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Robots, Virtual Reality, and the Future of Education


Virtual reality was all the rage in the early 90`s - it was the new `cool` technology. Not dry and academic like the PC`s that were beginning to creep into everyone`s home, it seemed to offer astounding possibilities, promising the public that they could become fully immersed in computer generated worlds. We would be able to visit strange and wonderful fantasy realms, experience simulated space flight, enjoy films and computer games like never before - all this while sitting comfortably at home wearing a sophisticated display device.

The reality was rather more disappointing - I can remember queuing up for hours at a busy shopping centre in central London, waiting eagerly to try the new virtual reality machine. The device was truly huge - it seemed to resemble a tank, and I can remember feeling, as I finally got to the front of the queue and stepped into the device, that I was about to have a life changing experience.

Ten minutes later (and 20 poorer) I was still suffering from nausea, my stomach retching from what was a bad case of motion sickness. The problem was the technology hadn`t been perfected - the huge viewing goggles were not able to adjust in real time, so when I turned my head, it took a few seconds for the crudely rendered polygon landscape to catch up. The result was a nauseating feeling, and this was a complaint voiced by many.

That seemed to be the end of virtual reality - it had a bit part in a couple of films of the period: The original Jurassic Park movie showed scientists manipulating genes at a molecular level using the fashionable technology; while the forgotten movie The Lawnmower Man had a number of extended VR scenes.

Decades passed - it seemed the VR craze was just a blip, a piece of 90`s nostalgia. But in 2012 the company Oculus VR, a division of Facebook Ltd, began a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to develop their new headset. In 2016 their product was released - VR had returned! They seemed to have ironed out all the issues that halted the project 2 decades ago: thanks to more powerful and affordable computers, the irritating image lag had been overcome.

How does all this relate to the education sector though? The potential for games and movies seem obvious, but could VR be used to help children in the classroom? Mark Steed, Director of the Dubai public school Jess certainly believes so. He is already trialling his idea, in which a robot with a 360 degree camera is situated at the second row of a classroom. Footage from the lesson can then be viewed in real time by anyone anywhere in the world.

`When you put a headset on you feel as if you are in a classroom and it`s a very different experience from the passive idea of watching a screen, I can turn to the left and right and see the people who are in the class there,` he said.

`There`s no reason with time, with increasing bandwidth and processor speed and everything, that you couldn`t have the experience of a pupil sitting anywhere in the world feeling as if they were in the classroom of one of the top schools in the world.`

This all might sound rather peculiar - a classroom with a robot in attendance! Children going to school by putting on headsets, and sitting in virtual lessons! Mark Steed is aiming to reach out to the 263 million children across the globe who do not attend school. That really is an astonishing figure - more than four times the population of the United Kingdom. If these children can benefit from this technology, if they can atend (in however synthetic a form) a classroom with a well qualified teacher, that it can only be a good thing.

Mr Steed recently outlined his proposal at the HMC conference in Belfast, claiming that VR headsets would enable a child in the developing world to attend a lesson in a high ranking independent school.

Though this technology is unlikely at present to change the way lessons are presented in the UK, it seems certain that technology is going to have an ever more integral role in the education sector. Already lots of top universities upload many (if not all) their lectures onto youtube. In this way anyone can, from the comfort of their own home, obtain a university an education for no charge. Anything that can extend the voices of teachers to a larger audience must be good - it does indeed seem such a shame that the wisdom of so many teachers is caged within the rooms they are teaching in, their edifying words fading with the echoes. If education is the key to setting people free, the way to help the hundreds of millions of children currently lacking this gift may be liberating the lessons themselves from the narrow constraints of the classroom.

14 months ago
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