3D Virtual Learning a New Reality

 The following is a post written by my principal, Eric Sheninger, which highlights a project I blogged about earlier this school year. 

It has been yet another exciting year at New Milford High School.  We have continued to sustain numerous innovative initiatives while looking for other opportunities to improve the learning experience for the school community.  This year alone Laura Fleming, our stellar media specialist, has successfully created a Makerspace for our students as well as a digital badge platform to acknowledge the informal learning of teachers.  Both of these initiatives have exceeded our expectations and have been met by rave reviews from staff and students alike.  However, a lesser known undertaking might possibly redefine learning in ways that we could never have imagined a few years ago.

At NMHS we focus on empowering students to take ownership of their learning. To that end each staff member is also given the autonomy to be catalysts for change.  When I hired Laura last September, I explained the type of autonomy she would have, including complete control over her budget.  I then gave her one task, which was to leverage her expertise to create unparalleled learning experiences for our students that would inspire a love for learning and prepare them for success after graduation.  Using her connections, she formed a partnership with a company called Proton Media that provides essentially an enterprise solution called Protosphere intended for corporations to explore the possibilities of 3D virtual learning and collaboration in the cloud. The goal of this partnership is to create a 3D virtual learning environment for our school. Check out our progress below.

Using the Protosphere platform we are exploring the unique pedagogy in a virtual environment and technology as the learning environment.  Laura’s inspiration for this idea came from Sugata Mitra’s TED talks on how students can teach themselves and building a school in the cloud.  The cloud allows for both synchronous and asynchronous learning, attributes that we hope to utilize.   In this environment the role of the teacher shifts to facilitator of knowledge acquisition. For our virtual NMHS campus we are exploring the possibilities of 3D virtual learning, collaboration, and technology as the learning environment.  Through a pilot group of teachers and students we are exploring how communicating and collaborating is different in a virtual environment through the integration of avatars. Virtual space is much more participatory than the regular classroom.  For example, one best practice is to design experiences for the avatars to get up and move as much as possible.  Collaborative learning spaces are becoming a virtual reality for us and the potential opportunities are exciting.

It is our hope to also broaden the concept of a ‘building’ as physical attributes and physical space to include a virtual space that contributes to learning success.  For example, Laura as the library media specialist, limited by a dated library, turned to online resources and a digital space as 21st century libraries should comprise fluid, flexible learning spaces.

ProtoSphere brings NMHS students and data together in an engaging and stimulating virtual world, in which users are represented by avatars. The partnership will allow us to utilize Protosphere as a tool for face-to-face interaction in the virtual space in order to raise student achievement and to improve student performance overall while enabling our teachers to deliver classes more efficiently and effectively.  Our learners will be able to talk, view, and interact with presentation and media content, record notes and access the Web, all at the same time, from anywhere.  We will be able to embed learning into collaborative processes to improve performance and extend the learning culture while using technology as the learning environment, as well as prepare students for a 21st century workforce in which many of them will have to communicate and collaborate virtually.  Other potential outcomes will be an ability to use this 3D virtual learning environment to offer home instruction, keep school open virtually during snow days, flip the classroom, tutoring, and enrichment activities.