Students working remotely at Macquarie University can now feel like a part of the on-campus community with the introduction of a blended, or mixed reality, learning program.
The university hosted its first blended-reality lesson earlier this year and it allowed remote students to experience the same live teacher lecture as those on campus - not through a webcam but through an online virtual world.
Remote students interacted with teachers and students in the physical classroom in a context similar to that of Second Life, the 3D virtual world in which people socialise and connect using voice and text chat.
The Macquarie trial was conducted as part of an Australian Learning and Teaching Council project focusing on blended synchronous learning. The project emerged from collaboration between Macquarie's Informatics, Department of Education, Learning and Teaching Centre, Sustainability and Audio Visual Technology teams.
Remote students created their own avatars, cartoon-like online representations of themselves that engaged with the teacher and students in the classroom who could see and hear them through a video stream projection using AvayaLive Engage virtual world (running on Amazon Web Services infrastructure). It uses 3D visuals, high-definition video and spatial audio.
The virtual world and the physical classroom create a blended reality in which teachers and students can see and interact with each other. Each remote student sees a live video stream of the physical classroom, and they experience the same teacher lecture as do on-campus students.
Bachelor of arts student Andy Skidmore participated in the trial in the second year ICT (Information and Communication Technology) in Education subject. ''It's cool - this link between the classroom and the virtual world,'' he said. ''We use our avatar to walk around the virtual world. We can chat, text chat, and animate our avatar. We can raise our hands, but sometimes we need to make a noise - like clapping - to get attention.
''The cool part was hearing voices. Using virtual worlds and avatars helped me. I loved using it. It made it easy to engage with others in the classroom.''
Using a virtual world was a better experience for Skidmore than other options for remote students, such as the Echo360 where he listens to lectures on playback, or virtual online tutorials where ''online discussion groups can get boring and tedious''.
Avatars in a blended reality classroom allow remote students to participate in classroom group work activities. In the virtual world they can move into breakout rooms, and their collaborative notes are then automatically shared in the virtual classroom. Also, students in the physical classroom can share their computer screens in the virtual world. This enables the students in both environments to share their ideas and discuss them, as if they were in the same classroom.
The teacher can set up the virtual world into different workrooms for team activities, says Skidmore. ''We can break out into teams and go to different rooms and report back to the class,'' he says. ''Each team can chat and contribute to a collective document.''
The aim of the blended-reality program is for both remote students and classroom students to experience the sense that they are in the same room, says Dr Matt Bower, who participated in the trial, and is a senior lecturer in ICT at the School of Education.
He is also leading the Australian Learning and Teaching Council research group into blended-reality learning.
''There's a lot of interaction between the two groups,'' he says. ''Previously there was video conferencing, but now students can interact in a virtual world and work in groups. This is moving well beyond just watching a video; students are now participating. It's an immersive presence. This is taking education to a new level where there is active engagement and collaboration.''
The virtual world is an extension of the classroom, Bower says. ''If the cameras are set up correctly, it's almost as if the virtual and real worlds are looking at each other; as if the two worlds are abutted against each other. The physical class is face-to-face with the other class in their virtual environment. You're looking into the virtual world, and the virtual world is looking into the real world. They can all see and hear each other.''
However, does using avatars rather than seeing the real person make the whole experience less than real? What if students or teachers want to see somebody's face?
''The advantage of having an avatar is that it creates a level playing field,'' Bower says. ''People can be represented the way they want to be. Sometimes they can be intimidated by (presenting their real selves). Students don't even notice the avatars, and just treat them as if they are real people.''
Skidmore says he isn't fussed about using avatars, but not seeing other students' faces ''is a bit of a limitation, but you can set up your avatar to look as realistic as possible,'' he says.
Blended-reality learning is the future of education, Bower says. ''Based on an almost sci-fi idea where it won't matter where you are, but you can beam in. This isn't just flat screen interaction, but embodied interaction in what feels like 3D spaces that have gravity and audio.''
AvayaLive Engage has 3D audio, which is like a real audio, says Tim Gentry, managing director of Avaya in Australia and New Zealand. ''The closer you are to someone, the sound goes up. We can step away from a group in a virtual world and they won't hear us,'' he says.
''If some students go to a breakout room and start talking to each other, then only the people in that room can hear each other,'' Bower says.
Online education programs that just use videos don't engage students, Gentry says. ''I failed miserably at online education, I never got into it. I never felt engaged with the videos because I never got to chat with other students. ''In a virtual world, there is engagement and collaboration between students. You can talk to others before the class starts. It's [all about] sharing experiences.''
Blended-reality learning has benefits beyond the classroom - it can help universities market themselves and expand globally, Gentry says. ''It can be an extension of the brand, and make universities more relevant, offering online collaboration rather than setting up another [bricks and mortar] campus.''
The technology can seem a little awkward - avatars could be more lifelike with smoother movements, and a larger screen along an entire wall would give a better sense of looking into and interacting with another world - but blended reality looks promising for the future.
''To make it better, we're examining teaching strategies and how you might set this up to work more effectively,'' Bower says. ''We want a seamless, immersive, interactive experience.''
As the technology advances it will become invisible so that remote and face-to-face students develop the same sense of co-presence as if they are in the same room, he says. ''Until then, blended reality will pave the way.''