The future of exploring the past
Learning has never been solely confined to the classroom, but modern technology is pushing back the boundaries of where students can venture.
Undoubtedly, the next-generation of virtual learning environments (VLEs) have tremendous potential for instruction and education. Schools and universities are increasingly exploring virtual technologies as a means to extend and enhance their offerings. Early VLEs allowed students and teachers to do little more than share files or collaborate through digital tools, like virtual whiteboards. However, 3D virtual platforms designed specifically for education have far greater potential.
While the judicious use of virtual environments can enhance almost any subject in the curriculum, Rezzable are currently developing a new online community called “Heritage Key” with a view to specifically supporting historical learning and research. Heritage Key is currently in a public beta with a two-fold offering. Firstly there is a media rich website showcasing a range of historical information, from articles and discussion forums to photos and video resources. Secondly, Heritage Key offers a 3D virtual experience that can take visitors far beyond the constraints of the flat web.
Heritage Key allows students to access virtual recreations of the world’s greatest historical sites, such as King Tutankhamun’s tomb at the time it was first discovered by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. Within this virtual world, students can then explore the tomb and examine everything from wall paintings to artefacts in highly realistic detail. The historical environments are meticulously reproduced by hand in 3D modelling applications using measurements and photographs of the actual sites and artefacts. Within this environment students can quite literally read individual hieroglyphics or note missing pieces of decorative lapis lazuli. The virtual environment also supports a detailed information system and audio tours that explain more about the artefacts being examined. Users explore these virtual worlds by creating their own fully customisable avatars, which also enable them to interact with each other or to explore historical sites in groups.
3D virtual worlds can supplement education in five main areas:
By allowing users to actively discover information in the world around them, 3D virtual worlds can make learning more personal and relevant to students and not simply something to be memorised and then forgotten. The moment a student first comes face to face with Tutankhamun’s Golden Death Mask is far more memorable than reading a description in a text-book, especially if they have had to work towards this goal.
Yet, perhaps the most obvious benefit of using 3D virtual worlds in education is their ability to give students experiences that would either be impossible or extremely difficult in real life. While constraints such as cost, scheduling or location can make taking students to the Egyptian Pyramids an unrealistic proposition, virtual 3D environments can allow them to not simply see the Pyramids as they are now, but to travel back in time and see them under construction. Additionally, they can allow students to see and experience ancient sites that that have now been closed to the public (whether for conservation or because the region is simply to dangerous to allow tourism, such as the ancient sites within Afghanistan).
Attempting to take students to Machu Picchu would quickly result in a quagmire of red tape, from finding the necessary insurance, to receiving permission slips from parents and making sure the students are physically fit enough for the climb. In the virtual world this journey can be undertaken in a few clicks of a mouse and without a second thought.
Research has frequently shown the value of “experiential” learning. Academics at the University of Nevada have concluded that “we undoubtedly learn by the coordinated use of all senses – seeing, hearing, and doing”, while others have referred to experience as a “living textbook”. One of the core advantages 3D virtual environments bring to students is allowing them to see and interact with the subjects they are being taught.
Heritage Key is now exploring ways to further increase this sense of “learning through doing” by building challenges and objectives into historical environments that will adjust to the level of knowledge a student possesses. By encouraging users to take an active, quest-orientated approach to learning, students will be more motivated to engage with the knowledge available and to continue to learn more.
Obviously experiential learning is only one weapon in a teacher’s arsenal, and it must sit alongside more traditional tactics, but it is nevertheless a valuable resource that should not be ignored.
As a platform for sharing information and collaborating with other students and experts, 3D virtual environments can liberate students from the classroom environment. This technology has the real potential to break the one-way flow of information that all too often accompanies traditional classroom learning.
Virtual resources can offer an extremely broad range of content and interactive experiences, but more importantly, these resources are constantly being revised and expanded, so that there is always some new information or new interpretation of facts to consider. Within 3D environments, students can make their own discoveries and observations, but they are also free to engage with experts and other students from around the world. For example, Heritage Key could allow an eminent archaeologist currently making discoveries in the Valley of the Kings, to discuss their findings with a class full of students. This conversation could even take place during a virtual tour of dig site, or while students handle the specific artefacts being discussed.
As online resources, 3D virtual worlds can allow students to learn at their own pace. They also allow students to select the information they want and to and access it in the way that is most useful to them.
One criticism often levelled at traditional education is that it does not put learning in context. For example, students may learn a great deal about a particular historical event, but little about how it fits into the historical context of that time. Once again this is a gap that resources like Heritage Key can help to fill. To stay within the subject of history, a 3D virtual environment could allow students to see how ordinary Egyptians would have lived at the time when the Pyramids were being built.
Importantly, virtual learning also frees students from only taking in the opinions of their teachers and text-books, allowing them to see many more different sides to an issue, whether from experts in the field or from other students. While educators often have little time to expand beyond the boarders of a syllabus, the fact that resources like Heritage Key can be simple and fast to access will enable them to quickly take the elements they want and build them into their lesson plans or lectures.
Unlike traditional learning resources, virtual learning is inclusive, not exclusive. Access to virtual information does not depend on a student’s finances or ability to travel. It also allows easier, more organised access to information than traditional libraries or museums and yet is capable of directing students to elements of these “off-line” resources. Ideally, virtual learning should augment and improve traditional learning resources.
Bringing the ancient world to virtual reality
Education has traditionally been slow to adapt to new technologies and it often lags behind the web 2.0 interconnected modern world. A recent report from Ofsted commented that “the use of online materials to help students with their lessons has been slow to take off" and that early virtual environments were merely "a dumping ground or storage place for rarely used files". 3D virtual environments may also be seen as the next logical step forward in the growing trend of remote learning, by allowing students who are not present in the classroom to participate in tours and discussions online. Virtual environments are likely to be of particular value to educators running distance learning courses, since they will allow students to engage and interact with both their subject and their classmates in a far more complete and compelling way.
Educators often feel that their students may have a better understanding of new technologies and so are reluctant to implement them in their classes. Additionally, many teachers fear that a steep learning curve will accompany these technologies and prefer to implement the traditional approaches they are more familiar with. Budgetary considerations also mean that many schools and universities are worried that they will have to invest in technology in order to reap the potential benefits of new educational tools. Additionally, many teachers do not see a role for new technologies within the strict syllabuses that they are teaching.
Yet technology is something that educators must learn to harness, since it is changing the way many young people view information. Knowledge is no longer seen as something to simply be noted down, memorised and replicated, but as something that can be actively engaged with, developed and accessed in its most useful and appropriate form.
Heritage Key expands on what is possible online, but also functions from within a computer’s browser. This means that schools do not have to invest in the latest technologies in order to be able to make use of it. Additionally, Heritage Key is completely free will soon allow institutions to install the entire offering, or selected areas of it, within an educational network, so that it can be accessed even more easily. This will essentially allow teachers to access content-on-demand and quickly demonstrate the subjects they are discussing to help their students visualise them.
The future of virtual learning
While this discussion has focussed on history, other subjects can benefit equally or even more greatly from this type of technology. For example, environments of this kind could allow medical students to see 3D virtual operations or enable physicists to walk inside the structure of an atom.
Through technologies like Heritage Key, students will not only be able to absorb a greater range of information, they can also actively join the global discussions going on, from the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece to the technology behind the Large Hadron Collider.
In short, this technology could be crucial to generating more genuine enthusiasm and less simple memorisation in modern education.
Jonathan Himoff, CEO of Rezzable.
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