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November 2014
Issue: October 1, 2008

HIGHER LEARNING: TAKING THE INITIATIVE

By: Jenny Donelan
To the thousands of K-12 and higher educational institutions already using immersive applications, it might sound like old news to hear that the technology's time has come, but for those who have yet to embrace it, hold on...

If the forces behind the Immersive Education Initiative (www.immersiveeducation. org) have their way over the next two to three years, an ever-increasing number of students and teachers the world over will be exploring 3D environments, playing interactive learning games and enjoying virtual collaboration sessions with peers a state, or even a continent, away. Changes are also in store for those schools already using immersive education; they will experience a major upsurge in terms of content, tools, usability and image quality.

One example of what is to come is the Virtual Egypt Immersive Education environment developed for the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College (www.bc.edu/advancingstudies). The original Virtual Egypt was created in 2003 using Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), Extensible 3D (X3D), QuickTime 3D, Flash, streaming video, and the Unreal 2 game engine. (In 2006, the Second Life 3D platform was incorporated as well). Users, or rather their avatars, move through a high-res virtual tomb created by hand and also using scans from the Theban Mapping Project (www.thebanmappingproject.com), interacting with content such as objects, text, video, or games.

The upgraded, or third-generation, Virtual Egypt will feature richer imagery, such as near photorealistic avatars created with photo-mapping software, and a variety of 3D formats. The new Egypt will also have more customization options. Teachers who want to focus on a particular area — archaeology or mythology, for example — can populate the environment with unique content such as videos of excavation techniques or text translations of hieroglyphics. But for educators simply wanting a ready-to-go app to complement class material, Virtual Egypt can be downloaded and used as is.

The overarching idea behind the Immersive Education Initiative is that schools of all kinds, including those with tight budgets, will be able to access a universal library of objects that they can use to help engage students more thoroughly. Reaching students through digital media is increasingly viewed as a must, as each new generation arriving at school seems more media-savvy than its predecessor. Many of those library objects will be 3D, but there will also be video, audio, Flash and interactive games, among other kinds of media.

"It's important to have different kinds of content," says Aaron Walsh, founder of the Immersive Education Initiative and a director of its parent organization, the Media Grid. Virtual Egypt, he says, is just one example of the types of complete immersive education learning environments that the Initiative plans to provide free of charge to educators.

"Many more are under development, including a full suite of K-12 STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] learning environments," Walsh says. Pre-built courses and modules can be used out of the box, but everything will also be "infinitely customizable." All content, by design, will be cross-platform and open source.

ORGANIZATIONAL FORCES

The Immersive Education Initiative is a nonprofit collaboration among colleges, universities, research institutes and various companies. Among its members are Boston College, Columbia University, Sun Microsystems, The Burke Institute for Innovation in Education, the Israeli Association of Grid Technologies and the New Media Consortium, itself with more than 200 members. The Initiative was founded in '07 to, in the words of its literature, "define and develop open standards, best practices, platforms, and communities of support for virtual worlds and game-based learning and training systems."

The Initiative's parent organization, the Media Grid (www.mediagrid.org), was founded in '03 to promote the use of a computational grid platform as a public utility for developing and delivering virtual reality and 3D simulation programs. The Media Grid was designed specifically for networked applications that produce and consume large quantities of digital media, and is currently powered by renderfarms, clusters, high-performance computer systems, computational grids and other systems.

WHAT'S TO COME

In practical terms, the Initiative is preparing to get the word out to educational facilities that might not yet be familiar with immersive educational tools. Institutions interested in becoming pilot schools can contact the Initiative through its Website, Walsh says. Tools and usage are currently free of charge for nonprofits. In fact, it is part of the Institute's agenda to ensure that schools that might not have the capital equipment or the infrastructure to run these applications can do so.

To that end, there is what Walsh calls a sustainability model for for-profit companies that want to get involved with Immersive Education Initiative projects. "If game companies, for example, want to use the Grid, they can sustain it by putting some money into it," says Walsh, noting that the Initiative is sponsored by foundations, philanthropists and universities, and is not commercially backed.
High on the list of future features are high-resolution graphics like those that appear on PlayStation 3 or XBox 360.

Walsh says it's important that the new generation support various shared apps, since collaborating on projects in PowerPoint or Web browsers has become the norm for students. It's not enough for students to occupy the same virtual space — they need to be able to work together there too.

Walsh likes to describe immersive education at this point in time as having "traction." It's poised to catch hold due to the right confluence of factors: availability of mature, open-source programs; grid computing; and general acceptance — and even appetite for high-quality immersive applications that can capture the imaginations of students.