A few weeks ago, I posted an interview on Terra Nova with Rebecca Nesson, who is using Second Life as a platform for distance education at the Harvard Extension School. While SL has been adopted by Harvard and more than 100 other schools worldwide, it is not the only online virtual reality environment that is used for educational purposes. There are other virtual world/virtual reality technologies that can support instruction and classroom activities, and this week we will get a perspective from someone who is using these alternate technologies to teach. The interview is with Aaron Walsh, a programmer and instructor who has used modding software and other tools to create VR classrooms for courses at the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College (the inset photo is from one of his experiments, and depicts "students gathering in the virtual Egyptian environment"). His VR classes are part of a larger effort that he is leading to develop a standards-based educational platform called Immersive Education.
I first met Walsh in 2000, when I took two of his programming classes at Boston College. He subsequently invited me to participate in some early development and planning work surrounding his Media Grid initiative, and as part of these efforts I was able to take part in several Internet-based VR classroom demos in 2003 and 2004. However, Walsh noted in an email that he has been involved in VR development since the early '90s:
I began my work in virtual reality and immersive 3D environments while running the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) at Boston College. Around 1991 or so Paul Dupuis, my manager, and I built a personal VR system using stereo goggles, a Macintosh computer and a Nintendo Power Glove. This was back in the days when 3D on personal computers was practically unheard of, and texture mapping wasn't even an option. Crude, flat-shaded shaded polygons and wireframes ruled the roost. Striving for realism I began researching the potential for viewing digital video in stereo by splitting Quicktime movies into stereo pairs, one for each eyepiece. Around this time I became obsessed with the potential of realistic virtual reality, and developed digital media caching techniques for virtual reality and 3D that I contributed to the Web3D standards community in the late 1990s. From that point on I spent the majority of my time developing international standards for 3D and virtual reality as chairman of related Web3D Consortium and Moving Picture Expert Group (MPEG) working groups, and now with the Media Grid and Immersive Education.
In the interview, Walsh talks about some of the specific technologies he uses for his classes, as well as some of the benefits and challenges of conducting online classes in virtual reality. He confirms Nesson's observation that some students who have a tough time expressing themselves in the real world can really blossom in virtual environments, but notes that other students much prefer the traditional, face-to-face classroom experience. He also has a lot to say about the growing problem of addiction to virtual reality, which he classifies as "immersive illness."
Below is the full transcript of the interview, which was conducted via email earlier this week:
Ian Lamont: You've been teaching a course called Discovering 3D Graphics and Virtual Reality at the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College. Some of the class is spent in a virtual world. What is the world or VR environment, and what are the types of activities that students take part in there?
Aaron Walsh: I teach three graphics courses at Boston College, all of which involve meeting with students online in virtual reality. Two of these classes (Discovering 3D Graphics and Virtual Reality, and Advanced 3D/VR) take place almost entirely online in virtual reality. I spend the first few classes working with the students in person, ensuring that their computers are setup properly and are ready to go, and after that we transition into virtual reality for the rest of the semester.
In these classes students learn the fundamentals of 3D computer graphics, virtual reality, and video game technology. They learn how to build 3D objects and virtual worlds, and how the combination of 3D/VR and rich digital media technologies are fundamentally re-shaping computer-based entertainment, education, and socialization.
We use the term "Immersive Education" to refer to the combination of 3D/VR and digital media specifically for learning. We started Immersive Education many years ago using the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) standard, and in 2003 transitioned to the commercial Unreal 2 game engine which has been our 2nd generation technology until today (which we use in combination with VRML, Extensible 3D (X3D), Flash and QuickTime). The current platform has served us very well, but it's at the end of its life and we're now in the process of selecting a new 3D/VR platform as part of the open Immersive Education standardization process. Educators and students who have taken courses using virtual environment technology, regardless of the specific 3D/VR technology they're familiar with, are encouraged to participate in the open standards process through ImmersiveEducation.org.
Lamont: Why not use Second Life?
Walsh: Second Life is a candidate for the new Immersive Education platform that we're defining today, but it wasn't a viable option for the previous generation which we selected in 2003. Some of our requirements at that time included: a stable cross-platform (Windows and Mac) platform; integrated text and voice chat; the ability to host the environments and server-side runtime on our own servers; content ownership; support for industry-standard authoring tools (such as Maya); the ability to modify (mod) the environment to support custom behaviors, and so forth. These and other criteria are being applied as we select and standardize the next generation of Immersive Education, and today Second Life is a leading candidate whereas in 2003 it wasn't even close.
Lamont: What have been some of the challenges and advantages to using virtual reality as a platform for education?
Walsh: There are many, on both sides. A major challenge has been related to student hardware, as it's extremely difficult to ensure that every student's computer setup is up to snuff. This has become much easier now that the majority of students have relatively new computers that sport modern graphics cards, but in the early days of Immersive Education we were dealing with students who had computers that rolled off the assembly line in the late 1990s. For the first few years we simply could not have the majority of our class meetings in virtual reality since too many of the students had sub-par computer systems, but that's mostly a non-issue today. Spotty network connections are also a challenge, especially when it comes to voice chat, but that's also becoming less of an issue since most of our students are participating either from dorms (which have high-speed networks) or from home where they have DSL or cable. The bandwidth issue is practically a non-issue today.
Another major challenge is in the presentation of learning materials inside of (through) the virtual environment itself, such as pumping videos or interactive Flash content through an object in the environment. Initially we wanted everything to be "in world" meaning we wanted all learning materials to be presented inside of the environment itself, thinking that a single seamless environment would be best. And while that may be the case for the entertainment industry, where you usually don't want to take the player out of the game or environment, it's not necessarily the case for education. For education there's no reason why all content has to be delivered inside of the virtual environment. In fact, it can be quite restricting to do so. Why not simply open a browser window when necessary, allowing students to use a wide variety of learning content that can't (and probably shouldn't) be shoehorned into the virtual environment? Doing this allowed us to incorporate Web pages, interactive Flash content, Quicktime VR and videos, and a wide assortment of rich learning materials into our online classes that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. And the students don't mind or care; they're learning, using a mixture of digital media. The virtual environment is merely the foundation that we build around, but it's just one part of a much larger picture.
Aside from these technical challenges there are a host of human-oriented challenges, not the least of which is the issue of taking real-world human-to-human personal contact out of the equation. For the most part students and teachers are used to meeting in person in a real classroom. Removing the classroom and the personal contact that comes with it can be a real challenge for some students, and while most don't take very long to adjust some never get completely comfortable with the virtual alternative. But for every student that would prefer a real-world classroom there are just as many, perhaps more, who love meeting in virtual environments. We often see cases where shy students who are quiet in person become very verbal and fully participant in the virtual environment, so there can be some real advantages in this respect as well.
A challenge that concerns me the most is lurking on the horizon, one we don't yet understand the full scope of. As Immersive Education and other forms of personal virtual reality become more realistic and compelling we're going to see "immersive illness" become more common and more difficult to deal with. Although this is an issue today we're somewhat protected by the limitations of today's personal computers and game consoles (they just aren't powerful enough...yet), but in another decade or more it'll be a different story altogether. Nobody knows exactly what impact insanely realistic, media-rich virtual reality will have on society. We're already dealing with early forms of immersive illness, such as addiction, alienation, mental schisms, and more, but today it's not a problem that affects a large percentage of users. We don't see massive problems today for a number of reasons, including rather low-quality virtual environments and limitations on how much time we spend in these environments. But what happens when the visual and audio quality becomes indistinguishable from reality, the technology becomes truly mainstream, and a substantial portion of education takes place in such environments and not in a real classroom? With massive power comes massive problems. Last week I was asked how big this problem will be, and I responded that nobody knows for sure but I'd estimate that the at-risk population can be calculate by adding the percentage of people with addiction problems to the percentage of society that suffer some form of mental illness. That's a big chunk of society. Is it all gloom and doom? Certainly not, but it's a grand challenge we're not even remotely prepared for today. As with other disruptions society will eventually adapt, but I think we're in for a very rough ride.
Other advantages include the time saved in traveling to and from class, which can be significant for students who live off campus. I've had some non-traditional students live over an hour away from Boston College, meaning they waste more than two hours traveling ever time we have class in person (on campus).
It's also worth noting that the "fun" factor can't be denied. Most of the students I've spoken with about their experience with these classes say they're the most fun they've had, and that they look forward to being in virtual reality each week. We're dealing with a generation of students weaned on video games, so it should come as no surprise that they enjoy learning in what amounts to a game-based learning environment. Giving students a educational experience that they not only enjoy but are very enthusiastic about is definitely an advantage.
Lamont: You recently received an award for promoting "Immersive Education" at BC, and are now trying to spread these concepts to other institutions. What does Immersive Education entail, and what does it offer other instructors and educational institutions?
Walsh: Yes, that's true. Students at Boston College nominated me for a Teaching with New Media (TWIN), which I was awarded last year, for my work with Immersive Education. Although I've been working in virtual reality for over 15 years it's only been over the past few years that we could teach classes online using this technology. Outside of playing video games this was the first time that most students really had a chance to dig in and learn about interactive 3D and virtual reality, and the response has been outstanding and very encouraging. But it's just the start. If Immersive Education were a human I'd argue that it's barely crawling, and there's a lot of work still to be done until it reaches its full potential.
Immersive Education is an application of the Media Grid (https://MediaGrid.org) that combines 3D/VR technology with digital media to bring distance learning and self-directed learning to a new level. Unlike traditional distance learning, Immersive Education is designed to immerse and engage students in the same way that today's best video games grab and keep the attention of players. Immersive Education combines interactive virtual reality and sophisticated digital media (voice chat, game-based learning modules, audio/video, and so forth) with collaborative online course environments and classrooms. Immersive Education gives students a sense of "being there" even when attending class in person isn't possible, practical, or desirable, which in turn provides faculty and remote students with the ability to connect and communicate in a way that greatly enhances the learning experience.
We're now in the process of selecting the next generation platform for Immersive Education, around which international standards are being established. Making Immersive Education open, extensible, freely available and fully documented will make it possible for any organization or individual to use it. This goes beyond the technology platform itself, and includes best-practices for teachers and institutions to follow as well as student-faculty ecosystems that organizations can employ. I'd encourage teachers and students to participate directly in the Immersive Education standardization process by visiting ImmersiveEducation.org and sharing their virtual learning experiences with the group (be it with Second Life or any other virtual environments).
Lamont: Do schools really have the technology resources, staff expertise, and funding to get involved in Immersive Education?
Walsh: The vast majority don't, at least not today, which is why we're focused on making Immersive Education an open standard that's easy to use, well documented and free. But that alone won't do it; best practices and student-faculty ecosystems are necessary as well, and so are communities of support. The vast majority of educators simply don't have the time, funding, or expertise to create and use virtual learning environments today. This probably won't change, which is why it's necessary to eliminate the cost and reduce the complexity.
The syllabus for Walsh's Discovering 3D Graphics and Virtual Reality course can be found here. Feel free to leave comments or questions below.