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A Mixed Reality Model for Immersive Learning Environments

By Myra Travin

In the full implementation of mixed-reality environments, the architecture concept expands to include other forms of information design—not just visual, but also verbal. Currently, educational authoring tools can create barriers to implementing fully immersive environments. Given this, a transitional approach—one that includes other immersive information landscapes—can be integrated into an AR/VR implementation approach.

As Coulter writes in 2017:

“In 2011, Ernest Cline wrote a great book, Ready Player One, which described an apocalyptic world ravaged by overpopulation and pollution. Granted, that is nothing new for science fiction, but what was new was the mechanism that denizens of this reality used to escape the horrors: a virtual universe called Oasis. In 2044, most people in Cline’s universe are plugged into this alternate reality nearly 24/7. They attend school there, socialize there, work there and, yes, they game there. When I read this, I was at once fascinated and, I will admit, somewhat frightened (which was, I believe, the intent). If we are to be both fascinated and frightened, simply by the concept of mixed realities, it is necessary to understand the current reality and barriers in development to immersive learning environments in general.”

Unfortunately, most current learning design is based on user interface and user experience (UI/UX) parameters that seek to expeditiously move learners through content. The design is based on the needs of the designers and content creators, rather than the decisions of the learner. As eLearning has become ubiquitous in corporate environments, the pressure to continually keep up with the pace of new content and technologies creates more confined paths for learners to follow. That can have the opposite effect that an immersive design has on a learner, if they feel their paths through content are restricted.

Given that the landscape of AR/VR is on the cusp of being used within many actual proof-of-concept use cases—in corporate, military, government, or private-sector studies—having a transitional model that moves from a more traditional concept of distance education to an immersive environment might be helpful for introducing a strategy that bridges the gap between the two concepts.

What Immersive Environments Have in Common

A key factor in the integration of immersive technologies is understanding what characteristics they share. For example, they put the learner at the center of the experience, and seek to provide as robust and engaging an environment as possible. The natural sense for the learner should be that they are fully within a learning environment and not separate from it. In other words, they should experience a sense of following a line of personal interest—one that is not bounded by others’ design or content obstacles.

The factors present within AR/VR or extended AR/MR/VR/XR environments—real-world experience, integration of the five senses, and cognitive engagement, for example—can also be found within other learning strategies, such as verbal interface narratives. If you combine visual, verbal, and AR/VR characteristics into one environment, you can use the salient and connective experience features of all three to allow for a more immersive overall learner experience.

Immersive environments are a transitional concept that are cost-effective and allow for rapid prototyping in the areas in which AR/VR technology will have the greatest effect—simulations, gaming-decision structures, and historical environments. Immersive environments also take advantage of the power of verbal storytelling with such devices as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, which create internal immersive experiences.

As more and more AR/VR devices become prosthetics for shared real and virtual environments, and as light implanted devices lead to more intimate implementations of the technology, there might be less need for a mid-term design solution as the technology becomes more affordable to implement. Steven Kan, the Head of Global Strategy, AR and VR at Google, suggested in a recent keynote that “eventually, the gears will be in the form of lighter wearables—even in the size of contact lenses—so that the virtual and real world would become ‘indistinguishable.’” Yowza.

In the meantime, using such internally immersive concepts as verbal assistants can be effective. It might also be desirable, however, to shift from virtual to internal-experience, assistive-device environments, where learner choice is less limited. In fact, there is great interest in the interactive nature of voice assistants for higher-education settings, where such devices are being used in connection with university classes. As with any adaptive technology, we must still resolve the ethical considerations, such as the ones that occur regarding data collection and usage.

Designing for Immersion

In the design of collaborative device environments, it is critical to evaluate where the best use of each strategy meets the overall instructional goals. Where is it best in the curriculum to fully implement VR, and where can an assistant like Alexa be deployed for narrative introductions or Q&A sections? Where would it be reasonable to introduce an AR mapping exercise with sound, video, graphics, or GPS data, and then create an assistant-based testing module? Or a Google Street View experience that has a Google Home introduction for course concepts and requirements?

Dian Schaffhauser writes in the T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education) about

“…applications where teachers have worked with students to add interactivity to books they’re reading. They take a video of themselves, and then when another student or a parent runs the app, the student appears on the page to explain something. Or schools have used the software to add interactivity to their yearbooks. Out of the cover of the book comes the yearbook staff, and the yearbook teacher is saying, ‘Hey, this is the yearbook staff, and we hope you really like it,’ then music plays and you walk through the hallways of the school. Mixed realities of verbal, visual, and experience can open a world of possibilities.”

There are many collaborative designs that can be created and used in much shorter development times, instead of full-out AR/VR implementation. It is an area of design that we might not be considering, because we want to fully implement a reality-based technology solution, but it could be of great help if we choose to use collaborative strategies in concert with one another as we consider the pros and cons of both and the best way to integrate them for the most effective implementation.

Conclusion

What are the information architecture and usability implications and opportunities for AR/VR? They have drawbacks in development time, cost, usability, and ethical considerations, but great promise in learner engagement and outcomes. One way of dealing with the information architecture issues is to consider a multi-device and multi-channel collaborative approach that has its nexus at the point of learner experience. If the devices share that main concept, it is up to the designer to uncover the best landscape for learners to experience reality: internal, external, or shared.

As Michael Ngan suggests, “VR is about to take over the world of human senses and communication. Driven by continual improvements in functionality, lower cost, and a boom in content creation, the market for the technology is expected to reach a huge U.S. $120 billion in size by 2020.”

We need to be open about the concepts and approaches to mixed realities as we grow into this bold new future.

References

Coulter, C. K. “The Practical Potential of VR.” Library Administrator’s Digest, 52.10 (2017).

Schaffhauser, Dian. “VR and AR Come of Age: For Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality to Succeed in Education, There’s More Required Than Just Cool Experiences.” T H E Journal. 44.3 (2017).

“Virtual Reality Experiences Likely Be Everyday Life Form in a Few Years, VR Experts.” Manila Bulletin. 16 October 2016.

“VR, AR, MR Will Soon Be a Part of Life.” Manila Bulletin. 12 March 2018.

MYRA TRAVIN (myratravin48@gmail.com) is an innovative LX designer and pioneer in post-future immersive learning environments. She is the author of School of You and contributor to The Language of Learning.

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