The classroom of the future has arrived!
This week, four groups of NSW students at multiple geographically remote locations attended a real-time, shared school environment relying on High Definition audio, video, collaborative immersive technology of the kind hypothesised in science fiction and popularised in modern movies
such as Avatar.
What this pilot project demonstrated is that broadband technology can support a new school paradigm where a handful of good teachers prepare lessons, students login to a virtual school classroom and the broadband Internet takes care of the rest. Most modern ICT managers value scalability and pay little attention to teachers because unfortunately, teachers simply don’t scale!
Most of today’s education middle management has little or no experience of the ways that new technology helps students work together to collectively construct knowledge, explain their reasoning processes, and get feedback from the teacher and each other.
For those reasons, attempts to integrate technology into the traditional classroom usually leverage legacy technology such as data projectors, video players, and Internet/Intranet-based document archives – all are simply re-birthing established technologies.
Until now, most video conferencing and virtual classrooms have provided nothing more than a very poor shadow of the real-world classroom. This is because available technologies are used in conventional ways by conventional administrators, who attempt to apply ideas derived from their use of legacy technology.
In contrast, broadband virtual schools that provide quality education experiences by engaging students in immersive, collaborative, rich media experiences is the way of the future – and it’s here now!
Last week, more than 60 students from Sydney and Armidale were brought together as part of MacICT’s 3dedrats festival to collaborate on a virtual world design challenge. Year 10 student mentors from Dulwich High School of Visual Arts and Design (Dulwich HSVAD) played a critical role, helping Year 9-11 students from Sylvania, Duval and Armidale High Schools gain confidence and ability with OpenSim virtual world building tools.
The experience was made possible because of the ongoing project work of Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre (MacICT). Through collaboration with DEHub and the University of New England (UNE), these schools were able to participate in the collaborative design challenge and communicate with each other in both the virtual world and by using Polycom high-definition video conferencing (HD video conferencing) facilities supplied by Electroboard.
By sharing our virtual environment with Geek in Residence, Julian Stadon at Smart House, Armidale, we were able to demonstrate how important the National Broadband Network (NBN) is to the education sector in providing rich media and innovative learning experiences between schools in urban locations like Sydney and remote locations like Armidale, New England. Students had access to a number of experts from all over the country during the day.
Because of the National Broadband Network and Internet Service Providers like AARNET, MacICT was able to provide significantly greater bandwidth to accommodate 68 avatars in our virtual environment very easily – a massive increase on the previous record of 25.
The technical support provided by Macquarie University, UNE, NBN Co. and Electroboard was fantastic. High definition video conferencing greatly enhanced the real-time communication experiences between the locations.
Following a discussion of cyber-citizenship and the STAR code of conduct, students watched streamed video tutorials so they could begin creating their avatars, took a guided tour of the virtual world project WHEN2050 (another 3dedrats initiative), chatted via OpenSim and video conferencing, and practised teleporting, flying and building in the virtual world.
After lunch, students returned to create their collaborative designs. The students watched more streaming video tutorials then began the collaborative challenge in which they designed something meaningful to their local community in groups of 5 students. Even in the limited time, the designs were constructed rapidly and exhibited great creativity.
The student mentors were critical to the success of the groups, helping the new students to learn how to build and understand the creative possibilities of the virtual world. The mentors formed relationships with the groups through the text chat within the virtual world and provided guidance with building tips. Even more successful was mentoring via the video conferencing, which allowed the student mentors to demonstrate how to build specific objects requested by students in Armidale.
Overall, this was a very successful day, providing a glimpse of how learners, mentors and passionate educators can be brought together across NSW to use innovative technologies like virtual worlds and high-speed bandwidth of the NBN to deliver meaningful educational opportunities to all Australians, regardless of where they live, just like in a real classroom!
The classroom of the future has arrived.