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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Classroom in the Cloud: Technology as a Learning Environment

Laura Fleming

Library Media Specialist
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In September 2013, I was recruited by then-principal Eric Sheninger to be the new library media specialist of New Milford (New Jersey) High School, and was tasked with seeking to improve student performance by developing an exciting and engaging learning environment for all. My vision was of a learner-centered space where students and teachers would have access to exciting technologies, digital and print resources, and productive spaces offering scope for collaboration and creativity. In seeking to turn what been a largely unvisited and unused library into a vibrant part of the school community, I felt challenged by the limitations of the physical space. The library had not been renovated in decades, and it offered very little in terms of what a modern-day learning "commons" should be.

My inspiration at this point was Pixar Animation Studios. I'd read that Pixar had set itself on the path of being a constant learning organization, and I remembered that part of the impetus behind their mission had been attributed to their flexible, creative, and collaborative office spaces. I combined the ideas that I garnered from Pixar's quest with a quote from Winston Churchill that I have always liked: "We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us."

Bringing Churchill's maxim into the digital age, I decided to try broadening the concept of a "building" by extending the physical attributes into a virtual space that we could shape to contribute to learning success in the school. So Pixar, Churchill, and the needs of the school community all helped me lay out a blueprint for transforming our library into a constant learning organization -- by creating a virtual campus for New Milford High School.

A New Learning Space

Many virtual learning solutions exist in the market. Their uses are varied, and most need to be customized and personalized for different needs and contexts. I formed a partnership with Proton Media, a company that provides a solution called Protosphere. This is a 3D virtual environment that enables organizations to deliver online, instructor-led training programs and to foster immersive virtual collaboration. Given that it was intended primarily for corporate and enterprise use, we had to think very carefully about how to recast it into a 3D virtual learning environment suitable for our school. I envisioned shaping it to allow us to explore how 21st century libraries can use the virtual terrain for creating fluid, flexible learning spaces.

We designed our virtual space to include five rooms: a theater, a hall, large meeting rooms, and different learning spaces. Protosphere has enabled us to explore and experiment with different pedagogies in a virtual environment. Additional inspiration for this idea came from Sugata Mitra’s TED talks on how students can teach themselves and building a school in the cloud. The cloud allows for both synchronous and asynchronous learning, attributes that we utilized in NMHS. And since content and materials are available at all times, this allows students to come into the environment outside of class time.

A pilot group of teachers and students explored how to communicate and collaborate in a virtual environment through interacting via avatars. The virtual space proved much more participatory than the regular physical classroom. For example, we were able to design experiences for the avatars to get up and move around as much as possible. Our learners were able to talk, view, and interact with presentation and media content, record notes, and access the web, all at the same time, from anywhere. We were able to embed learning into collaborative processes to improve performance and extend the learning culture beyond the usual constraints of the physical classroom. We also felt that we were helping to prepare students for the 21st century labor force in which many of them will have to work, communicate, and collaborate virtually -- something I refer to as cloud literacy.

The Always-Open Library

CBS News thought the project interesting enough to broadcast a story called "New Milford High School Gets 3-D Virtual Classrooms" (see the video below). The piece gave the students' perspectives on the experience of breaking down the barriers of a traditional classroom. It also showed how the role of the teacher shifts to facilitator of knowledge acquisition, a role that is critical in a virtual classroom, although the teacher still has to design and deliver the structure needed for a successful lesson. The clip also showed that the learners themselves can become facilitators in the virtual environment.

Immersive environments are a viable option for learning. Thanks to our virtual learning environment, we were able to have an always-open library where teachers, students, data, and content came together to increase the speed, richness, and effectiveness of knowledge creation and transfer. We were able to overcome collaboration barriers that so many students face in the physical world, allowing our students to work on group projects any time or place. Classrooms in the cloud present us with a universe of limitless knowledge and boundless possibilities that we all should embrace.

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Jeanine Judd's picture
Jeanine Judd
Gifted facilitator from Culpeper, Virginia

Loved your ideas! Just this year I have lost my space for teaching my gifted elementary students. How did you get started in setting up your virtual space? I would love to do the same. Interested in learning your set up and management.

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Sumanth Dwarakinath's picture

This is a great idea to enhance student learning in a collaborative environment. Tools such as these are are vital for students to get motivated to participate in discussions. Another aspect that I found interesting is that the instructor can overlook these interactions without being physically present and when the discussions go out of topic, a timely intervention might give the students a better direction to proceed with the discussion. In online discussions, it is usually not possible to see who you are talking to and you cannot see any facial expressions and see any gestures which might, to some extent, lead to some misunderstandings. But with avatars, I think its a very innovative move that would help students to understand each other's body language and gain all those advantages that a face to face interaction would generally provide.

Akshay Patil's picture

Cloud computing as we know it, has already begun its omnipresence throughout the web. Its developing at a rate that defies all statistical rules. A powerful way to promote and enhance efficiency in education is by engaging the cloud. As I see it, there is classroom education on one hand and then there's online learning. Online learning has a direct integration with the cloud. The preexisting web technologies can become a part of cloud by simply using the computational and storage resources over the cloud without much tweaking or efforts. However, classroom learning is a little different. Integrating it involves a handful of custom applications, tailored specifically to the needs of an academic organization. Immersive learning environment is a great way to begin. Classroom virtualization with full 3D rendering captures the essence of a real classroom added with a world of features and applications. These have the potential of engaging the students more into the subject and help them learn in a better environment where knowledge is a click away. There are recent developments in holographic lectures where the teachers' projection can be used to train a group of students. The visual cues and gestures which are crucial for learning, are not lost in this method. This, combined with virtual classroom can provide the students with best of both world.
Here's a link about holographic medical lectures: http://www.sgul.ac.uk/media/latest-news/3d-holographic-projection-triall...

Svitlana's picture

Good afternoon! I want to know where to start? What do I need for the organization of such work? Thank you!

Laura Fleming's picture
Laura Fleming
Library Media Specialist

Hi all! Thanks for taking the time to read my piece. Online face-to-face learning can be a very powerful way for our learners to learn. For more about getting started, take a look at this ISTE piece on virtual worlds for learning: https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=395&category=In-the....
In addition, I have more on my own blog, here: http://worlds-of-learning.com/2014/09/01/cloud-literacy/
and more in Eric Sheninger's new book, Uncommon Learning: http://www.amazon.com/UnCommon-Learning-Creating-Schools-That/dp/1483365....

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