Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Oculus Rift: learning machine that will blow your mind!

One of the most talked about and exciting devices (to be
released 2014) is not the Apple Watch or iPhone 6), it’s the Oculus Rift virtual
reality headset, priced at less than £200, which gives full immersion in a 3D
world. I’ve tried it, here in Starbucks of all places, and several times since,
and it blew my mind.  The experience is
so real, so vivid and so memorable that I can remember every last detail weeks
later. This matters in learning, as the trick in simulations is transfer, all
the way back to Thorndike, rarely efficient, except in simulations and in this
case super-efficient.

YouTube has videos showing people freak out when they play horror games with total immersion and 3D sound (watch this guy get freaked out), get their head chopped off by aguillotine in the French Revolution (your head falls into the basket and you
look back at your neck!). It will spawn a new generation of compelling games
but also a new generation of compelling learning experiences.

Learning machine

Vocational learning has lots to gain from this cool device,
as it’s made for learning by doing, real world tasks, not only for acquiring
competences but being assessed for those same competences. The possible
applications come at you in a rush when you’ve tried it..

1. First person thinkers

‘First person shooters’ is the big genre in computer games; Quake,
Doom, Halo, COD – legendary games that sold in their tens of millions. The
immediacy of the experience where split second decisions mean the difference
between life and death make it still the genre of choice for most gamers. Think
now of First Person Thinkers where the player/learner has to make decisions in
response to real word events and I mean human events – management training,
health and safety conflict resolution, you name it….

2. Training within 3D worlds with 3D

I’ve seen a simulation on domestic house gas inspection that
simulates scenarios so well it’s now used as a large part of the assessment,
saving huge amounts of money in the US. You’re free to move around the house,
check for gas leaks, do all the necessary measurements using the right
equipment – a completely open training and assessment environment. With Oculus
Rift it is far more realistic than a 2D screen showing a 3D simulation.

3. Safe failure

Training that involves experiencing things that would be
impossible to experience in real life as it is likely to result in harm, even
death, can be delivered virtually. Emergency incidents, health and safety,
military operations, medical treatment, surgery – you can be put through
experiences where safe failure is possible just experience an emergency
evacuation from an aircraft once on an Oculus and you’ll never need to listen
to that boring speech again before you take off on an aeroplane,

4. Soft skills

I’ve seen sims that really do train people how to sell,
interview, deal with conflict – even made a few myself - they work. But they’ll
work even better with Oculus, as the level of physical and psychological
fidelity can be finely tuned to the task. Note that this is not all about
physical hi-fidelity. The Oculus, especially the high definition version,
delivers this. It’s the psychological fidelity of being there in the moment
with complete suspension of disbelief. It’s almost impossible not to believe.

5. School curriculum

Experiencing real physics experiments and lab work without
the expense and danger from objects and chemicals is just one set of scientific
learning experiences that can be fully simulated with the Oculus. Get a head
start with live history and walk around a Roman Town populated by Romans
(already exists), a trip across the solar system, into the bloodstream, into a

6. Attitudinal learning

The intensity of the experience is perfect for affective
learning, where motivation or attitudinal learning is needed. This may be,
values, compliance, ethics, sexual harassment, anything that requires a

7. Assessment

Many competences an only be measured by someone doing
something. Yet most exams come nowhere near measuring competences. This is head
and shoulders above traditional paper exams for many vocational and practical
tasks, real skills. Your performance can really be measured. Your assessment
can be your performance – complete and you’ve passed. This is already a reality
in many simulations, flight sims and so on. It can also be true of many other

Psychology of learning

In terms of the psychology of learning it hold the attention
of the learner, a necessary condition for learning, rarely achieved for long
periods in lectures and classrooms . You stay on task (almost impossible not
to) providing intense and sustained learning experiences. Safe failure is possible,
taking the learning experiences beyond what can be done in the real world.  In terms of memory, these experiences result in
deep processing in memory, increasing effective storage, recall and retention.
Importantly, as this is a huge problem in learning and training, it results in the
superior transfer of skills from the learning experience to their application
in the real world. It is literally a learning machine.


Oculus Rift may remain just a games’ peripheral but I doubt
it. Whenever I’ve got learning professionals to don the headset, they get it immediately – this thing is a turbo-charged,
learning machine. The fact that it’s cheap, open in architecture and will be a
widely available consumer device, gives it the coolness and kudos that will
make it irresistible to anyone who wants learning to be a transformational
experience. All I can say us try it – it will blow your mind.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Armando Pisani: the pioneer who holds the key to immediate increases in school attainment?

Want immediate improvements in student attainment in schools,
especially in maths? Listen to this guy. He’s a pioneer. Armando Pisani is
unique. Why? He’s a high school teacher who teaches 14-18 year olds in maths
and physics and is unique in that he records all of his lessons on video for later
use by students. He is also unique in that his academic background is in data
analysis, so he has gathered a great deal of useful data on his work in his
school. If his data is correct, and I think it is, he could be the catalyst for
a huge increase in productivity in schools across Europe. The following is the
result of a structured interview I did with Armando in Trieste.

What are the
advantages of recording lessons?

To learn efficiently and deeply,
students need to be able to “review, not
miss things through inattention, being distracted, illness, student absence,
teacher absence or  language difficulties
– some students have other languages as their mother tongue
”. The lack of “supply teacher availability is also a
”. Recorded lessons give the students the ability to “catch-up and cover work not covered in a
teacher’s absence

What data did you

The survey data is outstanding,
with evidence on how much was watched, when it is watched, how it is watched
and the resulting rise in attainment. Another fascinating side to the data is
the acceptance of the method by parents.

First the results...

Black no lectures  Red watched lectures

What percentage of students use recorded lectures?

 Do you think the lectures give you good help and support?

How much time do you spend watching the lectures?

Do you watch lectures in your normal study time or spare time?

Would you recommend the use of lectures to other students and friends?

What device do you use to watch the lectures?

Would you suggest that parents watch the lectures online?

Parents - have you seen the online lectures?

Parents - are you in favour of online lectures?

Parents - do you think online lectures help your child to study?

What are your
views on homework?

He is appalled that some teachers
and schools consider dropping homework. “Spain’s
plans to drop homework nationally is crazy
”. The “Italian word for homework is ‘Compiti’ with its root in the idea that
you’re closing a gap in your knowledge
”. Homework, he thinks, is an
essential part of the learning process, the place where one gets reflection,
gap-closing, deeper understanding and practice.

Has recording
lessons affected student behaviour?

Students appreciate the effort you make to record your lessons and
moderate their behaviour
” he claims. “As
every teacher knows students get bored and often do ask to go to bathroom. When
I’m recording, they never ask to go out of the bathroom
.” Other changes in
behaviour include, “less disruption, more
questions asked by students, staying afterwards to ask questions
”. After
recording 182 lessons, he “can’t think of
one incident where a student disturbed the lesson
”. In some cases, “they are keen to know about the content of
the next lecture

What about parent

In Italy there is a strong family
tradition and education “must involve
family – school is part of that family
”. That is reflected in parent
involvement in schooling, with four meetings a year, “the first to meet and get to know the teachers and vice-versa,
especially in the first year but also to show parents the school’s plans and
activities. Subsequent meetings are for progress and to solve problems and

More than this Armando sees
parents as a key driver in the use of his recorded lessons. Parents “like to see what students do during lessons
and some parents “loved the subjects when
they were at school
”. “I had assumed
parents like it (recorded lessons) less than students but the opposite is true
He thinks this is because parents they tend to think of it as “learning, students as  a task or work”.

What is the
technical set-up?

I have given lectures at the highly
innovative International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste (they built
the 800 euro hardware) for three years and this is one of the best
presentations I’ve seen there. He uses ICTPs EyA system at a total,
all-in cost of 800 Euros. “I do this on
my own, with no help – it’s easy
”. With no more than a 5 minute set-up he
can record his lessons, including questions from students, although they are
left out of shot for privacy reasons.


Having been involved
in technology based learning for 30 years I am not easily impressed but Armando
impressed me greatly. First, he is obviously a great teacher but more than this
he wants, and this is his great strength, to turn his students into more
independent learners. He really does understand the idea that teaching is really
about motivating learners and giving them repeated access to good content.


A fuller version of the study is to be found here in the European Journal of Open, Distance and E-learning. Armando is well aware of the limitations of the study in terms of sample size, especially when comparing students who don't use the lectures with those that do. However, he is convinced that the poorerstudents tend to get more out of his lectures, He is keen to move on to the next stage of his research. It would be great if this were done in the UK.