Learning outside the classroom

From cloud computing to virtual reality, technology is transforming the traditional learning path

New technologies such as cloud, tablets and virtual reality have the potential to transform education, putting students in charge of their own learning. Already some teachers have adopted the “flipped classroom”, in which students direct their own learning at home, while class time is used for answering questions.

But could these technologies replace the traditional classroom altogether? 

Free cloud offerings such as Google’s G Suite for Education have made it easy to share information. Teachers can store resources – newspaper articles, instructional videos, podcasts – on the cloud, enabling students to access that information from home, in a café or even on the bus, while students can file assignments that teachers can instantly access and mark.

As Matt Britland, director of ICT at the Lady Eleanor Holles School, says: “Just being able to work from anywhere with a web connection is really powerful.”

Mobile technology, particularly in the form of tablets, is also helping to displace the idea that learning has to take place in the classroom. A 2014 report on learning technologies in further education from the Association of Colleges and the Association for Learning Technology found that tablets were “an excellent technology for enriched pedagogy”, citing their benefits in “interactive lectures, field trips and wet labs”.

Equipped with cameras and audio recorders, tablets are also ideal vehicles for the increasingly popular e-portfolio: a method of recording and showcasing a student’s work, whether it’s a video of the student carrying out a practical task, such as cutting hair, or observations from their placement employer.

The broader trend is away from traditional classroom-based teaching: online distance learning has mushroomed in recent years

Widespread adoption of mobile technology is hampered by cost, however. As John Traxler, Professor of digital learning at the University of Wolverhampton, points out: “Once you get past compulsory education you’ve got to address the question of equity: tablets are expensive, so either you ask students to bring their own, with the result that only the rich students do, or the institution buys them and it can’t afford to.”

But the broader trend is away from traditional classroom-based teaching: online distance learning has mushroomed in recent years, enabling students to gain both work-based qualifications and full degrees without attending a physical institution. While that’s harder to achieve in areas where students need to acquire practical skills, technology can still add value.

Prospects College of Advanced Technology in Essex, for example, has installed a virtual reality suite that will enable its construction students to practise new skills, such as carrying out electrical installation in a virtual setting before moving on to trying them in a real-world setting. Although the classroom-based model has lasted for hundreds of years, webbased, mobile and virtual technologies are taking learning in a new direction. We could finally be about to see the end of classroom-based teaching, and the dawn of an era of independent learning.

Cutting-edge innovative technologies in use

3D printing in progress

Cloud computing

Free educational suites from Google and Microsoft enable schools to store other files on the web, so that students and teachers can collaborate inside the classroom and out.

Tablet computers

A tablet’s versatility means students can learn anywhere at any time – whether it’s taking photos on a field trip, videoing themselves practising a talk or using a language app to hone their speaking skills.

Simulations

Game simulations enable students to learn practical skills by doing them, but without risk: particularly useful in higher education for students of medicine, dentistry or optometry.

Wearables

Wearable headsets work with virtual reality to immerse students in an experience, while wearable cameras can capture learning – and headbands that measure brain signals ¬let teachers know if students are distracted.

Virtual laboratories

These allow students to run experiments online, and repeat them if they get them wrong – useful for students who are home-taught or who want to revise what they’ve learnt in college.

Virtual reality

Students can immerse themselves in a learning experience, whether it’s putting themselves in the place of an Apollo astronaut as he lands on the moon or walking round a virtual building site identifying safety issues.

Augmented reality

AR software enables students to point their mobile camera at an object and see a video or animation superimposed on the screen, bringing alive everything from history to car maintenance.

3D printing

3D printers enable students to create prototypes for their design ideas, objects for use in science experiments, or solid geometric shapes to help them understand mathematical concepts.

Video-conferencing

Tools such as Skype and FaceTime expand students’ horizons by enabling them to talk to students and teachers in other countries – or have face-to-face consultations with an expert.

Robots

The telepresence robot teacher, which has been piloted in the US, is a 1.2 metre stand with a screen and a camera: the remote teacher can see, hear and talk to their students.