The Future of Education: Interactivity and Collaboration

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series IP: The Future of Education

Simulation: The Lab of the Future

Simulation is a powerful multimedia tool used in scientific and mathematics courses and to train a variety of technical professionals—from veterinary technicians to plumbers. Simulation involves using a computer to model a real-life or hypothetical situation so that it can be studied to understand how the system works.

Online content providers such as SAS Curriculum Pathways have embraced the use of science and mathematics simulations. Chemistry students complete laboratory experiments via an animated, interactive SAS tool that incorporates streaming video from a real lab environment. In another SAS course, Geometry students visualize and manipulate problems with 2D and 3D diagrams.

iLab Central is dedicated to the proposition that real laboratories accessed remotely over the Internet can enrich science and engineering education by expanding the range of experiments and equipment that students are exposed to in the course of their education. Using the iLabs software, colleges share their high-end scientific instruments with professors and high school science teachers over the Internet. The initiative is run by MIT and Northwestern University’s Office of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Partnerships, and supported by a $1-million grant from the National Science Foundation.

One of the available labs is an experiment about detecting radiation. Through the iLabs interface the student accesses a webcam and a Geiger counter in a lab at the University of Queensland in Australia. The Geiger counter responds to virtual commands, changing its settings and conveys readings. To increase the student level of interest, iLabs poses a question: “Am I frying my brain with my cell phone?” This particular lab exercise is designed for high school students, but some of the experiments in the iLabCentral project are targeted at college students.

Education simulations extend beyond the online laboratory setting. Traditionally used for entertainment role-playing, Second Life is a virtual world in which people interact through 3D avatars—animated, graphical representations of a person. “A number of higher education institutions have built models of their campuses in the Second Life environment, using the virtual world to recruit potential students and provide a forum for interactivity between online instructors and distance education students,” Poulin said.

Although Second Life often emulates reality, higher education is starting to realize the promise of the virtual world as a unique learning platform. “In Second Life a student could walk down the nervous system, visualizing and feeling what happens to the body, or perhaps they could tour the ruins of Ancient Rome as they exist today and be taken back in time to experience those same ruins in their heyday,” Poulin said. “These rich learning environments allow students to see and interact with their surroundings.”

Through the use of multimedia and online simulations, students gain access to tools, resources and expert instruction that they might otherwise have not been able to interface with due to distance, cost, geography or even time. Unlocking these bandwidth-heavy applications and opportunities requires adequate broadband infrastructure in all learning environments.

Game-Based Learning

Established in 1996, Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is the largest state virtual school in the country, and one of the most innovative digital institutions. In 2009, FLVS had 230,000 enrollments and the program has an annual growth rate of 40-45%. A large percentage of its students come from rural areas. In fact, the state has legislated that FLVS serve rural districts and students before other enrollees. FLVS also provides its technology platform and course content to other K-12 institutions across the country.

FLVS prides itself on incorporating new tools and resources, particularly content which appeals to today’s learner.  “FLVS uses a variety of technologies and applications to make the textbook come alive, such as streaming video, interactive mini-games and exercises,” said Andy Ross, FLVS chief sales and marketing officer.

The school recently created an American History course that is taught via a streaming, interactive, 3D game. “Most educators and parents currently use video games for rewards, or to reinforce educational content with minigames in the classroom,” Ross said. “FLVS decided to try a new approach. With the partnership of a vendor company, we developed a course in U.S. History called ‘Conspiracy Code.’”

Ross explained that students play the game as two avatars as they attempt to keep U.S. History from becoming corrupted. They find, collect and piece together historical clues using a diverse array of abilities. The game involves peer collaboration and teacher reviews and assessments. The course is prefaced upon the student having access to high-speed broadband to interact with this streaming multimedia resource.

Patrick commended FLVS for its innovative approach to student learning. “Students use higher-level critical thinking and problem-solving skills to play the game,” she said. “Research has shown that we learn via a decision-tree process, where we have choices. The format of this game-based course speaks to the natural way students learn. Plus it’s exciting and provides incentives for learning.”

Ross noted that students are responding with enthusiasm to the new format. “The most exciting part is that the game-based course is engaging students that did not enjoy learning about history in a more traditional fashion,” he said.

FLVS is developing a family of multimedia game-based courses including intensive reading, science and math courses. Looking toward the future, Patrick said that we are going to see an influx of streaming, game-based learning environments, both in the traditional classroom and within the online, virtual school system.

Communication & Collaboration

In addition to multimedia and interactive applications, collaborative tools are a hallmark of online learning. Each online course utilizes a learning management system (LMS) such as those created by vendors Desire2Learn and Blackboard. The LMS provides a technology platform for students and instructors to interact, and for educators to deliver digital curriculum.

Through the LMS, students have a variety of tools at their disposal to communicate with instructors and with their peers, including real-time collaboration via instant messaging, VoIP calls, video conferencing and whiteboards, the latter of which allows the instructor and student to share audio and video of a virtual chalkboard. The LMS also enables asynchronous communication via private messaging, discussion boards, recorded video messaging and other applications that allow for a time lag between the presentation of instructional stimuli and student response.

Patrick notes that teachers utilize these same collaborative tools to converse with one another. In addition to online simulations, educators are using Second Life as a professional learning community where they can engage with their peers and take professional development courses. In fact, teachers tend to collaborate more in an online environment than in a traditional classroom setting where they are isolated throughout most of the workday.

As new tools become available, online educators are incorporating advancements into the teacher-student relationship. Patrick notes that industry-leading LMS providers are developing real-time interaction via private social media networks. Poulin added that higher education institutions have embraced collaboration via animated avatars.

To be published next week, part III in our series will explore the requirements for the underlying broadband network.


Series NavigationIP: The Future of EducationThe Future of Education: The Underlying Broadband Network

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