EON Reality’s Chief Learning Officer, Dr Peter Looker joined the organisation at the start of the year, after an illustrious decade at one of Asia’s leading universities Nanyang Technological University as Head of its Teaching, Learning and Pedagogy Division. Since 2002, Dr. Looker has been working in learning and teaching development, after being a lecturer and Associate Professor in English Literature for 16 years. He has also worked at the Australian National University, UNSW (Canberra and Sydney), UNSWAsia, University of Newcastle, and City University, Hong Kong and has garnered several awards related to learning and teaching development from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. With his rich insights in education and its developments, we invited Dr. Looker to share his views and perspectives on the role of VR and AR in higher education.

From your point of view, what have been the major transformative changes in education over the last two decades?

First, in higher education, there has been a huge exponential increase in student numbers and at the same time, students moving more to different countries.

A corollary of this (and one with increasing effect) is an intensification of research into student learning.  In other words, one of the drivers for the increase in research into student learning has been the increase in numbers. In the past, there was less evidence than there is now of what works and what does not. 

Once upon a time, students were more of an elite, who shared a culture with those teaching them. Now there are many more students who are, for example, the first in their families to go to university.  This has led to a recognition that we need to pay attention to how learning actually works for students.

And finally, of course, parallel to both of the above are the changes brought about by the digital age of information and new capabilities for creating completely new types of learning activities for students.  Technology hasw changed so many of the circumstances under which learning takes place, and this is a revolution we still do not fully understand in terms of universities.

In brief, the transformation has been about recognising that students learn best if they are doing something, rather than sitting in lectures, that there are far more students than there ever used to be, and that technology changes the whole conception of where, when and how, in relation to student learning.

Have these changes posed any challenges to traditional teaching methods and their effectiveness? If so, how?

Yes.  Teachers, especially in higher education, are used to thinking of themselves as content experts who need to deliver their content in a didactic way.  As an example of how the challenges manifest themselves, the advent of the new collaborative classroom has received considerable negative feedback from faculty who think they should be standing in front of the students, with all the students focused on them and what they are saying.  Collaborative, social, technology-enabled learning requires teachers to use their subject expertise differently, and meeting this challenge is an ongoing difficulty universities are facing, though a new generation of teachers understands it better.

There is pretty general agreement about the evidence that students learn through doing, but many faculty find this difficult to put into practice.

Another major challenge is getting many faculty to get involved in designing technological solutions to learning problems themselves.  Many will do this, but a significant number of them are unwilling to try.

We’ve heard a lot about the future economy and need to constantly evolve and learn. How would you describe the ability of higher education in general to meet the needs of the future economy?

The future economy will surely be one that is underpinned by AI dealing with many of things humans currently do.  This creates a situation where human emotional intelligence and thinking become more important, as well as the ability to adapt, quickly come to terms with new situations, and respond appropriately based on a foundation of knowledge and understanding.  Routine is for the machines.

The best way for this to happen is for universities to produce students who are not just capable of fixed roles, but who can adapt, think for themselves, see things conceptually, and know how to deal with new and previously unseen situations.  Flexible and nimble thinking is the key.

Is this possible?  Yes, it depends entirely on what is taught and how it is taught.  You often hear faculty object to new ways of teaching because, they say, “students still have to learn the basics”.  No one doubts the truth of this, but there is a big difference between the basics as content, and the basics as delivered. 

If the basics are taught in a dessicated way, as a list of disconnected facts, or procedures, or even ideas and formulae, then you are preventing the possibility of students using that knowledge in new situations.  (This is the idea of learning transfer, or in this case “negative transfer”.)  If, however, teaching occurs so that it is real world, interconnected, conceptual knowledge, the chances of transfer to new and unknown situations is much higher. 

So, the question is, how does this happen.  Through more holistic, conceptual teaching that requires students to think in terms of real world connections and applications.  (I believe, as you now, that this is where AVR can come into its own, if it is done properly.  It’s not there yet!)

Have you seen any changes in the way in which students, a decade apart, consume information and learn? If so, what do you think are the implications of these changes?

This requires some careful thinking and it may be too early to judge.  Student focus groups produce mixed results.  There seems to be an increase in understanding of some conceptual understanding of courses where online learning has been added to the face-to-face components. 

This suggests that students are taking in information through digital means (including video) successfully, and processing it in a relational way, rather than in a simple factual way.  But evidence from NTU (and elsewhere) suggests that they say they prefer to take in new information face-to-face.  What this seems to suggest is that both new and old ways of processing information co-exist and there is plenty of room for exploration.  The key is perhaps to see what digital forms of education can really improve student learning and develop that further.

Higher education are often characterized by esoteric and sophisticated subjects, how do you think that higher education can use educational technology/ VR to help students and Professors navigate their way through this?  Particularly, how do you think VR might serve to plug the gaps in modern day lesson delivery?

I often make the point that Diana Laurillard once made that a lot of academic knowledge is (and must necessarily be) second-order knowledge that can only be represented symbolically.  This knowledge provides and analytical representation of the world that is not immediately deducible from everyday experience of the world.

What is important for students, is that that knowledge can be applied to appropriate situations in the real world.  (Most of them are not going to be academics!)  What universities have not been good at is 1) helping students to understand how that symbolic knowledge links to other understanding and 2) teaching that knowledge in such a way that it can actually be used.  To me, this is where AR/VR can really come into its own if it is done properly, and with a genuine educational vision and purpose behind it.

I see VR in particular as providing the bridge between the symbolic knowledge and the real world.  It is the means of translation.  It is the medium through which students can explore symbolic knowledge in an applied and material way (in spite of its being virtual!).  The point, however, is how the VR (or AR) is constructed, and how students are asked to interact with it. Currently, a lot of AR, in particular, uses outdated pedagogy. We need to move it forward but on the basis of an educational vision that addresses the world’s most urgent educational needs to produce students who can use their knowledge.

As much as the benefits of technology are highly vaunted, resistance is often part of the adoption process. What do you think might be the biggest barriers to technology adoption in schools? How can we overcome that?

There are a number of barriers in schools to the adoption of technology;

·         The didactic model of teaching is stubbornly persistent both at universities and in schools.  There is a reluctance to allow students to learn through exploration either with or without new technology. There is still too much of a need to control and ensure all students learn exactly the same things.  These are counter-productive to the spririt of learning with new technology

·         The current student assessment system is a barrier.  There are still too many final written exams and students are often seen to be learning for the exam.  This become a barrier to experimentation with technology.

·         School teachers and university teachers are genuinely afraid of losing their identity as experts.  This does not get talked about enough, but trying to encourage people to see that their expertise can be used through the way they design learning experiences for students using technology is just as significant as standing in front of a class talking is, I think, a matter of urgency if we are to really ride the wave of digital transformation.

What do you feel may be the major changes we’ll see in higher education in the next twenty years?  Do you foresee a growing role for VR?

There will only be a role for VR in the future if we learn how to make it significant for education, rather than something that has novelty value.  In the next 20 years I think the changes to education will be significant in many ways, while the human interaction we have now will remain of great importance.  The question is how we do a new version of blended learning. 

By that, I mean blended learning with VR as an everyday part of the experience.  My sense is that education will become less standardized in the sense of insisting that everyone learns the same things and where students are measured against one another on the same scale.  Interdisciplinarity will become central to degree programs so that students appreciate that there are different lenses through which the world can be viewed that are not incompatible. But we need to create the potential for all of this. 

If VR continues along the path it is on at the moment, in 20 years’ time it will be viewed in the way the so-called TV educational revolution of the 60s is now viewed, or the radio-education revolution of the 1920s is now viewed.  In the end, they became bit-part players, but they never created the transformation that was claimed form them. 

By the way, I think universities and schools will still exist.  It’s a matter of what we do with them.  And I believe that the university needs to be viewed as an overall learning space, not one that has some learning spaces (classrooms, libraries, etc) but which is conceived of holistically as a learning space.  Clearly, if this is the case AR/VR has a significant role to play.