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There is no doubt that the recent economic crisis has spurred many more adults to return to school to help them to become more competitive in the job market, whether it is by learning new skills or by obtaining a degree. If a person has a full-time job and/or other familial responsibilities, making the time to go back to school is almost impossible. Because many more schools are offering online educations, the pursuit of higher education can again, become a reality for these people. Many advances have been made in the past decade regarding the availability of obtaining an online education, but I think the administration here at Arizona State University should consider taking it to a higher level. I think most students attending ASU, whether in person or online, have a high level of pride and loyalty to the school, but for online students, there is disconnect. While we may be proud to be in attendance at ASU, there is the physical barrier that keeps us from feeling the real connection that comes from the face-to-face interaction with our professors, and with other students. This is why I am proposing that ASU develop a "virtual reality campus". Using technology that is available today, ASU can help bridge the gap between a traditional and an online school, thereby fostering the camaraderie and shared learning experience of online students. This will bring them closer to the experience of a traditional school career. Not only will this enhance the overall experience for the students, making the high cost of tuition more justified, but will benefit the school with a powerful marketing tool resulting with higher enrollment and more revenue.
II. The Online Student's Disconnect:
According the New York Times, "Across the country, online education is exploding: 4.6 million students took a college-level online course during fall 2008, up 17 percent from a year earlier". This can be seen as the "silver lining" of the economic crises cloud; the fact that many more non-traditional students are returning to school. However, not everything about online education is perfect. There are obstacles that online students face that traditional students do not. The online student can feel isolated from their professor, classmates and school. "Online learners lack the sense of community that comes with being in a room full of people. Online learners often lack the opportunity to strike up conversations about course material with other students or faculty, "in the flesh"". (Hanly) This isolation can be the reason for a less than satisfying learning experience. In a traditional school environment, learning often takes place outside of the classroom, in study groups or through informal conversations between students about the course material. This is where students often help each other by discussing how they overcame difficulties in the class work, each student offering different views and each possessing strong points that can help other students. The same holds true with interactions between the professor and the students. A quick question at the moment when there is some confusion can go a long way in the student's understanding of that day's lesson. The social bonding that takes place between students tackling a tough course together can be quite beneficial to the students overall, both in learning the material together and also just in creating a more enjoyable learning experience. This is exactly the type of interaction that for the most part, is lacking for online students and is exactly the reason for my proposal.
III. Create a More Interactive Learning Environment For Online Students:
Arizona State University's administration should investigate the possibilities available today to use technology to create a more immersive and interactive environment for online students, and then implement it. While this idea may sound too "sci-fi" for many, the reality is, that this is already happening, and that this is really the way of the future and ASU should be at the forefront of the innovation, and not a follower. Such highly acclaimed universities as Harvard and Ohio University have begun to implement such programs and ASU seems like a natural fit to explore this type of innovation. ASU's vision of building "A New American University" should include the "virtual campus" that I am proposing. Two of ASU's stated aspirations are to "transform society" and "enable student success". This proposal certainly fits in with the philosophical approach of both of these ideas. Allowing students to take classes in a virtual environment and interact in real time would go a long way in enhancing the learning experience. Along with every class, there should be a "virtual" study room in which students can study together, collaborate or even just socialize.
IV. Virtual Reality and Education:
Immersive education is a combination of many different technological and educational aspects. Using interactive 3D graphics, simulation technology, voice chat, virtual reality, web cams and digital media, courses can be taught in a virtual environment that gives the student the feeling of "being in" class. This will give students and professors the ability to interact with each other in a more "natural" way, so to speak, which will greatly enhance the learning experience. This is different from a traditional online class in that it is "designed to immerse and engage students in the same way that today's best video games grab and keep the attention of players". (MediaGrid) Although some may view it as a gimmick or as a glorified "game", in reality, it is a step towards the future. Robin Good, an expert in the field of new media and publisher of online magazine, MasterNewMedia, states, "I do believe that, in an increasingly apparent way, this will be the future of online collaboration, learning and cyberprofessional work: online real estate and fully immersive 3D environments". He then goes on to say, "It may be yet a relatively distant future, but it is where we are directed".
Virtual Reality and simulation has been in use for the training of the U.S. soldiers for years already. Our armed forces spend over four billion dollars a year on training equipment and programs that involve virtual reality and simulation. It is also commonplace in the training of pilots. This greatly reduces the risk involved for pilots training to handle risky situations. VR is not a totally new idea, just one that needs to be adapted for use in higher education.
Ohio University recently launched a functioning campus in the popular 3D virtual world called, "Second Life". Second Life is arguably the most popular, non-gaming virtual reality gathering place on the internet. This software enables students to "explore, build, collaborate, learn and participate in activities as part of a virtual society" (Ohio University Outlook) Not only can you take classes in a virtual environment; you can explore the campus virtually, and even join "real" student organizations at the student center. They also have a music and arts center in which they feature local talent. One can see how this new level of involvement can really add to an online student's overall school experience for the better.
In 2006, Harvard Law School launched a class that was taught in the real world and the virtual world simultaneously. The course title was CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion. When students at Harvard would meet for the class, virtual students would meet at Berkman Island, a virtual copy of Harvard's law campus. It looks virtually the same as the campus, with the same buildings and trees and paths as the real campus. The thing that makes it different is that it is populated by avatars. "But each of these avatars is a real human being, somewhere in cyberspace, attending the course online, accessing live streaming video of the lecture and chatting with other students." (PBS) Using an online "question tool", real life and Second Life students could ask questions of the professor in real time, and the questions would appear on a wall behind the professor. This helps steer the discussion in a very productive way. Another advantage is that shy students that might not ask the question in a live class might be more inclined to ask questions in this manner, thereby fostering even more participation from students.
Both Harvard and Ohio University were very forward thinking and realized the importance of virtual reality and how it could enhance the learning environment. ASU can, and should also realize that now is the time to use this technology to enhance the already outstanding academic reputation that ASU enjoys, and to move even more towards the future. The technology is available now. We need our administrators, professors, computer programmers and students to collaborate and develop our own virtual campus. This will only help to enhance ASU's already outstanding academic reputation.
I have included some photos of virtual campuses on the following page for those that might be completely in the dark as to what I am proposing. The first two photos are from Ohio University's Second Life Campus, and the third photo is from Harvard University's CyberOne campus. Virtual environments can be designed in an infinite amount of ways, so that being said, this is just a very elementary attempt to show you what I am talking about.
V. Virtual Reality Meets Reality: Academics First
While these photos may give the impression that it is all "fun and games", my real intent is to advance the learning process. The end result is education, not socializing and fun. However, if this is a by-product of the virtual campus, and it adds to the learning process and enhances learning, then that is just a wonderful by-product. Financial concerns are always an obstacle to any proposal involving an initial outlay of cash, however I feel that any investment that Arizona State University would make in building and maintaining virtual classrooms and a virtual campus would be returned many times over. As a marketing tool, a virtual campus would be invaluable, because it would appeal to young students that grew up with computers and immersive 3D games. It would also appeal to older students that missed out on the college experience in their youth, bringing them a feeling of involvement with their school, classmates and professors. Ultimately, this would give them more satisfaction and school pride. There is absolutely no doubting that computers have been, and will continue to change everything in this world. Education will go through a paradigm shift in the upcoming years and ASU should be at the forefront of this revolution, building "A New Virtual American University". Thank you for your time. Go Sun Devils!