Category Technology

{ virtual reality & empathy }: using technology to enhance the human experience

Earlier this year in a series of posts called “On Being A Cyborg“, I wrote about various technologies that enrich and assist us in living our lives. The defining quality of these technologies is that rather than pulling us away from the core human experience, I argued that they actually help make us more human.

Today I’d like to add to this list. After watching Chris Milk’s TED2015 talk – How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine – I believe that virtual reality technology could be a solution to getting us to care, specifically about the people living in realities so far removed from ours that they are hard to imagine.

Milk wondered if there was a way that he could “use modern and developing technologies to tell stories in different ways and tell different kinds of stories that maybe [we] couldn’t tell using the traditional tools of filmmaking that we’ve been using for 100 years?” As he explains, “What I was trying to do was to build the ultimate empathy machine.

One such experiment in empathy machines is the interactive short film entitled Wilderness Downtown, a project with Arcade Fire that has an avatar running down a street, that you quickly realize is the one you grew up on. I actually used this little bit of virtual reality a few years back when he made it, and myself was delighted by the results. You can try this one using the link above.

His next attempt was an art installation – The Treachery of Sanctuary. In this piece, people were given the power to transform themselves into birds and bring them into flight using triptych technology.

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http://jamesgeorge.org/Treachery-of-Sanctuary

Perhaps most impressing is the film Clouds over Sidra. In this United Nations sponsored work, he uses virtual reality to create empathy for those living in a refugee camp in Jordan – placing them in three dimensional spaces while a 12-year-old refugee named Sidra tells the story of her life. As Milk explains

…when you’re sitting there in her room, watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window, you’re sitting there with her. When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathize with her in a deeper way.

Milk’s team is now making more of these films – currently shooting one in Liberia. And these films are now being shown to the people at the United Nations who can change the lives of those inside these virtual reality worlds.

The power of this medium to enhance human empathy is incredible. I’ve spoken before about multimedia literacy and about the problem with our society’s primacy of text over other modes of communication. Milk’s work is demonstrative of the power of other mediums beyond text to communicate things such as empathy – something that can be communicated in a written story, but may be communicated better in a virtual reality world.

As Mlik explains,

It’s not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people’s perception of each other.And that’s how I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.

So, it’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected.And ultimately, we become more human.

I would love to view one of his virtual reality films. Wouldn’t you?

{ whimsical urban spaces } for fostering play

live from AERA…*

I am currently attending the 2015 AERA (American Educational Research Association) conference in Chicago, and I have been attending and participating in a variety of exciting presentations, roundtables, and poster sessions about the many types of interesting research around education and its unique challenges. I am still making sense out of all I learned, and I hope to share some of the interesting talks with you in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, today I want to talk about this amazing playground I spotted here in downtown Chicago.

Fostering Play…*

Last week Elsa wrote about the importance of play in our ever-changing world, reminding us of the essential nature of play. Perhaps this was on my mind because during my free afternoon this weekend I was walking near Millennium Park and couldn’t help but stop to admire this incredible play space.

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Photo Eric X. via Yelp

Maggie Daley park is a $60 million, newly opened 20 acre recreational space, opened in 2014. It was designed by architect Michael Van Valkenburgh as “a counterpoint to the symmetry and formality of Grant Park… with..  curvilinear forms, dramatic topography, and many whimsical elements.” As described in this article, there is a 3-acre play garden designed in the spirit of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which is the piece of the park I stumbled upon . I was immediately enchanted by the surrealist, cartoon-like environment. Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated that the play garden “will allow kids to challenge themselves and do things they didn’t know they could do“.

In a world where I worry about childhoods lived behind a screen and enacted through highly constrained, scripted environments, I am so excited by this notion of fostering unstructured play. The rich narrative and creative potential of places like this is endless, and I find myself envious of the young children who will be enjoying the play garden this spring.

More pictures of this play space below. I will report back on my more academic experience at this conference next Monday!

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Children loved running up and down the rubbery foam hills, rather than using the stairs.

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A giant bridge connecting two towers. When I crossed, three young boys were working together to shake the bridge, excited at the prospect of making me fall (I remained upright, to their extreme disapointment).

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My colleague from Teachers College taking a turn on one of the slides.

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A web made of wires and ropes, where young boys created a clubhouse to call home.

empowering children with 21st century skills – { coding…*}

A few weeks ago I blogged about the empowering experience of storytelling. This got me thinking about the various types of skills and experiences we can provide to students that will enable them to have a stake in their own education but also prepare them for the 21st century. We’ve blogged about many of these skillsets before, such as multimodal literacy, play, and skepticism,. One such modern-day tool is coding.

As Mitch Resnick explains in a 2012 Tedx talk entitled Let’s teach kids to code, he talks about Scratch, a kid-friendly programming software born out of MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group. Scratch is intended to cultivate fluency in technologies, to the level that students are able to express themselves creatively. I’ve participated in one Scratch day and a week-long summer logo workshop, where I’ve learned how wonderful this platform is. As Mitch suggests, it’s a fantastic platform for learning coding skills, but it also fosters curiosity, creativity, and student-centered learning.

In this talk, Mitch explains,

As kids are creating projects like this, they’re learning to code, but even more importantly, they’re coding to learn. Because as they learn to code, it enables them to learn many other things, opens up many new opportunities for learning. Again, it’s useful to make an analogy to reading and writing. When you learn to read and write, it opens up opportunities for you to learn so many other things. When you learn to read, you can then read to learn. And it’s the same thing with coding. If you learn to code, you can code to learn. Now some of the things you can learn are sort of obvious. You learn more about how computers work. But that’s just where it starts. When you learn to code, it opens up for you to learn many other things.

With this in mind, I’ve become excited about the many recent initiatives to bring coding experiences to students. Not-for-profit companies such as ScriptEd_ equip underprivileged students with coding skills and internship experiences to bring about this fluency with technology.

As explained in the video above, these coding opportunities are empowering. They open these students’ worlds to a lucrative job market as well as a whole new way to express themselves.

Code to learn. Learn to code …*

On being a cyborg: Self Control Technology …*

Willpower is an important thing to have…*

Willpower and self control are important skills. In Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment, he put hundred of 4-year olds in a room alone with a marshmallow, and promised them two marshmallows if they could just wait until he came back.

White_Marshmallows

Children varied on their self-control, and when Mischel’s team followed up with the children through high school, he found that children who delayed gratification or exhibited greater willpower got along better with peers and had higher SAT scores. Those who eat their marshmallow immediately had behavioral problems and did poorly in school.

While the results of this study are controversial (perhaps a post for another week), their are definitive links between wellbeing and willpower. Moreover, it is a skill you can cultivate, and there are a variety of strategies one can use to increase self-control. In the marshmallow study, the most successful participants used ways to remove the temptation such as turning around, covering their eyes, or putting the marshmallow on the far corner of the table, out of reach.

Technology for Self-Control…*

Which brings me to this week’s installment of On being a cyborg. There exist a variety of great technological tools that can help us with self-control. Some of these directly concern our safety such as 1) GPS systems that refuse to let you enter an address when the car is moving, 2) in-car breathalyzers to curb drunk driving, or 3) Apps that utilize GPS and Airplane mode to prevent you from texting while driving (when your phone is moving at greater than 10mph).

Others simply prevent us from making decisions we might regret later. College students might use Don’t Dial! – an iphone app to temporarily block phone numbers from your contacts.  If you are one of those people who just can’t help but go back for seconds (and thirds, and fourths) of a batch of freshly baked cookies, a new technology tool Kitchen Safe can lock various items inside itself for a specified time. It can also be used to lock up phones during dinnertime or video game controllers when you should be getting your homework done.

Perhaps the most relevant apps are ones that can facilitate focus for studying or learning, boosting productivity. SelfControl is an app that blocks distracting websites for a set period of time. If you have a paper to write, block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the next 5 hours to prevent yourself from falling down a Facebook rabbit hole for an hour and a half. Other apps such as FocusWriter, Anti-Social, and StayFocused have similar functions – helping eliminate distractions so that you can work productively. For those of us who glue ourselves to a task for hours on end until we lose perspective on the big picture – Time Out allows you to set intervals where to break for 5-10 minutes to relax and take a step back from your work.

THE PROS AND CONs of “willpower tech”…*

While I love the idea of offloading some of the stress of maintaining willpower, I do worry that relying on technology for self-control can backfire if that technology is not readily available. Can the use of these help us to develop habits that will transfer to other contexts? For the example of placing phones in a Kitchen Safe during dinner, I could see the potential to get used to not having a phone at dinner and therefore developing a habit of not looking at one’s phone at the table. I have not yet seen studies on whether or not these types of technology help us to develop long-lasting habits, or if our willpower simply is gone when the tech is removed.

Additionally, to cultivate willpower, we should ensure that we are teaching children to use these apps themselves, rather than enforcing them. A 13 year old self-regulating her study time with the aid of an app is very different from a 13 year old who’s study time is regulated by her parents’ enforcement of an app.

Do you use any sorts of technology to aid you with self-control?

 

On being a cyborg: Augmented Reality in Education…*

augmented reality technology*

Augmented reality is a live view of the real world where elements are supplemented by computer-generated input.Augmented Reality allows educators and students view layers of digital information superimposed on the physical world, often through an Android or iOS device. Perhaps the most popular recent example of augmented reality technology is Google Glass – a  product that was withdrawn from the market just a few days ago. As can be seen in the video below, Google glass was intended to augment ones reality with a variety of data, including directions, phone numbers, and text messages.

educational potential*

However, there are still a ton of augmented reality applications and tools out there that have been demonstrated to be effective, both for daily life and for education. For example, Google sky map is a FREE educational astronomy app that uses the camera on your smartphone. When you hold it up to the sky, the app identifies stars and constellations.

Sky-Map

Science seems like a particularly fruitful content area for AR functionality. Other apps such as Elements 4D and Anatomy 4D by Daqri help students to better understand chemistry and human biology.

Another app with huge educational potential is Aurasma – an open source tool to augment your surroundings in a variety of ways. For example, teachers can provide AR guidance attached to homework pages, or students can assign book review audio recordings to the covers of specific books. Some uses can be seen in the video below.

 

Rethinking education with AR …*

I like AR tools because the technology affords new ways to interact with the world, but still leaves space for the educator to design and determine how to use it. For example, a history teacher could use Aurasma to develop an interactive world map in the classroom, where students attach “auras” of articles and facts about different locations. A teacher could also use Aurasma on a timeline in similar ways. This allows visuals in a classroom to provide information at a variety of depth levels and mapping information in this way could help students to establish better organized mental models.

Additionally, many uses of AR are student-centered, enabling students as co-creators of knowledge and more active participants in their own learning processes, something I find vital to education (and have blogged about before here and here).

How would you use this technology in your classroom? Have you used AR before?

On being a cyborg: Fitness Trackers & Education…*

activity trackers…*

For my first installation of On Being a Cyborg, I want to talk about a piece of technology that I’ve been using for a year now. Activity trackers are a popular type of wearable technology that can measure steps taken or general movement throughout the day. See this recent NY Times article for a guide to some of the newest ones. Combined with user data, these trackers calculate distance walked, calories burned, floors climbed, and activity duration and intensity. They pair with apps or websites to deliver you lots of data about your daily activity.

I personally use the Fitbit Flex, a bracelet that calculates my steps each day, tells me how many calories I’ve burned, and even my sleep patterns. With the accompanying app, I’ve been able to log workouts, calorie inIMG_5296take, and water intake to assess my own health on a broad-scale basis. I’ve also used the sleep tracker to recognize that I generally get an hour less sleep than time I’ve been sleeping, due to “restlessness” that the tracker picks up.

Fitbit and similar technology use gamification techniques to encourage us to be more aware of our fitness levels and active throughout the day. These technologies allow us to set our own goals and develop self-efficacy around fitness by enabling us to reach them. Constant feedback on progress and rewards push users to move more. I’ve set my goal “steps” to 10,000 each day, and my band has 5 lights that light up as I reach incremental goals throughout the day. Just seeing that I have 4,000 steps left to my goal will give me that extra push to walk home from school instead of taking the subway, and I’ve been known to pace around my apartment at 11:50pm to finish getting all of my steps before midnight.

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increased awareness of our bodies and our place in the world…*

So how does this really relate to rethinked..* ? As Kate Hartman explains in The art of wearable communication, wearable devices focus on the ways in which we relate to ourselves. They enable an increased awareness of our bodies and our relationship to the world around us. As Hartman explains:

“…we’re in this era of communications and device proliferation, and it’s really tremendous and exciting and sexy, but I think what’s really important is thinking about how we can simultaneously maintain a sense of wonder and a sense of criticality about the tools that we use and the ways in which we relate to the world.”

Again, this brings the story back to the idea that the best kinds of technology will help us to be more human. Activity trackers can help us better understand ourselves, and in that, they help us to be better versions of ourselves. Do you use any sort of wearable technology? How has it impacted your life?

 

On being a [ cyborg ] in the modern world…*

Cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms, are theoretical beings that have restored functions or enhanced abilities after the integration of some sort of artificial technology. They are generally thought to be the stuff of fiction – characters like Darth Vader, RoboCop, or the Terminator.

But when one really thinks about this idea of a “being with enhanced abilities due to technology,” you’ll realize that we are all – to varying degrees – becoming cyborgs. Calculators, Google calendars, and cell phones have all become so seamlessly integrated into our lives. How many phone numbers do you remember that you were given since the onset of cell phones?

As Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist, says, we are all cyborgs now. Up until recently, tools helped us extend our physical selves. Today, technological tools are helping us to extend our mental selves. This manifests in a few different ways. Case talks about the “second/digital self,” or our online presence that people can interact with when we are not physically present. We have to maintain that second self in a particular way. She also talks about the idea of “ambient intimacy” or the ability for us to connect to many different people whenever we want.

There are positives and negatives to the integration of technological tools. On the negative side, just like I spoke about in my recent blog post about standing still, Case is worried about how the constant use of technology  – the constant onslaught of inputs – affects our time for reflection. A new British anthology series called Black Mirror is focused on the darker side of technology. For example, one episode explores the idea of how we are spending out lives reviewing recorded moments and obsessing over them at the expense of experiencing new ones. I’ve been making my way through these episodes, and I can’t recommend it highly enough (available on Netflix streaming for those who have subscriptions).

However, Case is still optimistic about the use of technology, stating that the best kinds of technological tools help us to be more human, get out of the way, and help us to live our best lives. One great example of this is Mystery Skype – an educational platform that I discussed a few weeks ago. Over the course of the next few weeks, I hope to speak to more of the ways in which technology is helping, the ways in which by becoming cyborgs, we are increasing our humanness and bettering our lives…*

{ global learning } through Mystery Skype in our interconnected world …*

Traveling to a new place and immersing oneself in its culture is an amazing opportunity and experience. However, it can be unrealistic and infeasible for many students to travel like this, especially young learners. Yet with thoughtful use of technology platforms, we can provide students with rich cultural experiences without ever leaving the classroom.

Something I am super excited about is Mystery Skype, an educational initiative to bring classrooms together from all over the world. To take part in this educational game, teachers can register their classrooms and then connect with other classrooms around the world. After arranging a time for the lesson, the classrooms then Skype with one another and the aim of the game is to try and guess the location of the other classroom by asking questions. Mystery Skype has been used for all sorts of subjects, including geography, history, language, math, and science, and students of all ages seem to be entranced by this clever way to bridge cultural divides.

In a recent edSurge article, Brandi Leggett talks about the transformative experiences her students have had with Mystery Skype. Her third grade classroom in Kansas has worked with students in Rio de Janeiro, Utah, Manhattan, Japan, Israel, Kenya, and Pakistan. Through these experiences, they have learned a myriad of lessons, both formal and informal. The students have been amused by accents, amazed by time zones, and shocked by realities such as war drills in Israel or the conditions of classrooms in a slum in Kenya. The game itself teaches them about the geography and culture of the places they Skype, but also requires them to be more aware and knowledgeable about their own communities. Throughout each lesson, they have learned valuable communication skills, both verbal and written.

Global collaboration is not new, but as technology and access to technology progresses, the experiences are becoming more and more immersive and inclusive. Collaborating with classrooms around the world, the learning opportunities become intersectional and endless.

Learn more about Mystery Skype below:

“The Internet of Things,” empowerment, & ground-up technological advances.

In my Culture, Media, and Education course we’ve talked a lot about how media has evolved in recent years such that students are not simply consumers of media, but also producers of media. Platforms such as YouTube, Square Space, and Scratch have made the means of media producing so widely  accessible in a way that is both empowering and transformative for our society.

A recent ideas.ted.com blog post, WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE INTERNET OF THINGS, Karen Eng explores similar ideas, related to the internet that now exists in the objects around us. Thermostats, traffic lights, and Fit Bits are examples of objects that can possess “the internet”; objects that communicate with us and one another in ways that better our lives. For example:

It’s more about gathering intelligence with a variety of different systems. So while traffic lights do currently communicate with light controllers, they don’t yet communicate with approaching cars, for example. But what if traffic lights could tell the car ahead of time that there’s a string of traffic lights coming on, and so the car should take another direction?

[http://ideas.ted.com/2014/10/02/whats-next-for-the-internet-of-things/]

While the “internet of things” is becoming more of a reality every day, Karen Eng suggests that we are going about it the wrong way, specifically in a very top-down way. Companies are creating closed off devices with prescribed functionalities to solve specific problems, and then we can then buy them. No customizability, just consuming, no room for producing. See the problem here?

She calls for a world where we “democratize the technology,” or where the internet of things exists in open platforms. Mirroring the recent ways in which students and the general population have become producers of media, we can become producers of all types of technologies. While engineers at big companies will likely design amazing things, people on the ground who are face-to-face with problems may see different problems and come up with different solutions.

One great example of a such a technology, that is not only open platform but also child friendly is littleBits. As explained in another great TED talk (embedded below):

…beyond simple play, littleBits are actually pretty powerful. Instead of having to program, to wire, to solder, littleBits allow you to program using very simple intuitive gestures. So to make this blink faster or slower, you would just turn this knob and basically make it pulse faster or slower. The idea behind littleBits is that it’s a growing library. We want to make every single interaction in the world into a ready-to-use brick. Lights, sounds, solar panels, motors — everything should be accessible.

[http://www.ted.com/talks/ayah_bdeir_building_blocks_that_blink_beep_and_teach/transcript?language=en]

I’m excited about the day when we begin to bring open-sourced object-based technologies into the classroom, because I can only imagine some of the creative and useful things our students will develop. Additionally, the more we move our students to be producers of technologies, rather than consumers, the more empowered and prepared they will be to function in our ever-changing, technological world.

[ Literacy ] through Educational Technology?

I recently read a cyberpunk novel called The Diamond Age (highly recommended), and it delves deeply into issues of education and social class.The main plot line concerns the development of a new technology, a book called the A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is an infinitely adaptive interactive book that bonds and grows with the young girl it is first given to. It speaks natural language, teaches through allegory and elements of the learner’s environment, and consistently provides just-in-time information. It’s higher goals are humanist in that it aims to make the learner a strong, independent thinker. Along the way, the primer teachers various characters many different skills including how to read, problem solve, self defense, and computer programming.

Diamond Age is fiction, and we are FAR away from developing anything of this caliber, if it is even remotely possible. Yet the books presents an interesting model of education, and I was delighted to see an article recently about teaching literacy through technology from Sesame WorkshopThey have recently signed a two-year grant to explore how conversational technology (with toys such as Elmo or Grover) can teach preschool early literacy.

The success of this idea hinges firmly on two things: 1) technology capabilities and 2) the ways in which children will interact with a toy versus a human. Speech recognition software is good right now, but is it good enough to understand a toddler who is just learning to make sounds? I will love to see how this project progresses. The other aspect is how children interact with toys. Speech theories often suggest that children begin to use language around the same time as they develop “theory of mind” or an understanding that there are other people in the world with their own minds, who are experiencing the world from another perspective. Once you recognize this, you realize the need to communicate with them. Yet in today’s world, children communicate with technology all the time – sometimes as a means to speak to another person (e.g., Skype, FaceTime) and other times just with a screen (e.g., Blue’s Clues). Children also develop rich narratives, often aloud, when they play with toys or as they go to sleep at night.

Are we taking one step closed to A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer?

And the bigger question… how is educational technology good and bad for rethinking education?

[ Ed Tech – The Bigger Picture ]

A larger theme of my studies is thinking about and discussing technology’s role in the education world. This is something that everyone you meet will have an opinion about, and these opinions can often be very polarized.

My standard response is that I do research in order to better understand what technology is good for and what it is not good for. I am the first to admit that there are many current uses of technology in our classrooms and education systems that are under-researched and therefore poorly executed. Yet in this digital age there is such a need to integrate technology more seamlessly into education that I know there are spaces where Ed Tech could help teacher teach, help students learn, and provide experience with new forms of learning that are vital for functioning in today’s society.

[ What are the hurdles to successful Educational Technology?? ]

Umang Gupta wrote an article in edsurge last month explaining some of the issues surrounding integrating Ed Tech in schools. Currently, we spend only 1% of education funds on technology, compared with the approximate spending of 10% of GDP in the wider economy. Obstacles for technology in the education world include 1) worries that the tech world is going to replace teachers with laptops, and brick-and-mortar schools with services such as MOOCS (massive open online courses), and 3) a highly fragmented, high regulated, and highly bureaucratic industry.

To respond to issue #1, I maintain that real life teachers and brick-and-mortar schools are here to stay. The social aspect of school is important and motivating in and of itself, and I doubt we will see technology in my lifetime that can rival a really good teacher working one-on-one with a student. Yet good teachers are a limited commodity, so the idea with technology is to supplement that teacher’s abilities. If a computer program can teach and manage some of the more basic aspects of a lesson, the teacher is free to move about the room and provide individual help with other aspects. The research project I am working on currently exists entirely under the rationale that we’ve discovered a great pedagogy but the current teacher to student ratio is too high (about 1:4) for it to be feasibly introduced into classrooms. With a software to guide students, the ratio can go down.

In terms of online education, I’m definitely wary of any education that is completed entirely from a screen. Yet blended learning has a tremendous future and value to students, creating multimodal, asynchronous learning opportunities for students to connect across time and space and to learn in more authentic spaces in the world.

The bureaucratic red tape is definitely another huge issue, especially when combined with the time constraints of school. In addition to some of the issues Gupta brings up in his article, simply finding a school to pilot test or conduct research in is extremely difficult (if anyone has a middle school in the NYC area let me know!), and once you have a product, the general rule of thumb is allowing up to 6 months of professional development to teach the teachers how to use the software before beginning to integrate that software into classrooms. When this lag doesn’t happen, teachers tend to just ignore the new piece of technology. When the lag DOES happen, a better piece of technology is often already in development.

Ultimately, I am excited to be a part of the education world, specifically in the technology realm, and I think that we will see huge transformations in the ways in which technology supplements traditional modes of education over the course of the next few decades.

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