Technology Integration

Trendspotting at ISTE11

July 8, 2011

Sensory overload comes with the territory at an ISTE conference, and this year's ed-tech gala in Philadelphia was no exception There was plenty to see, between the exhibits, presentations, and must-have devices that attendees were wielding in the Bloggers' Cafe. You couldn't turn around without spotting another QR code to snap.

But the real fun of ISTE comes from listening for patterns. When I hear multiple voices talking about an interesting idea or approach that has potential to influence teaching and learning, I've learned to pay attention. Several years back, the ISTE buzz was classroom blogging. More recently, it was Twitter for building personal learning networks. The prediction I kept hearing this year: immersive learning environments. Here are three perspectives on this big idea.

The Future Is Here

Although some are predicting we'll see technology-enabled, immersive learning environments in the near future, David Thornburg already built one in Brazil. He calls it the Holodeck. During a special ISTE event hosted by, Thornburg offered a preview. When students step into this windowless space, they find themselves transported. Eight screens seamlessly connect, offering a 360-degree view of their world -- and beyond. Google Earth and touchpad controls enable them to "fly" wherever they want to go. Everything is built with off-the-shelf technologies.

Thornburg, a futurist and long-time advocate of project-based learning, calls the Holodeck "a theater without an audience. It's an empty room that can become anything." For middle school students, for instance, he has designed an immersive mission to space in which "hands-on means up to their armpits." When their "vehicle" begins to lose oxygen, students use tools at hand to fashion a mechanical solution.

A 3-D printer allows them to fabricate the parts they have designed using Google Sketchup. During their simulated mission, student teams debate about whether to collect extraterrestrial samples, opening discussions about everything from the potential dangers of alien bacteria to the desire to explore the unknown.

With a different scenario, the Holodeck could offer an equally immersive trip to the Jurassic period -- or just about anywhere else. Thornburg is even contemplating a "smell generator" to add more sensory information to the experience. Formal research is still on the horizon, but so far, he has gathered plenty of anecdotal evidence that students are on board with this style of learning. "They know more stuff and they don't forget it. What I hear students saying is: Can I please learn more?" Thornburg says he is in discussions to bring the Holodeck to U.S. schools, so stay tuned.

Blurring the Lines

For another perspective on what's ahead in educational technology, I sat down with Cameron Evans, chief technology officer of Microsoft Education.

In the not-too-distant future, he anticipates, the phrase "anytime, anywhere learning" will take on new meaning. Mobile devices will interact with platforms to blur the boundaries between home, school, and community.

"It's going to go beyond bring-your-own-device to bring-your-own-data," he predicts. For students, this means learning that happens outside school will increasingly inform what happens inside the classroom. As Evans says, "Why should students have to repeat what they already know?"

His near-term predictions: Classrooms will get smarter. Every surface will be interactive. Lights will be able to see. Kinesthetic controllers will create more opportunities for fully immersive, game-based learning. Face-recognition software and applications that constantly track and analyze data will take individualized learning to new levels.

Virtual environments will never replace real-world learning, Evans assured me. Instead, mobile devices will help students take learning experiences beyond the classroom. Learners will be able to peer through a viewfinder and see virtual information layered onto their world through augmented reality apps.

Turning this vision into a reality -- at a cost schools can afford -- is going to require innovation from "the entire ecosystem," Evans says. He expects breakthrough ideas will come from researchers, technologists, and teachers themselves, including those working with limited resources. "They're often the ones who come up with great projects and ideas that can be replicated anywhere."

Magic and Meaning

For yet another perspective on immersive learning environments, I attended a presentation by Professor Chris Dede from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the principal investigator for EcoMUVE, a 3-D virtual world designed to teach middle-schoolers about ecosystems and causal patterns. This turns out to be an ideal environment for challenging students' misconceptions about science.

EcoMUVE allows students to explore and collect data about life in and around a virtual 3-D pond. Technology also allows "magic" to happen, Dede adds. For instance, students can travel in time or see with magnification powers far greater than normal eyesight allows. Inquiry is at the heart of this kind of learning. Students might discover bacteria in the pond, for instance, and then get curious about the process of decomposition. A computer-simulated rainstorm might cause the water to become turbid, generating more questions about what's happening.

Or, perhaps fish in the pond rapidly die off. That event challenges students to pose a hypothesis, backed by evidence, to explain what's happened to the ecosystem.

While students are interacting with what they see on the screen, the software is gathering mountains of data "about the micro-actions of each student," Dede says. The challenge ahead is to automate analysis of this data to generate "formative, embedded, diagnostic assessment." He predicts a breakthrough in assessment within the next few years. Once that happens, he adds, "We won't need high-stakes tests."

The goal with immersive learning environments is not to keep students from going outside to explore, Dede is quick to point out. Rather, he sees virtual learning environments as preparation for tackling real-world challenges and solving "wicked problems." Just as medical students go through internships en route to becoming skilled doctors, so do K-12 students need opportunities for what Dede calls "situated learning."And, he sees skilled teachers playing an essential role in facilitating this powerful approach to learning.

Keynote in Perfect Pitch

ISTE offers an ideal venue for contemplating the future of education. But at the closing keynote, I was reminded of the powerful learning that's happening right now. Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia was preceded on stage by some magnificent young poets from his urban high school. In his vision of education, technology is like oxygen: It's everywhere, essential, and invisible. More than technology, students need opportunities to "do stuff that matters," Lehman argued, and he gave countless examples of what his students have already accomplished.

They also need caring adults who help them develop "their head, heart, hands, and voice." That's what helps students develop a sense of agency, ready and able to contribute to their world. That's the bright vision I took home from ISTE.

Did you attend ISTE this year? What ideas did you bring home with you?

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