Immersive Technology: The Gateway to the Future Campus Community

Undoubtedly, the boom in educational technologies is changing the ways students learn and teachers teach. But, it’s also changing the way students talk to each other and the ways they define social bonds. As technology opens the door to more interactive, engaging, and inclusive learning experiences, emerging tech is shaping a similar revolution in challenging our sense of the campus, school communities, and how students engage with each other and the world around them.

Cultural phenomenon such as Fortnite and NBA virtual reality goggles have spawned new dance moves and massive YouTube followings. Whether battling in an imaginary world, sitting courtside at a playoff game, or dancing alongside avatar friends at a virtual concert, immersive virtual technologies offer experiences only possible in this digital “third space” where spectators are more than witnesses—becoming active participants present in the evolution of a new kind of community.

Online communities are certainly not new. For decades, social media, forums, and messaging boards have brought people together around common interests and shared goals. The explosion of emerging technologies, however, has ushered in the possibilities of immersive experiences that replicate real-life and meet digital native students where they are—in the frontier of a virtual world. Today’s students, a generation brought up in the digital age, are not only attracted to these new tools, they’re more inclined to quickly adapt to it—often seeking it, even demanding it, as their primary mode of communication, their preference for exploration and entertainment, and relying on it for expected efficiencies.

Newer technologies such as haptic sensing, AR/VR, and gestural and voice activated technologies are unlocking educational possibilities that not only meet current, prevailing social expectations but also expand community beyond the limitations of place, time, and resources. As schools look to preserve the social element of the campus as a place to learn leadership, empathy, problem-solving, and communication skills, these technologies, when used appropriately, can promote the development of these competences while meeting students where they are.

Injecting physical touch into a virtual world, haptic sensing could allow students to shake hands, high-five, and give their best friend a hug—even when separated by an ocean. Mimicking those everyday physical interactions, students can empathize with the profound impact of a physical touch, understand boundaries, and start to recognize social cues. Haptic sensing replicates sensations from the smallest buzz and squishiest slime to the hum of a guitar string and the thud of a bowling ball. Transforming play and recreation, students can virtually compete in a soccer match, play catch, harmonize in a virtual band, or build a castle while learning collective problem-solving, team-building, and social skills.

Adding new layers to our physical world, AR/VR creates a new or enhanced environment where virtual field trips can take classrooms to far away locations, exchange students are invited in to share their experiences, and regular school programing can be done alongside peers around the world. Suddenly, the community on campus reflects the increasingly global community of future commerce and modern life. AR/VR activates the classroom as a global citizen and provides an international forum for the exchange of ideas and discovery of new interests. Avatars can also help students explore safely whether stretching themselves to grow their self-confidence, learning to accept differences, or participating in activities otherwise limited by their physical abilities, language proficiencies, or resource availability.

Imagine motioning or calling your environment to life. Gestural and voice activated technologies allow students to paint, turn up the music, and make characters move in a virtual space. From working on a group project to creating a work of art with friends abroad, these technologies make collaboration intuitive and fluid. Students can join collective cultural experiences such as dances and performances with peers from all corners of the globe—actively participating in the experience while shaping the world around them, all with a simple swipe of the hand.

Together, these emerging technologies blur the line between the digital realm and the physical one introducing new ways for communities and learning to take shape. The shift in how we define community puts pressure on the continued evolution of how we approach school design and learning, which has long depended on power of collaboration, team problem-solving, and group work. Responding to the growth of community in digital spaces, classrooms have an opportunity to rethink learning environments to align with modern curriculums and learning styles. For instance, at Dove Mountain CSTEM K-8 school, a Corgan project in Marana, Arizona opening Fall 2019, a technology lab transforms a traditional learning into a space where students can learn and explore shoulder to shoulder, in groups, and with a facilitator. A single screen becomes the gateway to deconstruct a car engine, delicately rotate a human heart with a smart pen, and compete in educational games with classmates. The space not only provides a platform to test ideas individually but to learn together—observing the mistakes and successes of others, building on a collective memory, and offering collaborative, community-enriched learning process.

Where social connections between students once hinged on face-to-face time—limited by geographic location, the students in your class, or the others on your sports team, for instance, new technologies have started to move student communities to the digital and virtual world—creating a place accessible anywhere, anytime. This virtual space becomes a sort of “third places” that complements and enhances the dept and purpose of the built environment. It offers an opportunity to add a dynamic layer to the student experience—teaching students critical social skills in engaging and interactive ways, introducing a global community to the local campus, and making collaborative problem-solving and communication more fluid and intuitive. Freeing up space from individual, siloed learning environments in favor of more shared spaces, these technologies can maximize the potential of the classroom and entire the entire campus while calling into question our traditional notions of place—from what boundaries define the campus to assigned seating, individual desks and lockers.

Activating the classroom as a global citizen, these emerging technologies not only introduce new ways to think about and facilitate on-campus connections and relationships, they begin to lay the foundation of an expanded classroom that empowers students to better relate to themselves, each other, and the world around them.

About the Author

Jason Mellard, AIA, LEED-AP, is a senior associate at Corgan's Education Studio in Dallas. Corgan listens to their clients and transforms their insights into architecture that inspires, informs and innovates. Jason may be contacted at jason.mellard@corgan.com.

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