The new immersive Star Trek in VR experience is here – what can we learn from it for VR in education? Developed specifically for virtual reality, Star Trek: Bridge Crew is the only game to offer a near full immersion in the Star Trek universe. As a longtime fan I can not wait to put my VR headset on. To be an explorer and fly my own starship has been something I have been dreaming about for years. But thinking about all this brings me to something more than Star Trek as good as it is. It makes me think about the state of education and what VR and immersive worlds can do for it.
So for today, I want to reflect on a different voyage, one that many students are about to embark upon in a few days. As a new school year begins, some try to enjoy a final taste of summer while others are less full of excitement. Millions of students will enter the classroom in September, whether online or in physical spaces. The overwhelming majority will find themselves reading texts and writing assignments. Some will have the benefit of small classes, while others in higher education will sit in lecture halls with hundreds of students. A growing number of faculty use courseware, Smartboards and other technology tools, but all too often that translates into text-heavy lecture notes or PowerPoints recast on large screens. The majority of students will spend their time in classrooms, libraries and home passively trying to learn. Most will resort to Google and Wikipedia to figure things out. It does not have to be this way!
What if there was a new way to start this journey? What if you walked into the room and boarded a starship instead? What would a school experience be like if we sent our students on a mission, joining a global team to learn and solve our world’s most pressing problems? What if they met in Virtual Reality? For example, literally experiencing the streets of Paris if they were studying French culture or urban planning. Examining first hand the geology of volcanoes or building the next generation transportation? What would happen if they are given a problem they could not answer on their own, a problem that requires collaboration and teamwork with colleagues to find a solution?
Here is how VR and AI can empower the future of learning. The Star Trek: Bridge Crew VR Game gives us a glimpse of how we can engage with our students. Or, as Levar Burton (Geordi La Forge from Engineering) in the video trailer puts it:
There is something different being in a shared virtual environment . . . The team does not succeed unless everybody does their job well.
In the true spirit of Star Trek it is through cooperation rather than competition that we learn best. In VR, you can sit on any of the crew chairs and be the captain, engineer, or doctor and experience events from very different point of views. In Star Trek: Bridge Crew, you are flying the ship but have to work collaboratively with your team. You have to work with your crew to reach goals and accomplish the mission as this is virtual reality as a social experience. It demands that you be fully engaged.
We work so hard at fostering student engagement and collaboration in education but there is much to be desired in the results. It doesn’t help if one person gets an “A” while the others did not learn. The students need to help each other. The crew needs to pull together as a team.
From Star Trek to VR in Education
In the next decade, I envision that students will start their learning path by joining a mission and entering a Starship (we will be able to do this from home). As students begin their journey, they can record audio and video blogs reflecting on what they are experiencing and learning in this new environment. The AI on board will be able to give them immediate feedback and adjust the challenges of the mission. Students can pick short or multiple semester journeys. Similar to the Holodeck, your mission could be programmed to include topics and questions that stem from biology, chemistry, literature, philosophy, business or law. Instead of your five subject schedule for the semester, you pick a mission where the subjects will be integrated as they are in real life. And yes, of course you can add on an individual plan to hone your skills in writing, public speaking, team building, mastering a foreign language or other competencies you desire to improve on. The feedback on the student performance will be driven by AI that captures signals invisible to even the most experienced teachers today – body, brain and eye tracking along with all else you do. Technologies like Affectiva are already pioneering devices and research in this field. AI will not only be a persistent coach for each student, it will allow faculty to focus on designing new learning experiences.
In social VR, you can interact and play with others. In Star Trek VR, this works by using the controls in the interface. Soon, we will be able to use technology like Intel’s RealSense and simply use our actual hands. In the game your body is mapped to an avatar but it won’t be long when we will enter a virtual world and the experience will be no different then what happens in the Star Trek Holodeck.
It is important to note that in the game you do not take on a character from the movie but you go on a mission of your own. VR makes it possible to fully immerse yourself in these worlds, doing things otherwise not possible. The Star Trek: Bridge Crew will be released this fall for Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR. I am already thinking about what would it take to create the ultimate learning experience in VR. In the classrooms today, we ask our students to collect data, calculate projections, think critically, collaborate, write and be creative in trying to solve a problem often presented in an isolated way within a single subject. In VR you can prototype your ideas and test your solutions and experience the consequences in ways that other mediums do not allow. A project that takes a year today could be run through in VR in a matter of days or weeks with global collaborators.
VR and the New Frontiers of Learning
Today, educators think about issues such as personalized, competency-based, adaptive, online and experiential learning, student engagement and assessment, and last but not least, the use of emerging technology in education. All of these are important to improve the state of learning but none of them solves the puzzle of improving the educational experiences of our students. John Dewey said it best, that education itself is an experience. Being in the classroom is part of a human experience. And despite all the technology we have brought into it, the classroom has changed little from the past. It will not change until we abandon traditional ways of thinking about disciplines as separate domains and re-think how we teach and assess mastery.
Virtual Reality will transform the classroom into an experiential space, where experiments and projects do not just translate into numbers. Instead, you live through the consequences evoked by the sense of presence in VR. You no longer see yourself as merely a student, but have the agency to be a problem-solver. Empathy drives self-efficacy that can propel students further on their learning paths.
For now, Star Trek VR with its immersive world, its social and collaborative context, and AI, is one of the first examples of where we in education should aspire to go. The game is not the perfect VR experience but it is a major stepping stone in the direction we need to go. It makes me think of what we will be able to accomplish in just a few years in the future. At that point when September rolls around, students will not be longing for their summer days as they step into a classroom. Instead, they will be inspired by new experiences with faculty, experts and AI, ready to fly them to the new frontiers of learning.