Immersive Learning Environment or Time Machine?

By Mary Grush

An interview with Chris Dede, Harvard University (MA)

CT asked teaching and learning scholar Chris Dede about the adoption of immersive learning technologies in higher education, and what CIOs can do to prepare their campuses.

Where are we today with the adoption of immersive learning technologies on higher education campuses? Are we missing an opportunity?

Chris Dede

Chris Dede, Harvard University

I think we are missing an opportunity to immediately begin using immersive learning technologies on campus. If we look at what college students do outside of class, we see that they are using immersive technologies in a variety of ways. Many of them are playing different kinds of online games, from The Sims, to America’s Army, to EverQuest. Many have smart cell phones and are out in the real world using their smart phones or personal digital assistants to bring in the virtual world through text messaging, sending pictures to one another, or surfing the Web.

We know that students are interested in and often facile with this kind of technology — even though we usually tell them to shut those devices down in class, rather than building on the potential for immersive learning. And, when we look at the 21 st century workplace, we see knowledge workers using mobile wireless devices like the BlackBerry in very sophisticated ways and using virtual working environments like groupware applications effectively. What we do in our classrooms should reflect both the kinds of learning that students prefer and are good at, as well as the types of doing that are important in the 21 st century workplace. Those trends both argue for immersive learning on campus.

Higher education is at least in part thought of as a bridge to the real world for students, but in terms of technology, could there be a huge gap there?

There really is a huge gap between technology use on campus and off. It seems as though the only place you can now find a 1950s workplace is in an academic setting. Some faculty courses are like time machines that take you back half a century. Nowhere else in society can you find a setting in which refusal to use work-related technology to improve effectiveness is routinely accepted.

What’s the biggest challenge — or perhaps obstacle — for adoption of immersive learning technologies on college and university campuses?

Immersive learning technologies are based on different interfaces than the World Wide Web — interfaces like multiuser virtual environments (immersion in a digital context), or smart cell phones and personal digital assistants (mobile wireless devices that infuse the virtual world into the real world). But colleges have invested their money in setting up computer labs of different kinds, or possibly laptop programs. These use the world-to-the-desktop interface, so that’s the way universities now think about infrastructure. World-to-the-desktop is going to continue to be an important interface, but the almost exclusive focus on this d'es make it harder for institutions to also invest in interfaces to virtual contexts and mobile wireless devices.

What can current CIOs and technology planners do to prepare their campuses for immersive learning?

I can think of a couple kinds of things that CIOs and people with similar responsibilities can do right now. One of them is to look carefully at how high-tech businesses are using mobile wireless devices and groupware applications that involve virtual space. Because business has already confronted and solved some of the problems about how to do this kind of immersion, business CIOs already know something about this topic.

The other thing CIOs can do is bring in some students who are very adept in using new types of interfaces and immersive forms of learning and learn from them; treat them as experts. What the top ten percent of technology users might be doing today is likely to be what the typical technology user will be doing on a college campus in 3 to 5 years. So, anticipate where most students are going to want to be soon. Look at the high-end students now, talk extensively with them, get a feel for where they see the campus falling short, and think about ways to address those issues. That’s an opportunity we shouldn’t miss.

Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. His fields of scholarship span emerging technologies, policy, and leadership.

For more information, visit: Harvard Graduate School of Education: Chris Dede and Faculty Profile

[Editor’s note: Dede will give the opening keynote, titled “Get Ready for a Sea-Change in Education: Immersive Learning Technologies Across Cyberspace” on August 1 at the Campus Technology 2006 conference in Boston. Also look for CT's 'Visionary' interview with Dede in the June issue of Campus Technology.]

Mary Grush is the editor of this newsletter.

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