Even in our pre-COVID world, teachers had been making excellent use of technology such as videoconferencing. One inspiring example involved a kindergarten teacher named Beth Heidemann who arranged a Skype call between her own students and another class of students in a poor African community. Resonating strongly with the class and highlighting the realities of food insecurity and poverty, this served as a powerful method for bringing learning to life. After the call, Heidemann helped her students continue research into the issue and write a fairytale that exposed the issue of hunger. This book was then illustrated, published and sold to family and friends in an effort to raise money for the local food pantry.
COVID of course has turned videoconferencing into an everyday reality for the majority of students learning remotely, and overall this has been effective and engaging for students despite the circumstances.
While videoconferencing provides great opportunity to adapt lessons, connect students and access the broader world, virtual reality and augmented reality can be even more powerful, and their use has surged during the COVID era. To clarify the distinction between these two technology applications, AR overlays digital information on real-world objects by using the camera on a mobile device, while VR obscures the real world and the user is immersed in a fully digital experience.
Augmented and virtual reality offer educators a unique ability to immerse their students in the content. Students are able to interact with what they otherwise would have only learned in theory as the technology offers an immersive experience. For content surrounding historical events, practical work in various industries and scientific experiments, AR and VR offer a highly engaging new way to learn with immersive and real-life simulations.
A recent example of the effective uptake of this technology in schools is found in Gymea Technology High School where lockdowns and restrictions meant that school tours could not happen as they used to. Karen Young, in collaboration with technology students, developed a 360-degree virtual reality tour of the school, exhibiting its classrooms, technology spaces and commercial kitchens. The virtual tour is complete with 3D animations, student interviews and quizzes, offering prospective students and parents a highly interactive online alternative to the traditional school tour. A shoot day was held with student tour guides and a 360-degree camera, not only showcasing but exemplifying the collaboration and technological innovation embodied by the school.
While many of us may have some traumatic memories of dissecting frogs in the classroom, today’s students have the opportunity to utilise apps like Froggipedia which uses AR to give a walkthrough of a frog’s organs. Similar technology is utilised in a range of other apps to explain various scientific concepts and phenomena. Students can take a tour of a beehive, map out the constellations with the SkyView app, or use Microsoft HoloLens to flow through the bloodstream and examine the human organs. This technology is not limited to science students, however, with other applications including immersive experiences of the 1943 Berlin Blitz that use real footage, treks to Mt Everest Base Camp and exhibitions at famous art galleries like the Louvre.
An outstanding use of virtual reality in 2018 was put on by the City of Newcastle. People can use a virtual reality headset or a simple smartphone and be transported back in time to when the land of Newcastle was inhabited by the Awabakal and Worimi people. Elder characters walk the user through the landscape, explaining the significance of traditional sites and sharing associated names and stories along the way. Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes explains the power of such content to encourage respect and celebration of Aboriginal culture in educational contexts.
The early research gives a clear indication of the power of AR and VR technologies in making learning ‘real’. Studies have reported increased student motivation, improved collaboration and knowledge construction and enhanced classroom practices as a direct result of this technology. Not only has this integration of virtual and augmented reality into learning provided a highly effective alternative to engaging in remote learning, but is also accelerating the teaching of digital literacy which is so essential for today’s students.
While inequalities in internet and technology access persist, overall these technologies democratise the experience of education. As AR, VR and online learning in general are not limited by geography or logistical practicality, their benefits are able to reach even remote communities and prepare students across the spectrum of socioeconomic status and location for their technological future.
Innovative technology like augmented and virtual reality offer groundbreaking new methods of teaching to educators in an increasingly unprecedented world. Thanks to the pandemic, this technology is becoming an everyday reality for students. Schools cannot ignore its unique capacities for equipping their students for the future that awaits them.