Digital learning: distraction or default for the future?

Summary: Technologies like VR and AR are taking over classrooms – and for many teachers, that’ll prove a good thing.

The use of mobile devices, virtual reality and augmented reality in learning still draws a mixed bag of reactions from educators. But recent developments in digital learning technologies suggest that virtual learning will not only become a natural part of future classrooms – it’ll help kids learn like never before.

Based on a survey by Barnes and Noble College, over 51% of students learn best through active participation, while only 12% are able to listen and learn well. That gives us a hint of what future learners will expect from their lessons, and provides good motivation for educators to consider the experiential learning that virtual learning promises to create.

The Reality of Virtual Learning

The greatest potential for virtual learning lies in its ability to help students visualise abstract scientific concepts, such as the human anatomy or food chains, by rendering them as fully 3D models that is overlaid over the real world. This virtually-assisted learning is already present in how Microsoft’s Hololens is being used at the RMIT School of Architecture and Urban Design or at the Case Western Reserve Cleveland Clinic. Students can interact, turn and study a model to their heart’s content. Teachers can then direct students to certain parts of the model, provide additional pointers or facts, and assign tasks based on the model – finding a human organ in relation to the position of the liver, for example.

Through virtual headsets, students are also free to experiment with virtual chemicals and see the results instantly, rather than cram their heads around dry theory and textbook experiments. In the future, technologies such as Microsoft’s Holoportation could even bring subject matter experts into classrooms, allowing for organic two-way dialogues to happen. These aren’t just futuristic and cool ideas; they’re also a boon to students who lean toward a more visual or hands-on learning styles, or who might lack face-to-face access to certain resources due to their location or socioeconomic background.

The Future is Now

While it may be argued that the current costs of virtual headsets make them inaccessible to most schools at present, this shouldn’t stop educators from experimenting with virtual learning. Augmented reality apps on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, have existed for years and have become better over time. Students can already download apps that allow them to explore the solar system, understand geometry in 3D and learn the life cycles of plants. Teachers can create fun AR scavenger-hunt adventures that incorporates group work and problem solving activities.

In short, educators can combine these virtual learning apps with gamification elements to teach collaboration, critical thinking and self-learning skills into their students. They can also tailor the use of these technologies with different student strengths. For example, teachers can use virtual learning to aid the understanding of weaker students, while assigning competitive game-based tasks to the quicker students. As always, the teacher’s assessment of their pupils’ learning abilities and levels plays a crucial role in how the technology’s used.

And that raises a key point: these technological wonders can and should exist only as an aid to help teachers communicate their material and students visualise their lessons better. In the paragraphs above, the role of the educator in setting guidelines and creating context has never changed, in fact it may be even more crucial than ever before. But as the future draws closer and traditional chalk-and-talk no longer cuts it, educators may have to embrace a different kind of reality in the classroom.

Read the full Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report.

 Want to know more? Read our 10 tips for creating more accessible digital content, not just exams, on the Microsoft Education Blog.

Our mission at Microsoft is to equip and empower educators to shape and assure the success of every student. Any teacher can join our effort with free Office 365 Education, find affordable Windows devices and connect with others on the Educator Community for free training and classroom resources. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for our latest updates.