Colorado School of Mines. There are others. Put one on your campus. Get the low-cost toys and invite the deans and faculty to experiment with these. Slap the goggles on, use the technology, and in five minutes you can imagine a dozen ways to use it. That's what you did today. I could have handed you a book about what this technology was and how to put it to use, but it was much more effective just to hand you the headgear and watch you immediately start experimenting with it.

So build an innovation lab. This can be low cost. In fact, start the experience with just the $6 Google Cardboads. Get faculty experimenting with it. That will create the buy-in, and the faculty are the ones who will come up with amazing ideas for how to use these to augment existing learning experiences on campus.

Daniel Fusch: Brian, thanks. You've given me a lot to think about!