Mixed Reality & Blended Collaborative Learning Environments

Mixed Reality & Blended reality

Mixed Reality

This term is used to describe a continuum that ranges from physical/real-world to a purely virtual reality environment. In this continuum, in between lies physical environments that are supplemented by virtual objects, also known as augmented reality, and the virtual worlds that are embellished by real-world experiences, which is known as augmented virtuality. This continuum is referred to as mixed reality or blended reality.

Augmented real and virtual realities are combined to provide synchronous collaborative and coordinated activities between co-located and distributed/remote-based individuals as the features of mixed realities are believed to offer high levels of co-presence among the participants. As for this reason, virtual worlds are used to enable real-time communication between face-to-face (F2F) students and remote students in learning.

I had a chance to review some of the studies that have used mixed reality technology in providing seamless and real-time collaboration between F2F and remote students. One study that was more appealing to me was a research conducted by Bower, Lee, and Dalgarno (2017) who investigated the use of 3D virtual world or the 3D multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) to provide blended reality cooperative environment of an education program at Australian University.

Blended reality is described as an environment that brings together the participants from augmented reality and augmented virtuality spaces, thus enabling them to interact within and across by projecting live video/imagery information from each space into the other.

This experiment consisted of F2F students that were able to interact with their peers in remote locations through the projection of their avatars in the classroom whereas the remote students were able to see and hear the students and teachers through live video feed stream into their virtual worlds. There were a total of 45 students in this experiment, and they were divided into two groups. One group of co-located (F2F) had 23 students based in a classroom, and the 22 remote-based students joined them through the virtual world based platform, AvayaLive Engage, on-and-off campus.

Designing Blended Collaborative Learning Environment

Literature reviews on blended collaborative environments reveal that presence, co-presence, communication, and co-creation as the most crucial design features. The physical classrooms are prepared to enable the co-located students, and teachers interact efficiently with the remote/distributed students. In their experiment, Bower et al. (2017) used an interactive whiteboard at the front of the classroom and a separate screen on one side of the wall.

The interactive whiteboard was connected to the teacher’s computer to present slides and operator the teacher’s avatar in AvayaLive Engage. The teacher’s computer was also linked with an audio conferencing device equipped with omnipresent microphone essential in capturing sound for all the F2F students and transmit it to the virtual world, and the speakers to broadcast virtual world sound to the F2F students.

The second screen in the classroom enabled the F2F students to view the virtual world students’ avatars. A video camera was also used in the classroom to capture the activities of the F2F students and relayed the live stream to the AvayaLive Engage for the remote-based students to view and interact with others in real-time.

The virtual world in this experiment was designed in such a way that the remote-based students would interact seamlessly with the F2F classroom and cooperate. Virtual world space had the main conference room that acted as meet-up point and other satellite rooms that enabled the students to access notes and other group work tasks. The video stream from classrooms, the whiteboard, and instructor’s computers activities were all streamed in the main virtual world conference walls where virtual world participants could view. Three notes areas were also displayed on the walls of the virtual world so that virtual world and F2F students could compare notes.

A Flowplayer plugin was used to embed live stream videos from F2F classroom into a web page and render them to the in-world view. The streams had a delay of seven second due to the latency introduced by the all the equipment used in this experiment. Three avatars were logged in from the F2F classroom that gave the virtual-world students interact with real-world classroom student.

Lessons from this Blended Collaborative Learning Environment Experiment

There are several takeaways from this amazing experiment conducted by Bower et al. (2017) on mixed realities in a learning environment. The first lesson is that the test was successful as the students managed to communicate, share notes, interact, and learn from one another within and across the real and virtual spaces. The students were able to create, share, or edit learning materials.

Despite the success detailed in this experiment, few things were noted as a challenge by the participants. The first challenge is that communication across the virtual world and real-world spaces were lagged due to poor audio quality and latency, which led to lack of clarity. The lag in the video was also a notable challenge that led to the lack of knowing when to speak or students ended up talking over each other. Echoing was also a challenge due to the presence of speakers and microphones that would pick up the sound and retransmit. The experience also lacked visual body language, especially on cross-platform interactions.

The factors that facilitated the success of this experiment are divided into pedagogical, technological, and logistical factors. The pedagogical factors include the F2F students working in groups, instructor’s prompts for questions or answers that enhanced coordination between the two groups, heightened engagement, active learning, and willingness of shy students to contribute.

Technological factors essential in mixed reality learning include technical components that allow students to communicate and interact remotely, sharing documents through screens, viewing the labelled avatars, minimal visual lag within remote space, text chats, and visible presence in the form of labelled avatars.

Logistical factors include the fact that F2F students could communicate naturally and presence of breakout room (small servers to access notes). Also, the level playing field of the virtual reality participants meant that there was minimal lag or interruptions as compared to the virtual world versus the real world communication latency.

In conclusion, mixed reality has the capability of presence, coordination, sharing, co-presence, and connectedness among the participants involved even when they are miles apart.  This, in essence, increases productivity at organisations, educational institutions, homes, and workplaces. These findings are supported by conclusions made by Vásquez et al. (2017) study that indicate game-based learning increases collaboration, teamwork, and active learning.  However, future research experiments should consider capturing the gestures of remote-based students and transmitting them across the medium to improve body-language. Also, eliminating latency across the virtual world and real-world would help in making the two realities almost indistinguishable.

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