What does "learning" look like? If you had to draw a quick picture, you might sketch a teacher standing in front of neat rows of desks. It's still fair to say that the lecture format is core to many educational programs, but technology is advancing and creating opportunities for technology-enhanced and online learning to be more experiential, more flexible, and more engaging.
The educational landscape is shifting, and educational institutions must keep pace to attract tomorrow's learners. Learning -- even formal degree- or certificate-bound learning -- is happening outside classrooms, in hands-on work and interactive online forums. It's becoming more accessible -- though it's important to note that while technology has the potential to support all learners, it must be adapted with accessibility needs in mind. Methods of instruction are changing, too, and one of the most exciting developments is the application of insights from the gaming industry to education.
Virtual worlds, for example, are gaining traction as a way to engage students learning at a distance. Learners' avatars can interact in online scenarios, watching the impact their decisions have on other participants. Afterwards, groups can review a scenario, sharing feedback and identifying effective approaches. The Chang School has developed and uses Lake Devo Online Role Play in courses across disciplines to support interactivity in simulated environments. Tools and applications like Lake Devo provide a way for online learners to get more -- not less -- hands-on experience than they would in a classroom.
As Helen Farley of the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, writes in Curriculum Models for the 21st Century,
"These environments [virtual worlds] potentially allow educators to provide their students with more authentic learning experiences that more closely replicate real-life contexts through the provision of credible tasks and activities ... Carefully designed simulations deployed in virtual world environments can offer safe and economical simulations of real-world contexts that can enhance learning."
Entering a simulated environment encourages you to try new approaches. Some work and help you advance. Some fail. But when your approach doesn't work, you can pick yourself up and start again. Consider how different that is from test-driven classroom work, where failure stays on your academic record. Virtual worlds free learners to experiment, and that can lead to better solutions to real-world problems.
It's up to centres of learning to embrace new approaches that encourage critical thinking and problem-solving. Importantly, that doesn't mean accepting whatever technologies are offered. It means tailoring existing technology and building new technology expressly to serve educational ends. If what we need isn't available, we'll have to create it.
This is important to enhance learning experience and advance education. It's also important for our economy. One of the master class leaders at the upcoming ChangSchoolTalks 2016 is Tony Bates, who recently explored online experiential learning at The Chang School. Author of the (free, online) book Teaching in a Digital Age, Bates emphasizes the importance of offering the right kind of learning to support the economy of the future in a recent blog post:
"All advanced developed countries want to be leaders in innovation. Will Canada produce the researchers, engineers and managers with the right skills for a knowledge-based economy? ... Canada needs to focus much more on identifying the knowledge and skills that will be needed in knowledge intensive industries and ensure that our educational institutions know how to develop such skills. In particular are we using the appropriate teaching methods and technologies that will help learners develop these skills and knowledge?"
I agree that education must adapt to the changing needs of learners and facilitate the growth of our knowledge-based economy. Educational institutions have an unparalleled opportunity today to reshape our programs, supported by emerging technology. We've already made great strides -- and I'm confident that the best is yet to come.
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One of the most common complaints from amputee victims is the feeling of phantom pain -- feeling the missing limb but not being able to see or control it. Exactly what causes phantom pain is unknown, but it's likely a result of the brain still recognizing the limb even though it's no longer there. Despite the frequency of this problem, there's no one method of dealing with the pain that works for all amputees. But an experimental study, detailed in the journal Frontiers for Neuroscience, soothed one man's chronic phantom pain after 48 years of suffering by allowing him to not only see a virtual representation of the limb, but also to control it using electrodes attached to the base of the missing limb that measured muscle movement. The patient reported a drastic improvement in his phantom pain. The therapy needs to undergo more tests before it can be more widely used in treatment.
Burn patients, as well, can benefit from the use of virtual reality. Suffering through agonizingly painful treatment and therapy (such as the cringe-inducing "skin stretching" therapy) can be eased through a virtual game called "SnowWorld," first used by Loyola University Hospital in Maywood, Ill. The game puts victims as far from their injuries as mentally possible by letting them shoot snowballs at penguins and snowmen while jamming to Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" (or whatever else they choose to listen to). The treatment helps distract patients by letting them have a little fun while also visually simulating a more comfortable environment for them. MRI results, as well as patient testimony, show that it's succeeding.
VR has been effective in treating soldiers who have returned from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and are suffering from PTSD. In this video, you see how the patient is gradually kept under stress by visiting a virtual representation of a Middle Eastern town. The therapy keeps the patient under reasonable amounts of stress so that he can learn to handle the stress and, hopefully, control it. While many consider this treatment controversial, proponents say it can be effective for some patients when used in conjunction with other forms of treatment. PTSD isn't the only psychological disorder VR can help to treat. The Virtual Reality Medical Center says phobias, anxiety disorders, and panic disorders can all be treated as well.
Virtual Reality has proved effective at treating children with autism. It can help them learn social cues, fine-tune motor skills, or experiment with real-world lessons like waiting until it's safe to cross the street. One reason behind the treatment's efficacy could be that children with autism interact well with technology, specifically virtual reality. Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior, told NBC News that it's the technology's predictability, controllability and "infinite patience" that makes it such an effective teacher for these children. While these two youngsters are working with an Xbox One Kinect in this photo (also a sort of virtual reality), head-mounted displays are also used in this research.
Medical students don't have very many chances at the "error" part of trial-and-error learning. It's a big jump from operating on a human in theory to making the first cut on the operating table. Virtual reality makes "practice makes perfect" more practical. Recent uses of virtual reality in medicine include
It's not just medicine that's being improved by virtual reality. Some are finding uses for the technology in some surprising industries like the financial industry. An experiment by the Virtual Human Interaction Lab used virtual reality goggles to show 20-somethings what they would look and move like in their 60's in an attempt to get more young people to start saving for retirement early. The experiment worked. According to ABC News, those who wore the goggles put twice as much money into a hypothetical retirement account than those who did not.
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