DA op-ed: 3 technologies that support blended learning

A look at how educators are using AI, VR and AR in blended learning classrooms
Sherri Walker is a former educator who writes about education technology, among other topics.
Sherri Walker is a former educator who writes about education technology, among other topics.

Technology used in everyday life is continuously progressing, allowing for greater access to information and life conveniences. The latest in technology—including artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality—can have an incredible impact on today’s classrooms, bringing never-before-possible experiences into students’ learning.

Today’s educators are investigating and experimenting with ways to incorporate these game-changing technologies into practices that enrich and extend educational experiences for all students.

Blended learning is a perfect instructional model for experimenting with AI, VR and AR. Some classrooms are already incorporating these technologies by providing AI-instigated online tutorial assistance for students, allowing the exploration of foreign countries through VR systems, and offering the study of new languages with the help of AR tags. As these and other forms of new technology are introduced into the education world, blended learning options will continue to expand, helping educators to mold and shape what the classroom of the future will look like.

Artificial intelligence

AI is already embedded in many individuals’ everyday lives, from Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa to self-driving cars and area-assessing Roomba vacuums. But how can AI optimize educational experiences for students across the country? Here are a few ways educators are harnessing AI to better teach students today.

  • Global connectivity: AI connects students and teachers with peers from around the world. By interacting with international colleagues, students can build academic and language skills, and learn about life in the home countries of their matched peers. These connections not only lead to better informed students, but also to more empathetic global citizens.
  • Instant resources: AI connects students and teachers to resources they need right when they need them. For example, educational software that uses AI can instantly provide students with access to one-to-one tutors, giving them the support they need with the help of an expert or virtual peer.
  • Personalized learning: AI offers personalized learning for students by analyzing student responses on digital educational programs, determining areas of need and interest, and finding resources to help students understand material. For example, AI can provide just-in-time, live teacher access for students using a software-based educational program. Using a wide array of metrics, AI identifies when a student needs support right in the moment of struggle. The program interjects an on-screen invitation to the student within seconds, as though a live teacher were on the other end asking if the student needs help.
  • Teacher empowerment: Teachers are able to access AI-gathered data about individual students to create unique learning opportunities or pathways, offer constructive and timely feedback, and bridge any learning gaps with additional teacher-led instruction. Student data collected and processed via AI also frees a teacher’s time so that they can devote more energy toward individualized interventions.

Virtual reality

Retained learning often occurs from actual experiences, making VR-based education compelling. VR is a completely immersive experience, in which users wear VR goggles to see artificial environments. Here are a few ways VR is impacting instruction in today’s classrooms.

  • Experiences: VR allows learners to experience environments, countries and cultures in ways not previously possible. A teacher can take students to locations around the world where learners can safely and easily interact with people, artifacts and traditions. For example, students can interact with chemicals in a virtual lab, experience outer space and life in the ocean, and go back in time in a fully immersive, memorable VR encounter.
  • Ethos and empathy: New research suggests that VR educational experiences have the potential to create empathy in students, forming more engaged world citizens. When students virtually travel to different countries around the world, they have the potential to become more sensitive to and aware of other cultures. Students can virtually walk the streets of foreign cities through programs like Google Earth VR to get up close and personal with other parts of the world.
  • Equity: Students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds can overcome geographical distance and financial obstacles to be offered extraordinary educational experiences via VR. Traveling to Europe or Asia—once seen as only affordable to the few—can be experienced by students in VR settings from anywhere in the world. Investment in low-cost VR headsets, such as Google Cardboard, make implementation possible in even financially challenged schools. Donations or grants can also help to offset costs. Admittedly, higher-end VR equipment can be costly—undoing any equity created—but once initial purchases are made, entire schools can share VR experiences.
  • Inclusion: VR enables students with learning or physical challenges to participate more fully in educational experiences. For example, sound-based virtual environments use 3D acoustics to create spatial imagery for students who are visually challenged. VR can also simulate bodily experiences for students who face obstacles so they can fully participate in physical activities. Students with cognitive delays can practice everyday, potentially hazardous skills such as crossing a road, shopping or cooking in a safe, simulated environment. Children with autism can practice interpreting and responding to emotions represented by an avatar, and students with anxiety, ADHD or some phobias can practice challenging experiences such as riding an escalator or giving a public speech.

Augmented reality

As opposed to VR’s immersive experience, AR takes a user’s real-time environment and overlays digital information on top of it. AR is already being utilized in a variety of industries, such as car windshields that give driver “heads-up displays” or the Pokemon Go game that recently swept the nation.

There are a variety of examples of AR use in classrooms.

  • Book reviews: Students use AR goggles or an app to view book reviews scanned onto physical books.
  • Language instruction: Students use their goggles or an app to scan objects and to see the foreign word for an object pop up in a bubble.
  • Spatial learning: Students manipulate AR-produced 3D shapes to learn angles and geometric concepts.

AR allows students to share educational experiences with other learners who are using the same program, inviting collaboration and academic discourse to flourish in the classroom. AR also motivates students who enjoy the experience and may become more willing to participate in activities. And the more students are engaged in instruction, the greater the learning gains can be.

Limitations to AR include technical difficulties maintaining superimposed information, and students paying too much attention to virtual information, potentially causing AR to be viewed as an intrusive technology that distracts from learning.

As technology continues to develop, students will likely see more of these digitized developments in the classrooms of the future. And this is compelling, as VR, AR and AI have the potential to enrich education, enable teachers and engage students around the world.

Sherri Walker is a former educator who writes about education technology, among other topics.

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