The research study, “Virtual Worlds vs. Books and Videos in History Education” (Ijaz, Bogdanovych, & Trescak, 2016), compares the impact of different methods of self-study on a learners’ performance (H1) and on their engagement and motivation (H2). To complete this study, research subjects were split into groups according to the three methods of self-study— traditional (books), video (visual aid), and virtual (virtual worlds with AI-controlled avatars)— and all 60 subjects were asked to use their group’s assigned method to learn about Uruk (a new study subject for all participants), one of civilization’s earliest cities. The study revealed that students using the virtual simulation performed 20% better on average than the other two groups and were more engaged, despite spending more than three times the amount of time studying in the simulation than their counterparts spent studying traditional books and video (Ijaz et al. 2016). Furthermore, while these findings may seem to challenge the current school system, its focus is solely on self-directed learning methods, and ultimately, the study concludes that current technology is not yet able to replace traditional classroom instruction. As such, virtual simulations should be used in order to enhance what can be learned via books and video as a primary source of learning (Ijaz et al. 2016).
The current need for educational change is evident as technology becomes readily available to students and it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers to compete for their attention. As demonstrated in this study (Ijaz et al. 2016), telling and showing students things that they could easily find on their own is no longer enough to truly engage them in their learning: “Traditional learning approaches often suffer from inability to entertain the students and, consecutively, inability to motivate them to learn” (Ijaz et al. 2016, p. 904). Indeed, if we want to create a systemic shift in education, we have to get students to play an active role in their education. Albert Einstein once said that “the only source of knowledge is experiencing” (as cited in Couros, 2015, p. 181), and the truth in his statement is clear in the effectiveness of virtual simulations for self-directed learning. In contrast to traditional teaching methods, virtual worlds allow students to “‘learn—by doing’ parallel processing for various tasks at hand and independent investigations, which are rarely fully supported in traditional classroom settings” (Ijaz et al. 2016, p. 906). However, any virtual world, no matter how beautiful, realistic or engaging, will not be sufficient to create a rich learning experience. A good pedagogy is needed to create a deep learning experience, no matter the delivery method.
This study clearly demonstrates the complexity of creating an interactive virtual world, one where students can not only look at their environment but engage with it: “Similar to many other historical simulations, a significant effort has been put into a realistic recreation of the architecture of the city, while a much smaller effort has been placed on the development of virtual agents” (Ijaz et al. 2016, p. 908). It is one thing to create a virtual world but it is another to create a rich interaction. For example, this researcher used artificial intelligence (AI) controlled avatars to interact with students but with little success: “The agents in the Forbidden City is supplied with very limited ‘intelligence.’ Their actions are highly scripted and their ability to interact with the users is limited to scripted monologues. The number of available agents is also quite low and the majority of those act purely as guides rather than as virtual inhabitants of the city living their daily lives there” (Ijaz et al. 2016, p. 908). The flaw in current virtual simulations for learning is clearly the fact that while they engage with the virtual world and the characters in it, students are, to a certain extent, isolated from their most valuable resources: their teachers and each other. As George Couros describes in his book The Innovator’s Mindset, “the three most important words in education are: relationships, relationships, relationships. Without them we have nothing.” (Couros, 2015, p. 68) This is, in my mind, the most important factor in student success. Meanwhile, most teachers are not currently trained at creating virtual worlds, programming artificial-intelligence software and creating interactive online experiences. They are trained to teach and could be trained to use today’s virtual reality technologies to engage students by guiding them on virtual field trips and to push learning beyond the curriculum by getting students to work together, collaborate, create, solve problems, etc. However, if we “Omit the teacher. It is as if pedagogy is irrelevant” (Fullan, 2013 p. 39).
Furthermore, it is important for students and teachers alike to strive for excellence by engaging in continuous lifelong learning to reach their full potential and contribute the best version of themselves to the betterment of our society: “We know that change is never easy, and realizing the goals set out in Achieving Excellence will require the continued commitment of all of our partners. However, the evidence of the past decade demonstrates that our education system is capable of making real, positive change. We know that in order to build a better system we need to value the work of all education professionals – early childhood educators, teachers, support staff, school and system leaders and administrators. We also know that policy decisions and the allocation of resources have to be guided by evidence and research. It is through these principles that we have seen success in the past, and these principles will continue to guide us in the future as we develop more rigorous, relevant and innovative approaches to learning.” (Achieving Excellence)
As the world offers us new possibilities we are forced to question and rethink our philosophies and our methodologies, and in order to achieve excellence, we have to be open to trying new tools, new strategies, and developing new skills if we do not want to be left behind. That being said, embracing change is not easy, especially when we have no models on which we can base ourselves. The unknown can be frightening, but administrators can assuage those fears by creating an environment where change and the unknown are not only positive but also desirable. In order to get education professionals involved in the process of changing education, administrators will have to cultivate a culture of risk-taking where their staff’s efforts are valued and their successes are shared. They will also have to provide them with the right resources, not only by training them to use new tools and strategies, but also by coaching them to adopt a growth mindset. (Achieving Excellence) Moreover, administrators will have to communicate educational goals and the school and school board’s vision with parents in order to gain their valuable support: “In the face of an uncertain future, parents tend to cling on to what is familiar, inciting competition rather than collaboration amongst themselves and their children. Keeping the public informed of and being engaged in the development and changes within the education system reduce public anxiety and helps parents and others to align their focus and to support the schools. Active trust is built upon relationships and communication. Resistance to change is often a result of lack of information or relationships.” (Hargreaves, 2012, p.12)
In his book, How Computer Games Help Children Learn, David Williamson Shaffer explains that schools are not currently designed to use technology effectively. We need to focus on “making and applying knowledge” instead of learning facts, information and theories in the abstract (as cited in Fullan, 2013, p. 61). This challenges the role of teachers and of education as we have come to know it. In facing this new reality of digital worlds and virtual simulations, “we need to figure out the new role of teachers in this new learning equation” (Fullan, 2013, p. 60). This may cause us to feel anxious or even fearful, resulting in a tendency to fall back on what we know rather than confront what we do not: “It is an important reminder that all successful organizations and systems are at their most vulnerable at the peak of their success and it is therefore vital for any high-performing system or organization not to rest on its laurels but to continually strive for improvement even when things seem to be going well” (Hargreaves, 2012, p. 8). We all have an idea of what school should be like based on our own experience, but what if there were a better alternative? Would we welcome these changes with open arms? Do we really want schools to stay the same or do we want them to evolve to better reflect our society? How can we ease this transition? What if it fails? What if it succeeds?
Currently, we are not ready to completely replace traditional teaching methods with virtual worlds: “At present, it is difficult to supply virtual agents with similar communication capabilities as human teachers” (Ijaz et al. 2016, p. 907). But as our technological tools continue to evolve, so should our strategies: “Sound instructional design, skilled teaching, and quality implementation will be required. Most of all, partnership between teachers and students and among teachers and students will be essential” (Fullan, 2013, p. 39). We should not wait for tools to be perfect before trying them since “Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late” (as cited in Couros, 2015, p. 15).
Achieving excellence: A renewed vision for education in Ontario. Ministry of Education.
Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/about/excellent.html
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Ijaz, K., Bogdanovych, A., & Trescak, T. (2017;2016;). Virtual worlds vs books and videos in history education. Interactive Learning Environments, 25(7), 904-26. doi:10.1080/10494820.2016.1225099
For many, school is seen as a “ticket” to a better life. Be a good student, do your work, listen in school, get good grades, take all your mathematics and sciences, get a good job and then you will be happy. Do we really want our students to wait that long to have positive experiences? Do we want them to define their self-worth by their grades? Maybe this formula worked for you or perhaps it has not. Either way, it is hard to imagine that the schooling experienced could be entirely different than the one we have lived. It might be hard to imagine that you could select courses enter them and exit them as you pleased whenever you need it or want it. Try to think about yourself travelling to the other side of the world to visit a friend's hometown with an entire class. Let's push our reflexion and continue the journey even further to a different planet and turn off the gravity to see what happens. This might sound like science fiction but the challenges might not be what you think.
This year, I had an experience that completely transformed my vision of pedagogy by opening my mind to how students can learn and develop their competencies in a positive, creative, collaborative, innovative and safe environment. I had tried virtual reality with Google cardboard glasses but it is not comparable to the HTC Vive. It's hard to express how real the experience feels. These new high-end VR systems succeed at convincing your brain that you are having the experience therefore you feel real emotions, fear, empathy, joy, excitement, etc. Moreover, you can live surreal experiences like walk the plank from a 60-story building, repair the international space station, dive into the abyss, play a jelly bean piano, etc. In these virtual worlds that are completely immersive, we can watch, hear and interact with our hands, our movements and even our face. Pedagogical links have exponentially multiplied in my mind ever since.
When I read the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, where all students can attend school in a virtual world, I could picture how education could truly empower learners. Providing them with quests, challenges, rewards, social networks, libraries, etc. This is not a perfect model but it certainly makes me wonder how we could improve our own system.
I know this technology is still in its infancy and is expensive at the moment, but I believe there is infinite potential for us and the world of education and we need to explore it both to teach learning content and to develop global skills, math strategies, literacy, etc. Our world is changing rapidly, the technology is there and the learners are ready. With the right mindset for innovation, tools, research, and expert support, schools can keep up and influence real technological change.
Achieving excellence: A renewed vision for education in Ontario. Ministry of Education. Retrieved fromhttp://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/about/excellent.html
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