A Vision for the Role of AI and VR in the Classroom of Tomorrow.

As I stated in the beginning of my previous post, there is no doubt in my mind that our current model for schools, classrooms, and education is well past its prime.  It is increasingly at odds with the goal of producing students who are well equipped to thrive in a modern society that demands creative, higher-order thinking skills to achieve success.  I could write volumes on this theme, but will (perhaps mercifully) spare you here, as I could go on for quite a while. I’d probably also be preaching to the choir as well, as I suspect that most anyone reading this is in at least general agreement.

There are a number of promising trends and technologies that show great potential for helping educators provide meaningful and personalize learning experiences for all students, but I will discuss the two that I think will potentially have the largest impact in this post.  

Artificial Intelligence

Whether or not we think artificial intelligence (AI) is something to be feared or welcomed, there can be no debate that it already surrounds us, and that its capabilities are growing at an accelerating rate.  Nor does it seem to be going away. Leaving aside the debate about its benefits and risks to society, I would like to discuss its potential benefits to teaching and learning.  

AI has the potential to truly personalize learning.  Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve had somewhere in the region of 60-90 students in my classes, depending on the school, the year, and the specific courses I’ve taught.  Even on the low end, creating a truly personalized learning plan for 60 students is unmanageable for a single teacher. Currently, good practice is differentiation (not quite truly personalized yet), which, in most secondary classrooms I’ve seen (mine included) involves having various support materials and alternatives for struggling students, as well as extension materials for students who are ready to dive deeper into a subject.  

AI’s potential for improving and personalizing the educational experience for students is tremendous, and educational leaders and researchers are taking note.  In the video below, Cynthia Breazeal, Director of the Personal Robots group at MIT Media Lab, lays out her vision of what AI can do for personalized learning.  She discusses how AI could be used to help all people learn, including those in under-resourced communities.

In his TEDx Talk, Neuroscientist Scott Bolland articulates why our current education system is failing so many students, and how teachers and schools faced a near impossible task of effectively changing things before the introduction of AI.  He then goes on, in the final part of his talk (10:11) to detail ways that AI can help alleviate some of the most pressing challenges that teachers are facing today.

But is all this talk and anticipation about that AI “could” do for schools simply hype?  Will the potential of AI for the classroom turn out to be empty promises? The Tacoma Public School District increased their high school graduation rate from 55.0% to 82.6% in six years, aided by the district-wide use of Microsoft’s AI-powered “Azure” software.  This story is one example of how AI-enhanced data processing is aiding both educators and students, and I believe that we will be hearing more success stories like Tacoma’s in the near future.  

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR), as well as Augmented Reality (AR) are two technologies that I also think hold tremendous promise for educational institutions.  I have written about VR in the classroom in a previous post, but that was largely focused on what is currently possible with VR technology as it stands.  As VR becomes not only better, but more ubiquitous, the possibilities for classroom application quickly multiply.

Yes, virtual worlds such as Second Life and Minecraft are not new, but the ability for a more complete integration of the user/player with these 3-D worlds are limited by the use of avatars.  VR will make it possible for the user to more closely experience the world as though they were the avatar. (Of course, this will take years to develop, and early versions will be more limited in terms of what is possible for immersive experiences)

(Graphic credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CAEE_Immersive_Classroom_Concept.png   Shared under Creative Commons Licence.)

Some research into the future of VR in education will yield a multitude of articles, blog posts, and opinions.  I’ll share here some of my favorites that I found while reading/researching. In this article, Ben Rossi discusses just a few of the possibilities of what VR could do for education at many levels, including advanced training for specific jobs as well as K-12 education.  Author Matthew Lynch lays out his vision for how VR could increase student empathy, help struggling students, and make learning experiences more relevant.  Finally, Jason Hreha, doesn’t mince words with the title of his brief but compelling read on the future potential for VR for learning.  

Surgeons in training could work on virtual patients, mechanics could work on repairing virtual engines, and public speakers could practice oration in front of a virtual audience.  And, these experiences could be practiced as many times as necessary. As a chemistry teacher, I am excited by the potential of virtual laboratories, where students could carry out virtual procedures that are potentially too dangerous (due to the presence of certain chemicals) or too costly (due to the requirement of specific, expensive equipment) for the average high-school science lab.  Virtual laboratories could also be a way for students in a poorly resourced school to gain access to laboratory experiences that they might not otherwise have the potential to carry out.  VR technology could not only improve the education experience for the learner, but also save money for cash-strapped school districts.  

(Please note – I am not advocating for the total replacement of tactile laboratory experiences with virtual ones. I am simply noting that VR could enhance and extend learning opportunities beyond the current capabilities of most present-day high school labs.)

In his TedxCERN talk (below), Michael Bodekaer describes how his team built Labster, which is just the type of virtual laboratory that I have described.  Such virtual labs will no doubt become even more realistic and immersive as technological capabilities improve.  His research team found that when VR experiences were combined with teacher-led mentoring and coaching, the learning effectiveness increased by 101%.  That is compelling evidence.

Just as the debate is still raging about how harmful or benign our current levels of screen-time, there will certainly be a debate over how much VR is “safe”.  This debate will certainly be relevant and important for anyone – adults and children – both in and out of schools. However, I will leave those musings for another post.  Certainly there are both utopian and dystopian futures that can be painted as both AI and VR become ever more entwined with our daily lives, and the reality will fall somewhere along the spectrum in between.  

In-person experiences still play an important role.

I would like to end this post by highlighting that even though I believe AI and VR will become integral parts of the field of education at all levels (pre-K through graduate/professional schooling), I also do not believe that the future of education consists of people learning solely from machines.  Teachers will still play the most important role in the classrooms of the future, no matter how good our AI gets, or how immersive the VR experiences available. Because humans still learn best from humans, and it is important to note that the AI and VR will only help the human teacher connect more effectively with their human students.  I do not envision a world filled with online only education, or schools filled with children learning from machine algorithms. These tools have the potential to help us teachers do our job better, more efficiently, and more effectively – but it is a long way to go before teachers have to worry about automation.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Dr. Winnie Tang, honorary professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hong Kong, who argues compellingly in this article that teachers will not be replaced by AI: “Innovation, communication skills and good emotional quotients are unique to humans. Let’s develop them together.”

What are your thoughts on the future of AI and/or VR in education?  Please leave your comments below. Thanks for reading!

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