Education as Digital Immersion

Compared with the interesting world outside school and even the phones often in their hands, the current average classroom could seem like a boring place for some of today's students.

"How do we handle barren classrooms?" Harvard professor Chris Dede asked several hundred teachers, educators, researchers, and others during a summit on "Technology, Cognition, and Learning" at Johns Hopkins University on Thursday. One potential solution, Dede said, is to "bring 'situated learning' into the classroom."

Situated learning is learning that takes place in the same context in which it is applied. A workplace example might be getting promoted to manager and learning Excel to handle new budget decisions. Since that's the way we spend most of our life learning, Dede said, he and others are in the early stages of figuring out how to get such context-based learning into a schoolroom.

His team has produced a multi-user virtual environment (the type of computer interface used in World of Warcraft and Webkinz) to help middle-grade students develop scientific-process skills while they learn about ecosystems science (a requirement of the current national science core standards). Using EcoMUVE modules on the computer, students can investigate a pond and a forest, taking samples, interacting with characters, and watching events unfold over time. Mid-stream in the program, something odd happens in the environment, and they must work together to figure out why. Check out the explanatory video: I must say my first reaction was envy—my science classes didn't offer nearly as much. Still, it's in early stages, as are many online and interactive approaches.

With EcoMUVE, "We're teaching the front-part of inquiry," Dede said, including framing the problem, deciding what data they need to solve it, and designing experiments. That's far different than the standard class labs, which start from the "back-part," using canned experiments where you try to guess the correct answer. The EcoMUVErs must take into account the complexities of causality, and see that not everything has a canned answer.

Last year 121 classrooms piloted the project, and Dede and colleagues are looking at the data now. So far, the trend is good, he said. One potential problem in selling the idea to schools, though, is the "problem" of assessment. The standardized tests measure facts and basic problem-solving, not the level of complex problem-solving kids might learn using EcoMUVE. The standardized test scores for kids in the first stage of the program were no higher or lower than others in their cohort, Dede said.

So the next stage of their project, which has funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education, is to create immersive environments solely for testing and assessment. "We need to establish its [the method's] psychometric [measurement of knowledge] properties," he said, but he believes it could be a valuable complement to the standardized tests Used now.For me, this brought up another question: How much immersive-testing time would you get to learn the program before you're tested. My first-ever experience with using a computer for online learning was taking the GMAT (even the GMAT training was a workbook), and I think my performance was greatly affected by format. Would all the kids in Baltimore, where we were sitting today, have seen such a program before? Will everyone in the next-next generation think it's all ho-hum, no problem? Also, barren is in the eye of the beholder; as Dede acknowledged, this approach would not work for people with low-vision, and while there are roles that low-English and slow readers could play, they might not get as much benefit as with a more-traditional book and back-and-forth with the teacher might give.

Another next step is a five-year project, EcoMOBILE, which will take the learning to the pond, in a manner of speaking. After they do the four-week EcoMUVE project, kids take a trip outdoors, carrying special smartphones and environmental probes like the pros use. Using the phones, they access and collect information (photos, video, sound) to help them solve another environmental mystery. A short video shows the process—and how involved the kids are.

This type of augmented learning (an overlay on the real world) is somewhat easier to program than virtual realities; Dede thinks this could be rapidly adopted. One of the project's goals is to create templates that teachers could use to add data to a local environment. Dede's goal is to have those templates within a year—and to have templates students themselves could program by the end of the project.

A one-month virtual reality project with a one-week augmented reality add-on likely isn't enough to change the current of learning. But a year of it? A half-year? We all remember a special teacher, a special course, and that was only a semester or a year; could that be true of such an immersion? Much more testing needed, Dede said.

His advice for the teachers in the audience: Immerse yourself. "Because we all teach as we have been taught, we have to learn about virtual worlds by being in virtual worlds," he said, and learn about social media and other communication techologies by swimming in them. "The biggest challenge is not the technology—that's just a catalyst." The biggest problem for adults, he said, is "un-learning:" giving up old ways not just intellectually but emotionally and socially, too. And just as with the middle-schoolers, "it helps to be part of a cohort that learns and unlearns together."

That's just what many of the presenters and those attending the Hopkins event are doing. Most will also be in Crystal City, VA, Friday through Sunday for a similarly themed Learning & the Brain conference. This year's session is titled "The Web-Connected Generation: How Technology Transforms Their Brains, Teaching and Attention." Usually quite a few people live-tweet from these conferences (including us at @dana_fdn, if the wi-fi is willing); the hashtag for this one is #LB32. 

–Nicky Penttila

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