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How is virtual reality reviving the concept of equitable remote learning?

  • Published at 09:00 pm August 25th, 2020
(From left) Pradeepta Kumar Saha and Sagar Mazumder, Illustration: Tahmin Mahmud

Nerdiz.com has the answer

During an enervating era, online education has palpably failed to live up to its considerable potential. So, here's how staying at the forefront of modern scientific discovery, Virtual Reality (VR) is going to upend the notion of traditional distance learning, and lay the grassroots of enhanced interactive education while keeping students more engaged, self-motivated, and respected. From Sagar Mazumder, COO of Nerdiz.com (a Dhaka based Ed-Tech startup that produces education-related VR content for school students), we had the privilege of receiving rare insights on the practical application of VR in tertiary education, and its unfathomable prospect of revolutionary success in Bangladesh.

With the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic, as schools remain shut widespread, a whopping majority of Gen-Z kids and teens have set new standards adapting to contemporary e-learning tools and methodologies. But there remains an open question as to whether online education can be a successful model of remote learning. That was the one question I wanted an answer to. Earlier in 2020, a research study was conducted on "Evaluating Virtual Reality as a Learning Resource" by two researchers from a private university in Mexico with the help of undergraduate students from different disciplines. The students were exposed to VR resources for learning purposes. Surprisingly, after participating in the experimental project, they agreed upon the fact that the adaptation process with VR was quick. They admired the clean and minimal UI experience of VR technology. They also felt having VR tools is an advantage and schools should invest more in this. "The way to use it was so simple and clear that it did not require a lot of mental effort to understand what you were doing; maybe you need a little bit more effort to apply it in a physical class,” one of the students asserted. Out of this, we can easily understand the significant possibilities of VR technology in remote education. Maybe, it can even replace the physical classes shortly.

The modern concept of Virtual Reality (VR) emerged out of science fiction. VR functions upon a generic version of computer-generated simulations that tricks your brain by mimicking the real-world beyond the flat monitor, to give you a completely immersive 3D visual experience. From the 1960s tech-field, Sensorama is widely known as the very first prototype of immersive technology designed by Morton Heilig. Fast forward 55 years or so, the most recent idea of a VR classroom is fabricated with a vision to amend the limitations of traditional distance learning. Yes, we are talking about the next level of remote education. VR technology can be used as a tool to achieve students' participation to the greatest extent. It's immersive, 3D environment with a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning models help students not only to retain key concepts for a relatively extended period but also thrive to become an effective learner. With the student being adequately equipped with a head-mounted VR gear, an audio headset, and proper content, the model of tertiary education in the 21st century has become broad and comprehensive. However, it's worth mentioning that there are several opportunities online education has to offer in terms of getting impeded in the learning progress. Academicians, expert practitioners, educators, and even young learners have been inconsiderately taking advantage of these opportunities for quite a long time. In the context of the current recession, a country like Bangladesh, where coming up with an emergency solution to ensure uninterrupted education by introducing e-learning is deemed as way laudable, instead of putting more emphasis on assessing the uttermost outcome of e-learning among the young students. Nowadays, it's just as easy to find two general groups of students -- the first ones that cannot even accomplish the MOOCs within a certain deadline, and eventually drop out as the learning experience seemingly fails to meet their blissful expectations in the first place. The latter ones are those who strive on piling up e-certificates without having a sustained understanding of the course contents. In order to ensure the quality of remote education, schools and colleges will have to rethink their approach and construct a more feasible way that can create a bridge between pedagogy and methodology. In this case, curriculum developers, academicians, and professors can prioritize VR classrooms over anything else. To give a poignant reminder, young learners have already been showing absolute apathy to take the one-sided overhauled online classes where face-to-face interaction is lacking. The underlying causes for which e-learning has been found as a dubious model include: Getting easily distracted by social media, limited interaction between professors and students, technical-psychological-social-cultural-contextual challenges, interruption due to poor allocation of bandwidth, the inadequacy of available smart devices, and so on and so forth.

The VR market is estimated at USD 6.1 billion in 2020, and is anticipated to expand USD 20.9 billion by 2025. An interview with CBS News, Dr Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, bestselling author (Visions and Hyperspace), and also the co-founder of string field theory said, "VR is the next big thing." Dr Kaku further added: “It will lure students to freely visit unreal worlds. And there, 'haptic technology’ will allow them to touch virtual objects.”

VR is a popular tool in schools in the US and UK. Let's take a look at some of the examples of how VR is already being used as a standardized tool by many learning institutions and companies in different parts of the world.

Architecture, design, and planning

When it comes to architecture and design, creativity and imagination are both crucial if you would like to step up your game during your undergrad life. With VR technology, you could easily reach from one corner of the world to another within a short amount of time, and have a real-life immersive experience. "Off-campus study trips are an integral part of our program," says Rafia Chowdhury, a senior architecture major, Brac University. "It gives us opportunities to visit sites of great historical significance and study contemporary architecture. It's a sort of gateway for us to explore beyond design studios and physical classrooms. During each study trip, we are assessed based on our drawings, sketches, write-ups, photographs, critical inquiry, etc. As an architecture student, while quarantining yourself at home, you would never get the exact opportunity as before. So, VR might turn out handy to provide us with the same experience that we would gain during our field trips. VR can also give us the option to walk through our pre-modified 3D model," she adds.

Meanwhile, a group of students from Jordan University of Science and Technology developed a prototype of a software that is capable of presenting 4D models for certain building construction phases using VR based immersive and non-immersive technology.

Engineering and robotics

Engineering students can heavily benefit from VR based content. Automotive manufacturers and aviation companies have already adapted to VR simulation from lab experiments, project prototyping, test-driving to final implementation. With VR technology, manufacturers can boost up their production rate. MIT Media Lab (one of the world’s leading research and academic organizations) is currently encouraging its designers, scientists, and artists to create technologies that can alter people's lives and communities. Some of the core projects on VR of MIT ML researchers include Wearable and Biometric Olfactory Interfaces for Day and Night, Opera of the Future, Hacking Reality, Large User Interface with Gesture and Voice Feedback, BaguraMarsh, CocoVerse, etc.

Medicine and healthcare

The application of VR is quite promising in the healthcare system. For instance, treating chronic motor diseases, fighting memory loss as an Alzheimer's patient, understanding autism, and initiating any surgical operations from a three-dimensional perspective.

FundamentalVR is a London based company that offers VR based training for surgeons so that they can improve their surgical techniques.

Nerdiz.com: The country's first VR based education platform

It all started back in 2016. Pradeepta Kumar Shaha, ex Scholastician, current CEO of Nerdiz.com perceived the idea to do something out of mainstream education. While Pradeepta kept himself busy shaping the foundation, Sagar Mazumder joined Nerdiz.com as an exceptional addition to the team. We got to know more from Sagar himself.

Give us a brief overview of Nerdiz.com today.

Our core value at Nerdiz.com is to foster equitable remote learning. We produce and deliver learning materials as VR content for young learners so that they can have a fully immersive experience of physical classes and dive into the 3D world of imagination. We have developed and curated more than a hundred 360° video contents targeting the primary, high-school, and college students. We have successfully reached a total number of over 40, 000 students both inside and outside of Bangladesh.

Once a month, we conduct VR sessions in different Dhaka based underprivileged schools. It encourages children a lot. We have partnered with Teach for Bangladesh and It's Humanity Foundation. We are also working collaboratively with several NGOs and English Medium Schools. We have launched a successful campaign for underprivileged students, known as "Project Rupantor". We always try to grow and improve our services. We are currently functioning in both Dhaka and Chittagong.

Why do you think Nerdiz.com has the potential to aid tertiary education within Bangladesh?

Currently, Nerdiz.com comprises of 13 undergrad students who are working tirelessly to provide quality VR content, including scientific experiments, history, and field trips. We have been working alongside academicians and expert practitioners for over 4 years. Our experience is quite exquisite and we have already started partnering with agencies and manufacturers to work on factory modeling. We are planning to establish VR Labs, so that all the experiments can be carried out remotely and repeated multiple times. It could save a student’s valuable time and money. We believe that we can start manufacturing cost-effective VR headsets for university students. We would hope to get sheer support from the Digital and ICT division of Bangladesh. It would be awe inspiring and encourage us to improve our limitations to work on a broader scale.

What were your biggest successes and challenges?

VR based education was a new phenomenon back in 2016. So, it was indeed challenging for us to convince people about the prospects of VR. A lot of stereotypes circulated among general people, and we handled them carefully. Our biggest happiness lies in the contentment of the children. Some of our notable achievements are -- being the winners of BRAC CED Business Competition, Top 13 in GP Accelerator, Top 13 in Banglalink IT Incubator, and Top 10 in Entrepreneurship World Cup 2019.

Who or what has shaped who you are?

I always take inspiration from young learners. The amount of positive feedback we receive each day helps us stay motivated and keep sticking to our goals. I feel very proud to be a part of this team that is capable of bringing enormous changes into young lives, and help them grow as the next generation of world leaders.

What’s the most important life lesson you’ve ever learned?

Education should always be prioritized in the first place. Along with that, you should be involved in ECA’s and other part-time experiences. There will be thousands of graduates with the same degree in either engineering or business sector. To stand out, you must learn to work on your strengths, which will help you become a successful candidate to escape the rat-race. If you fail to add value to yourself, neither take any initiatives nor make any societal changes, you will be lost among all the other ordinary graduates out there. So, it's high time to start thinking out of the box.

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