Extended Learning: Creating New Realities

Authors: Norton Gusky and Beatriz Arnillas

(Originally published for National Association of Secondary Principals in the November issue of Principal Leadership)

COVID-19 did more than affect people. It transformed how learning takes place for almost every student in the world. Emerging Technologies, like Extended Reality (XR)  in Immersive Environments or Extended Learning (XL), took a back seat to just getting students online. However, XR has great potential to address many issues of equity and access to resources in the world of social isolation. This article provides an overview of the technologies and opportunities for immersive learning as we move forward with the post-Covid (pC) world. 

What is Extended Learning? According to the Immersive Learning Report 2020 XL “Encompasses Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality — a collection of technologies that enhance the physical world with interactive digital imagery and graphics.” 

Charles McClellan in his article VR and AR: The Business Reality explains the difference in the technologies, “Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are often mentioned in the same breath, but there are significant differences between the two technologies — although they also share many features.

“VR typically immerses the user in a virtual world via a headset that largely isolates you from the real world. AR, on the other hand, inserts virtual objects and information into the real world, augmenting your experience of it via a headset that, ideally, is as discreet as possible.” Mixed Reality takes elements from both VR and AR to create a “mixed” strategy. Also included in this mix are technologies that provide a 360 degree experience. 

Why would a secondary educator consider using XL in a classroom, remote learning environment, or a hybrid environment? According to John MacLeod, the Director of XR Libraries in California, there are three key benefits: 

  • All age groups benefit from XR
  • Increases content understanding
  • Provides link to future job/career opportunities 

Let’s look at each of these benefits in a little more details. Extended Learning works well with both middle and high school students. It’s not a strategy that has any age limitation. The level of engagement in the projects John MacLeod observed in Washington, Oregon, and California were well received by students at any age. 

We are always looking for ways to motivate students to become independent learners and take ownership for their learning. XL works across disciplines. Science-based activities as well as literary excursions provided great opportunities for students to learn more and at deeper levels. During this period of rethinking education, we need to find tools and resources that can engage students, especially when in a remote location. AR tools, especially 360 views have that potential, while VR tools require special equipment that might not be available to students working from home. 

Finally, we want our students to see the real world connection, especially with job and career opportunities. XL incorporates technologies that are among the fastest growing arenas in the marketplace. Digi-Capital,  sees an overall VR/AR market totalling $120 billion by 2020, with AR outpacing VR around 2019 and accounting for 75 percent of the market ($90 million). We should not only provide XL experiences, but provide opportunities for secondary students to use the tools that can create XL experiences. 

Kristine Cathey, a member of the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) adds two additional reasons to consider XL: 

  • Allows staff and students the opportunities to experience previously inaccessible places. For example, those in low income environments, or those with physical disabilities.
  • Lends itself to the development of empathy, and a greater understanding of the perspective of others (experiential empathy).

Let’s now look at some examples of projects that address these issues. 

Voyage Project with Cornell Middle School: Pittsburgh, PA

In 2018 students from the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) began to work with the Cornell Middle School, located about ten miles from Pittsburgh, on a STEM project. The educators at Cornell wanted to create an immersive experience for their students. According to the project website, “Voyage is a multiuser mobile virtual reality (VR) experience for Google Daydream that allows students to go on virtual field trips in which they immersively explore a deciduous forest biome. The experience is designed to be undertaken in a middle-school classroom and facilitated by a teacher using a tablet computer. Through this project, we explored different interaction techniques used to promote collaboration among students as well as between the students and the teacher.”

Susan Donnell, the science teacher from Cornell, explained the importance for this type of experience for her students who don’t have an opportunity to experience a wide variety of places. “It’s invaluable to take them some place. Even it’s virtual reality.”

According to Chris Hupp, the Director of Technology for the Cornell School District, “The project did give us a glimpse into the future. Some challenges include the number of students able to participate at the same time as well as the teacher trying to monitor students in a virtual space and physical space at the same time. The team developed an app on an iPad so the teacher didn’t need to put a headset on to see what the students were doing. “

Virtual Tour of Sewickley Academy campus: Pittsburgh, PA

Student creating animation – Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Erin Whitaker, the middle school Technology Coordinator and Teacher, for Sewickley Academy, an independent school located about ten miles from Pittsburgh, wanted to provide a collaborative learning experience for middle school students. She searched for a tool that would allow for a collaborative experience where students would be able to combine 360 degree photos, programming, animation, and research to create an animation. She discovered CoSpacesEDU, a software tool that provides all the tools for teams of students to produce a virtual or augmented reality product.

Erin divided the project into phases. Each student selected a part of the campus to research. The students created 360 degree photos for their campus section. Finally, the students had to include an animated guide to talk about the campus area. All of the individual projects were saved as one large file into CoSpacesEDU and then combined to generate a school-wide tour. For the final phase the students shared their tours with a real audience at the Grandparents and Special Friends Day at the end of the trimester.

Building History in 3D: Mill Valley, California

This project brought together the community library in Mill Valley, California with a team of high school students from Tamalpais High School. The students were asked to do research and then build a VR history of the region starting in 1864. The project lasted a semester. The high school students conducted local history research and used the software tool, SketchUp 3D modeling software, to recreate Mill Valley buildings as they were in the past. Students chose a Mill Valley building and participated in a series of hands-on tech classes to complete their 3D models. The finished models were rendered in TimeWalk Mill Valley, a historical virtual world. Students received an introduction to the industry standard game engine Unity to further enhance the representation of Mill Valley history. The program was a collaboration with TimeWalk.org, an open source project enabling students and other contributors to build historically accurate 3D models of their towns.

Building Immersive Worlds: Houston, Texas

As schools began to close when the Covid-19 virus struck, students from the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy at Houston Independent School District (HISD) were learning how to design in 3D. One of their teachers, Astra Zeno, created a choice board that used interactive technology tools to help students showcase their knowledge.  “Since we were away from our MakerSpace, we used 3D design tools like TinkerCAD, Minecraft, Paint 3D, and AutoDesk Fusion 360 to create an interactive and immersive experience.  I also chose Minecraft EDU, PowerPoint, and FlipGrid as tools  to showcase student learning,”  Engineering teacher Astra Zeno said.  

Tackling a real-world problem heightened student engagement for this challenge. Ms. Zeno chose the format of a design slam for its innate integration of design, skill, and presentation. (See references below.) Younger students were asked to utilize their design skills to address climate change, while older students tackled affordable housing, disaster relief, and equitable access to resources. Since students could not create physical models in a traditional classroom due to COVID-19, they used tools such as TinkerCAD, Paint 3D and AutoDesk Fusion 360 to create 3D models of their solutions. The results were astounding! Designs ranged from “The Onsy” – a home energy tracker designed to help consumers reduce energy waste to “The Flood Vacuum” – an innovative device designed to move water away from essential travel routes during flooding events. They were able to create presentations showcasing the features of their 3D designs using PowerPoint’s new 3D design/morph tools. This allowed students to truly have an immersive view of each group’s design. 

There were also groups who imported their 3D designs into “virtual” worlds using Minecraft Education. When in Minecraft, viewers were able to see the designs in action!  Students then “pitched” their designs using FlipGrid’s screen recording feature. As an added bonus, students could also scan paper Merge cubes to see each group’s design in AR. Resource links are included for teachers looking to implement something similar and want to engage in current and relevant projects to students.


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