Your Institution in the Immersive Learning Ecosystem

By Krishna P.C. Madhavan, Purdue University (IN)

Traditional wisdom at colleges and universities has always been, “Don’t throw technology at the problem.” The future, however, may belong to those who do use technology, but figure out how to “throw technology” optimally at the problem. As the quality and personalization of IT services for students increases, institutions have an opportunity to ride the wave of an ongoing technological revolution that’s fueled in large part by their own students. But a good strategy is based on the view that your institution is part of the immersive learning ecosystem. You can clarify this vision by mapping your technology initiatives to real-world phenomena. Here are some ideas to jump-start your thinking.

Krishna P.C. Madhavan

Krishna P.C. Madhavan
Purdue University

Mobility and the complementary convergence of devices and cyber-services are key characteristics that will mark the future of learning on our campuses. The emergence of mobile technologies in combination with algorithms for context awareness immerses users in the type of information that is most relevant to them. And importantly, the information that is provided to users is selected for them by content providers based on user profiles and choices. Students are immersed in the ongoing and continuous emergence of highly relevant and customizable cyber-services as part of their daily lives. Their lifestyles and technology choices reflect the cutting-edge state of the IT industry.

In complete contrast, when students step into a traditional learning environment, they usually break away from the technology-rich, immersive, and intelligent real world. They may be asked to turn their expectations down a notch or two to accommodate technologies that faculty are most comfortable using. In the education world, much has been discussed about the need for immersive learning environments. Yet, while the call for such environments is renewed every year, very little systemic progress is being made in this realm.

The key question that we need to grapple with is, “What makes a learning environment immersive?” It is clearly not just the presence or absence of a tiled wall, a CAVE, or any specific piece of hardware. Rather, any environment that has a critical mass of cyberinfrastructure coupled with the appropriate middleware will automatically have greater potential for becoming a true immersive learning environment.

It is precisely for this reason that decision makers at colleges and universities must move away from thinking about single, isolated technologies and learn to see a more holistic view of the hardware and software that is beginning to revolutionize first the scientific world and then the general information economy. This, in essence, is what cyberinfrastructure is all about. A holistic view of IT will not only allow the direct flow of cutting-edge research content to the students, but it will also enable students to select and define the content that is provided to them.

It is equally critical to go beyond immersive environments to the realm of intelligent immersion within learning environments. Intelligence and user-specific customization of cyber-services is achieved by treating every device, every dataset, and every interaction as part of a continuum to which users can subscribe. For example, instead of thinking about an educational game as an individual service that is offered to students on a university campus, decision makers need to think about where these games fit in the larger ecosystem of services that are offered to students. Could we tailor selected simulation tools into the game based on any given student’s learning style such that they are automatically exposed to the high-end tools as part of this gaming environment?

Posing questions in this holistic fashion leads us to some larger pedagogical issues that we seem to be afraid to tackle now. Consider another example: What form do assessment tools need to take on if we want to understand students within a real-world immersive environment? In order to achieve this sort of intelligence within any system, the middleware needs to recognize the individual user and their associated characteristics. In the technology context, it is impossible to achieve this without appropriate identity management tools. Shibboleth may hold the key that will allow users to carry their identities and choices across multiple, disparate learning ecosystems, but at this time only a few institutions are moving ahead with serious plans for universal identity management.

What I’m proposing is for IT leaders to learn how the immersive learning ecosystem works, and guide their decision making process so that education technology loses its reactionary quality and IT plans focus in on the students’ long-term needs. We need to develop and deploy services with students — their lifestyles, their technology choices, and their learning styles — at the center of our design universe. We need to move away from tool-centric thinking about learning environments and invest in designing cyberinfrastructure and middleware that will provide a holistic, integrated bridge between discovery and learning.

Krishna P.C. Madhavan is a research scientist with the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing at Purdue University.

[Editor’s note: Krishna Madhavan will moderate a panel at Campus Technology 2006 titled, “Cyberinfrastructure for ‘Immersion’ Learning Environments.”]
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