Augmented and virtual reality are helping colleges up their tech game

It’s not just for finding Pokemon any more—but rather a futuristic teaching aid sparking student motivation

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Mohammed Awaiskhan Pathan wears an HTC Vive Virtual Reality headset as he virtually works in a mock up of a refinery. Pathan is graduating in 2019 from the Electrical Engineering Technician/Power at Mohawk College’s Stoney Creek Campus for Skilled Trades. (Photograph by Della Rollins)

In an assignment for his electrical technology lab at Ontario’s Mohawk College, second-year diploma student Mohamed Awaiskhan Pathan made a big mistake. While working on the instrumentation and controls of a complicated water pressure system—the kind used in oil refineries and water treatment plants—he turned the wrong valve. 

Water flooded onto the floor, causing what would have been a costly mess. No clean-up was required, however, because Pathan’s experience was simulated. He was wearing an augmented reality headset that digitally conveyed the sights, sounds and dangers of a seemingly real-life situation.

“I was shocked that the water came out,” says Pathan, who graduates this fall. “It feels like it is happening in front of your eyes.”

Mohawk is among several colleges experimenting with augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and adaptive learning technology to enrich the teaching and learning experience, deliver programs at a distance from the classroom or cater to individual student needs.

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The effort, potentially groundbreaking, is still in its infancy.

“We are at the experimental and pilot stage,” says David Porter, chief executive officer of eCampusOntario, a provincially funded, not-for-profit centre that works with post-secondary institutions to explore technology-enabled education. “People are trying to understand the best applications of technology that benefit students, the curriculum and the faculty.”

Among those in the forefront is Mohawk, where skilled-trade instructors have tested Microsoft’s HoloLens as an assistive device for in-classroom and online learning. Wearing a headset, students enter a virtual, three-dimensional environment filled with rich digital content (like the simulated water pressure system) without losing contact with their surroundings. This is augmented reality, similar to the wildly popular game of a few years ago, Pokemon Go.

By contrast, virtual reality fully engrosses students in an activity that shuts the world out. Instead of there being a very real piece of equipment in front of you, with imaginary equipment or results springing up through your glasses or headset, everything the student sees is a simulation—kind of like a movie.

As Toronto game developer Alex Bethke puts it: “VR is about putting you into the computer’s world, whereas AR is about putting the computer into our world.”

In a Mohawk classroom, welding instructor Claudio Mastroianni looks on as pipefitter apprentice Spencer Ritchie dons a portable headset and wields a slim digital wand to weld two pieces of metal in virtual reality. Every aspect of his performance is recorded on a nearby computer screen. Mastroianni stands a few steps away to listen for the virtual sparks that, as in a real, well-performed welding task, sound like sizzling bacon.

“I can watch and listen to the [virtual welding] arc,” he says. “I can see his [Ritchie’s] travel speed, work angle and weld angle are good.”

For Ritchie, the virtual welding experience builds his confidence. He likens his simulated assignment to a video game. “That’s why I find it so fun, to be honest,” he says. “I can do it anywhere there is an outlet plug and I can get instant feedback [from the computer read-out].”

Mohawk’s VR welding tool has been in use for several years, but the college only tested AR in the classroom last fall. Instructors conducted a two-week pilot of the HoloLens in the instrumentation and controls course, to the delight of Pathan and other students.

Pete Jarvie (left), a Technologist with Mohawk College, works with student Mohammed Awaiskhan Pathan on the VRTEX 360 virtual reality welding tool at Mohawk College’s Stoney Creek Campus for Skilled Trades. (Photograph by Della Rollins)

“This was the best experience because I got to know about the machines first [in a virtual format],” he says. “I could see all the big machinery in front of my eyes and that gave me a lot of knowledge.”

The college now expects to roll out HoloLens devices in various skilled-trade courses starting in September 2019.

Angelo Cosco, an associate dean at Mohawk’s Marshall School of Skilled Trades and Apprenticeship, is enthusiastic about AR’s potential. “This is a major disruption to the way technology [education] is going to be taught from now to the future.”

One benefit, he says, is that students can practise real-world skills in a simulated environment without injuring themselves. “It is so real and lifelike, with faults built into the system, that if students were to improperly follow the sequence, they would see the consequences,” he says. As Pathan learned the hard way, says Cosco, students “get an understanding of what happens when you aren’t following proper procedure.”

He sees the new devices as game changers in the delivery of apprenticeship training, currently under review in Ontario.

In 2010 (the latest available data), just under half of newly registered apprentices in Canada (rates vary by occupation) completed their Red Seal certification in six years, slower than the expected four-year timetable, according to Statistics Canada. One-third of would-be apprentices dropped out within six years of starting their education, which combines in-class instruction and on-the-job training. Moreover, between 2013 and 2017, StatsCan reported the number of Red Seal recipients nationally dropped 20.6 per cent, to 36,960 qualified apprentices.

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At Mohawk, a major provider of in-school apprenticeship training, some specialty programs like instrumentation and controls technician suffer from low enrolment. For financial or family reasons, interested students living far from Mohawk’s campus in Stoney Creek, Ont., may not want to relocate for eight weeks to complete one phase of in-class studies for Red Seal certification.

However, with learning modules delivered through AR, Cosco says students could complete their lab sessions—with online access to the course instructor—without leaving home. He also says the devices could deliver content to students during the on-the-job phase of their apprenticeship if essential material for their training was not provided by the employer.

Increased delivery flexibility, says Cosco, could expand the overall pool of qualified apprentices.

“Our dream is to have these [new technologies] available across the province at ministry offices, where students would be able to go and sign out this equipment,” he says, enabling students to complete the work portion of their apprenticeship without disruption. “For us to be able to send that brick and mortar lab facility via virtual reality or augmented reality to where students are now overcomes a barrier [to apprenticeship completion],” he says.

For some employers, the technology-rich experiences for students add to their employability as graduates. “The benefits to us are in terms of a candidate coming to us more experienced and more confident . . . and only increases their speed to competence for us,” says Monique Biancucci, vice-president of people and culture at steel giant ArcelorMittal Dofasco. Through their immersive learning opportunities, she says, students “come to us even more prepared and enabled to hit the ground running.”

Meanwhile, in northern British Columbia, VR devices this year broke down barriers for Indigenous youth interested in working for railway and transportation companies in or near their home communities.

In January 2019, instructors at the British Columbia Institute of Technology delivered an introductory course in railway skills to small cohorts of Indigenous students living near Prince George. In the past, students would have had to enrol at one of the polytechnic’s southern campuses or, with no railway trades credentials, apply directly to an employer.

“We can bring the railway world to them in virtual reality,” says Vince Jones, a 40-year veteran of the rail industry who now teaches at BCIT’s Annacis Island campus, which delivers transportation programs. “We can bring rail cars and entire trains into the virtual reality world for students to interact with.”

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In one course segment, students wear VR headsets to simulate a major crisis: a train derailment with cars leaking poisonous chlorine gas. “They can walk into this situation, assess in virtual reality and decide how to act,” says Jones. “If they make a mistake, dying in virtual reality is only temporary. They can reload the simulation and go back and try a different angle without hurting themselves.”

Jones travelled to Prince George to deliver the course to on-reserve students who now only have to spend two weeks at Annacis Island to complete the credential. So far, almost all of the Indigenous graduates of the program have been hired by rail industry employers, says Jones, at starting salaries of $50,000 and up. “We provide you with the training, you gain the credentials, and when you show up for an interview with the railway employer, you already have your certification,” says Jones. Employers, he adds, “are very interested, because it is very difficult to find anybody with any railway knowledge at all.”

He says the new devices, less clunky and more portable than previous versions, are “the real game changers” for teaching and learning. Students, he says, like the game-like quality of devices that “allow that sense of fun interaction instead of a boring lecture,” sparking their motivation to learn. The software, with sound features and three-dimensional models, makes possible what can’t be done in real life, says Jones. “Students can [virtually] shrink themselves to the size of an ant and crawl inside a machine.”

Advocates say the new technology needs to be judged on its contribution to teaching and learning.

“We always have to be careful as educators that we don’t jump on the new shiny thing,” says BCIT’s James Rout, associate vice-president of education support and innovation. “It has to be pedagogy driving our choices about technology.”

For his doctoral research, Rout is investigating the impact of Holocopter, a software application developed by BCIT and other post-secondary institutions that uses AR to enhance a student’s conceptual understanding of flight dynamics—one topic in the college’s aerospace maintenance engineer program.

Rout investigated the learning experience for students who had access to a physical helicopter rotor in a hangar on campus compared to those who studied the rotor in an AR environment.

He found no major academic differences between the two groups, though students valued their exposure to the virtual rotor. “It allowed them to see the air flow of the rotor; it allowed them to see the rotor spinning and see the direction of the aircraft as they changed the cyclical and collective controls. Those are things that are not possible with the physical rotor.”

As hardware costs decline, Rout urges post-secondary institutions to invest in training for classroom instructors, curriculum designers and technology specialists to collaborate on developing course material with augmented, virtual and mixed-reality features. “These are things that often are an afterthought and need to be a first thought,” he says. “The idea is that we support the instructor beyond just building the tools.”

BCIT’s Polytechnic Research Institution for Simulation and Multimedia, for example, brought together classroom teachers, instructional designers and others to develop the railway skills course in VR. For health care students, the centre developed an AR module using a 3-D version of a patient.

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Around Canada, college officials are assessing other emerging technologies, such as adaptive learning, which relies on artificial intelligence. Adaptive learning bucks the notion that everyone learns the same content and achieves the desired learning outcomes in the same fixed period of time. Instead, adaptive learning uses e-learning modules, based on tracking data and algorithms designed for each individual student, to help students review material when they miss a class or to test their competency in a particular skill.

“I don’t believe that learning pace is a particularly good indicator for cognitive intelligence or aptitude,” says Ulrich Christensen, a pioneer in developing adaptive learning platforms and data-driven content, and chief executive of Denmark-based Area9 Lyceum.  “But that is how our entire [education] system is based today—on standard blocks of time, or you have to get through a standardized test in a certain amount of time to show us how smart you are.”

His company sells adaptive learning technology platforms to colleges and other post-secondary institutions looking to develop content for individual learners. “To build the education system of 2030 we need breakthroughs like this so we can get enough teacher time to do the things that will prepare us for beating the robots,” he says.

Among those intrigued by the potential of adaptive learning is David Francis, dean of trades and technology at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., where he expects to run pilot projects with professors and instructional designers in the coming academic year. The goal, he says, is to tailor learning supports to individual students.

“There is an opportunity to help those students who otherwise might not be successful to gain a toehold on success,” he says.

“The other opportunity is for people to come out with the very top level of skills they could possibly have if we are efficient in our learning methodologies.” Either way, he says, the goal is “to help our students learn more quickly.”

Back at Mohawk, Cosco and his college officials are poised to embed AR and other devices in a variety of trades programs, starting this fall. But he knows that plenty of work—and analysis—lies ahead. “Everyone is new at this game.”  

This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2020 Canadian Colleges Guidebook with the headline, “Reality check: Colleges up their tech game.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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