The new reality of education

Universities are racing to prepare for the inevitable future of immersive learning technology

Virtual reality helps with immersive education. (Kristen Frier)


Up until Apple first introduced the iPhone to the world in 2007, the word “smartphone” was largely absent from the public’s awareness. Though tech companies had been building prototypes since 1994 that vaguely resembled the devices we all recognize today, the word itself wasn’t even used to describe a marketed product until 2000.

Now, if you want to see these ghosts of technology past — smartphone predecessors like the brick-shaped IBM Simon, which doubled as a fax machine and weighed more than a pound, or the HP OmniGo 700LX, which looked like the result of a calculator trying to eat a walkie talkie you have to visit a museum.

What started as an obscure buzzword for product prototypes in the 90s became the universally understood name for a piece of technology that people now rely on for an astonishing number of different things. 

In 2021, smartphones are responsible for helping folks with tasks as simple as finding the nearest gas station to things as complex as establishing an entire career as a social media manager or a streamer.

The gadget that used to be limited to shooting off emails and playing Flappy Bird in between phone calls has now become a professional must-have, a driver of social change, and the key to all of the knowledge and information humanity has ever seen fit to digitize. With the rolling out of B.C.’s vaccine passport program, smartphones have also become the key to every bar, gym, restaurant, movie theatre, indoor sports arena, and concert venue in the province. 

Almost all of these uses and changes would have been impossible to predict when IBM developers first slapped a touchscreen on a telephone. As revolutionary as smartphones have been in altering and shaping our lives for better and for worse, there’s a growing consensus that these changes could pale in comparison to what’s coming next.

The ultimate empathy machine

In 2015, the United Nations released Clouds Over Sidra, a 360-degree video documentary for virtual reality platforms that depicts the experiences of Sidra, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. The video shows her perspective as she journeys throughout the camp, which had become home to more than 130,000 people at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis.

A few months later, the film’s co-creator Chris Milk delivered a TED talk where he described VR as “the ultimate empathy machine,” capable of delivering an experience and fostering a sense of connection for audiences that no other technology could. 

Shortly afterward, researchers at the University of New England decided to test that theory out by giving groups of subjects versions of the documentary to watch, either in regular video or with a VR headset. Following this, the subjects filled out surveys where they rated their engagement based on how much they agreed with statements like “I blocked out things around me,” or “I was so involved I lost track of time,” and they measured their empathic response using statements like “I felt as if I were in Sidra’s shoes,” or “I felt protective towards Sidra.”

The researchers published their findings in a paper in 2017 with the conclusion that “participants in the virtual reality condition experienced significantly greater engagement than the participants in the control condition,” and that, because they felt more engaged, they were also likely to feel more empathy. Their findings convincingly supported Milk’s claim that VR increases audience empathy, and with their experiment, they had even used his film to prove it.

“As an educator, when I find a technology that’s going to increase engagement and increase empathy, I’m interested,” says Dr. Farhad Dastur, a Kwantlen Polytechnic University psychology instructor and the principal investigator with the KPU Virtual Reality Lab.

“Students love it because it breaks the boredom of the traditional lecture when you’re just sitting there in the classroom, or now at home.”

Since 2019, when the lab first launched, students have been conducting research projects looking into the effects that immersive technologies can have on people and ways in which they can be used. The lab also hosts talks with immersive technology experts and industry specialists on MS Teams, with one coming up on Dec. 2, featuring Vancouver-based media producer Sean Ronan.

One of the areas of interest Dastur and the lab team have been studying involves finding new ways for immersive technologies to be used in educational settings. Dastur says that immersive experiences like Clouds Over Sidra can give people a deeper understanding of the subject material than reading about it in a textbook or hearing about it during a lecture. 

“It demystifies it. It puts texture and nuance and context into these camps, and it gives a voice to the people who are living in them,” Dastur says.

“Suddenly, Sidra is now your teacher, and we all go to Jordan for a couple of minutes. That’s what’s possible now.”

Not only is immersive technology being used to bring attention to what’s happening in other parts of the world, it’s helping people tell stories that take place closer to home too. 

Take, for example, East of the Rockies, an augmented reality video game that follows the story of Yuki, a 17-year-old girl forced to live in the Slocan City Japanese internment camp during World War II. The game features an interactive narrative that portrays Yuki’s experiences as she is taken from her home and adjusts to living in the camp with her family, and users explore her world through their phone screens.

The game was written by and based on the experiences of acclaimed Japanese Canadian writer Joy Kogawa and produced in part by the National Film Board of Canada. It is available on Apple’s App Store and includes an additional learning kit for high school students, with educational activities that examine institutional racism, document analysis, political history, and human rights.

“There are so many stories that are lost, that ought not to be, so it’s a wonderful thing to see it happening here in this way,” said Kogawa in the NFB press release for East of The Rockies.

“I think it’s very exciting to be at the beginning of this kind of thing, how lucky is that?”

Teaching and learning outcomes

Beyond history and the humanities, educators worldwide are increasingly using immersive technology to teach subjects ranging from microbiology to astronomy to international business.

“The applications are massive,” says Dastur. “I literally can’t think of a discipline that couldn’t benefit from some VR-enhanced learning activity. But most faculty aren’t aware of it.”

He adds that he doesn’t believe that immersive technology should entirely replace in-person learning experiences.

“That kind of level of experiential learning and engagement with reality is super important to me. I’m a big believer in that. What I’m saying is let’s enhance that with this technology that can add to it, not take away from it.”

While immersive technology can be helpful in education by presenting learners with experiences that might otherwise be almost impossible, there are still studies being done to determine how useful that really is.

“That’s where we need to go,” Dastur says. 

“We need to establish that when you do a new learning activity when you introduce a new piece of technology or some kind of methodology, that it actually makes a difference.”

In 2020, the Journal of Computers in Education published a literature review that looked at 29 different studies on uses of VR in education. The review concluded that in about half of the studies, researchers found that learning about a subject using VR can increase student attention and comprehension in areas like biology, engineering, and architecture. Some studies found that VR improved students’ test scores compared to those who studied without using any immersive technology.

The most pronounced learning benefits from using VR were seen in areas that involve a “high degree of visualization and experiential understanding” like anatomical science, astronomy, or mechanics. Researchers also found that immersive technology can help students with understanding the perspectives of others, like teaching healthcare students to have a better comprehension of elder care through a VR program that simulates age-related medical conditions.

Over the past summer, the federal government invested $1.65 million in the Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. The university describes CREATE as “one of the world’s first truly interdisciplinary immersive technologies graduate programs,” and one of the purposes of their work is to create and improve immersive tools for use in both education and industry.

Vocational schools like Mohawk College in Ontario have been using mixed VR and AR to teach professions like pipe-fitting, instrumentation controls, and welding sometimes without the need for any additional equipment besides a headset and a smartphone. 

In 2018, the British Columbia Institute of Technology introduced a railway maintenance skills training program for Indigenous students in rural communities outside Prince George. The program uses VR to allow students to do things that would otherwise be impossible, like shrink themselves down to view mechanical parts, and simulate emergency crash situations without any real danger. The university also has an immersive technology development program called the Polytechnic Research Institute for Simulation and Multimedia (PRISM), which develops projects and tools that can be used in 3D modelling, healthcare, aerospace, and web design.

Despite the growing support for using immersive technology in education, some forms of VR can still come with a few drawbacks.

“You can get what’s called cybersickness when you use certain applications,” says Dastur. 

“It’s similar to motion sickness, but we don’t call it motion sickness because typically, you’re not actually moving. It’s an illusion of movement. It has similar symptoms like nausea and confusion, that kind of stuff.”

Other issues Dastur and other technology researchers have seen include the increasing pace of innovation that shortens the length of time that headsets and other devices stay up-to-date, and practical complications like users experiencing discomfort while wearing heavy headsets or awkwardness when trying to use them while wearing articles of faith like turbans for hijabs. 

Dastur says tech companies and developers are always looking into these issues, and efforts are being made to overcome them and improve user experiences with their products. 

“All the manufacturers, all the big players understand that that is an obstacle,” he says. 

“People don’t want something heavy on their head, they just want something that’s seamless, right?”

The inevitable immersion

On Oct. 28, 2021 14 years after Apple co-founder Steve Jobs strolled across the Macworld convention stage as he introduced the world to the iPhone Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg strolled across screens all over the world as he announced his vision of what he calls “the next chapter for the internet.” 

This is because his company which is in the process of a major rebrand amidst lawsuits, antitrust investigations, and a barrage of bad press has poured over $10 billion into developing the “metaverse,” a framework that aims to connect as many immersive technologies together as possible, in an attempt to encompass everything the internet is used for today including social media, work, entertainment, fitness, commerce, and education.

Some policymakers and educators are expressing concerns about how this could impact universities. Since the emergence of the global COVID-19 pandemic, online learning rapidly became cemented as the new status quo. With increasing amounts of money and attention being invested in ideas like the metaverse, it’s suddenly becoming harder to predict how technology will impact the future of education.

Statistics Canada found that by early 2020, 75 per cent of Canadian respondents who were attending academic institutions had all of their courses moved online, while 17 per cent reported that only some had moved online. This means that an overwhelming majority of students throughout the country had participated in some form of higher education where physical learning spaces like classrooms were no longer needed. At the same time, the earnings of companies like Twitch Interactive and Zoom Video Communications Inc. were skyrocketing into the billions

Dastur says he worries that problems could arise since, unlike education and research, tech companies are not beholden to the same ethical standards, guidelines, oversight, and responsibilities.

“The point is to protect the research participants, treat them with dignity, treat them with respect, have concern for their welfare,” he says.

“These ethical principles which are very dear and important for the integrity of scientific research need to be put into place. And we’ve seen many, many examples historically of what happened when they weren’t there.”

Dastur says that grassroots initiatives that democratize research like the Open Education Resource movement may become an important factor in keeping education out of the control of the wealthiest players in the tech industry.

“I’m simultaneously excited and worried. The companies that are driving it have a fiduciary commitment to shareholders, let’s put it that way,” he says. 

“They want to make money. They want to make a lot of it. And they will.”