Friday, 28 November 2014

Beaming teachers into SOLEs (Self-Organised Learning Environments)

As part of the School in the Cloud research team, I went along to Newcastle University’s launch of SOLE Central - a hub of research into SOLEs.

It was a great evening, but two things stood out in particular that made me consider what the future classroom may contain.

Following excellent talks from Sugata and others involved in the project, there were some technology demos by Newcastle University researchers. While none of the gadgets were new to me, the presence of two rather contrasting technologies at the same time and place got me thinking about different paths for future classrooms.

Technology One: BeamPro

Among the highlights was ‘beaming-in’ Suneeta Kulkarni, Research Director of the School in The Cloud from India. By 'beaming-in', I mean using a computer on wheels that enabled Suneeta to move around the space, using the screen and camera to interact with people. Suneeta, with this ‘remote presence’ robot was not only able to give an engaging 10 minute speech on the podium (click to see pic), but also mingle around freely with the attendees getting involved in different discussions.

The only bit she missed out on was the sweets! It is safe to say that she was the star of the event.

Suneeta watching a presentation
by one of the researchers
The question on everyone’s mind at such an event on the ‘School in the Cloud’ was ‘when can we beam-in teachers to classes?’ Part of the school in the cloud experience is the ‘Skype Grannies’ - e-mediators who interact with children in the SOLE centres via Skype. Beaming the granny means they don’t have to be this 2D person trapped on a static computer display. Instead, they materialise into a more tangible, mobile ‘person-bot’.

So to put this into a general teaching context; if the teacher can’t make it into the classroom, it’s possible to beam them in. This tech is still in its early stages, but a more interactive, human-like robot is not too far into the future.

Technology Two: Oculus Rift

On the other side of the tech spectrum was a virtual reality kit called Oculus Rift which Facebook recently bought for $2bn.

People had told me about trying a roller coaster ride using this amazing virtual reality system, but as much as they said how real it feels, I couldn’t believe it until I tried myself. While I was sitting on a stationary chair, I actually had all the suspense and emotions I would have when riding a real roller coaster. It turned out that it’s all in the brain and the actual physical movement only plays a trivial part in the whole experience.

With a virtual world that can feel so real, what about virtual classrooms that students and teachers attend and interact with from the comfort of their homes? What if a student in a remote village can attend a prestigious university on a different continent as if it was real?

Instead of beaming in a teacher to a real class, the whole class could be turned, with its students, into a virtual environment. The classroom can then turn into a fully immersive learning environment that plays a role in learning rather than just being the place for it. Set the scene: what if instead of studying about dinosaurs in a classroom, students have a session in which they’re walking with dinosaurs?


Whether either of these technologies take off in education is difficult to say now, but they definitely demonstrate two contradicting views of how the future classroom can look. Will it still be a physical place with a mix of real humans and human controlled robots, or will it begin to turn into a virtual world completely? I feel lucky that I am in the middle of all this where I can witness some of the early prototypes of the future classroom and the school in the cloud, whichever way things go.

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