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3D Tech: More Than a "Wow" Factor

Although some educators see 3D technology as another tech gimmick, it has the possibility to revolutionize training in a host of disciplines--and cut costs.

Bongsup Cho, professor and associate dean of the URI College of Pharmacy, showcases 3D content created by a cross-departmental team. Photo courtesy of URI Publications Office.

Mention 3D and everybody immediately thinks of movies such as Tintin and Avatar. But 3D projection also plays a key training role in industry, especially for high-skills jobs such as airline pilots, astronauts, and a variety of positions in the military. By utilizing 3D simulators, organizations in these sectors conduct safe and effective training that would otherwise cost millions of dollars--or be impossible.

This story appeared in the November 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Given the pressure on higher education budgets, schools are also starting to look more closely at 3D technology as a way to trim their budgets. 3D simulations can eliminate the need for real-world labs, experiments, and training sessions that expend valuable resources, both material and human. It's quite possible that at some point doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, and mechanics--among others--might train primarily using 3D simulations. Currently, such scenarios are rare, if they exist at all. To find out why, CT examined the factors delaying the wider implementation of 3D and what it will take for 3D instruction finally to take wing.

When fully implemented, 3D technology has the potential to cut training costs significantly. But, for many educators, 3D is still seen through the prism of entertainment. As a result, they find it difficult to justify the expense. Implementing a 3D instructional component does cost money, although--surprisingly--the equipment itself is not a significant line item.

"Compared with other audiovisual equipment, it really isn't a technology that is disproportionately expensive," notes Ian Lester, lead information technologist at the University of Rhode Island (URI) College of Pharmacy. Many inexpensive portable projectors on the market now are 3D capable and can project onto any surface. The interactive glasses are the same price as the average university textbook. Furthermore, faculty need little training to use the equipment. Indeed, if equipment cost and faculty training were the only barriers to implementation, most colleges could install 3D projection technology tomorrow.

Unfortunately, cost does become a factor in the areas of content creation and technical management. Although some off-the-shelf content may be compelling, it may not be suitable for university-level courses whose content is highly tailored to the curricula and teaching styles of individual schools. This leaves the onus for content development on the schools themselves.

The Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario provides a good example: Tim Wilson, an assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and his team have spent up to 600 hours building some of the custom 3D content for their department. And while 3D systems are easy for faculty to operate, a highly trained A/V technician may be required to maintain the system.

Content Creation
A lack of sufficient high-quality 3D learning materials is probably the biggest drag on the adoption of the technology in higher ed. Ideally, publishers would create 3D materials to complement their journals and textbooks. Until that happens, colleges may have to take the lead in developing 3D content to accompany their courses. Fortunately, they don't have to start from scratch: Educators and technical staff can often use off-the-shelf programs to create custom content. At the URI College of Pharmacy, for example, an animation group develops content and then uses various molecular modeling programs that have the ability to convert the content into 3D.

To create custom content, Wilson advises schools to assemble a team comprising a graphic artist/animator, a computer programmer, and a technical representative with a strong background in the subject matter to assure quality and accuracy. While developing 3D content can be complicated, opportunities do exist for synergies among university departments, as occurred with URI's 3D project. "The core of this project is that students and faculty have come together to create animation segments that can be used to illustrate important and hard-to-understand biomedical concepts," says Bongsup Cho, professor of medicinal chemistry in the school's Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

There is a lingering perception among some faculty that 3D technology is just another media toy with a "wow" factor. It's a viewpoint with which Wilson strongly disagrees. A memorable lesson, he asserts, will always trump one that's not. Lester concurs, noting that 3D reduces the barriers to comprehension, eliminates the need for words such as "imagine" and "visualize," and gets the point across with an element of fun.

Furthermore, as Wilson points out, students have differing spatial abilities: Those with lower spatial capabilities, he insists, can learn better with 3D technology. They may grasp concepts--especially complex ones--more easily when information is presented in a more spatial, realistic form. The reason is simple: When a concept requires additional cognitive processing, it is slower to move to memory; but when it is understood quickly, it moves faster.

But you can have too much of a good thing--there is potential for students with lower spatial capabilities to suffer from cognitive overload when using 3D technology. When a student becomes overloaded with information, the process of moving newly learned concepts to memory can actually slow down.

As a result, says Wilson, 3D technology should not be considered a panacea--the pros and cons of 3D technology for low spatial learners have yet to be thoroughly researched. At this point, Wilson compares 3D technology to a hammer. "It's only a tool--it can build or it can take apart," he explains, noting that 3D can become destructive "if learning theory, environment, good pedagogy principles, and attention to cognitive load are not considered."

The Missing 3 D's: Data, Data, Data

Very little research has been done to track the effectiveness of 3D projection in higher education. Most research has focused on the K-12 market, where one highly publicized study was funded by Texas Instruments and carried out by Anne Bamford, director of the International Research Agency. With the support of several educational organizations, universities, and schools, Bamford's research found that test scores among students in her study's 3D classes improved by 17 percent over their pretest scores, while students in classes using only 2D materials improved by 8 percent.

At this point, no independent studies have been conducted to confirm or refute these findings. Even then, it's uncertain whether higher education might see similar improvements.

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