Seeing Flexible Learning Spaces Through the Lens of Wearable Technology

Invited Contribution

Kalika Kastein, National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

“We live in such an amazing world. Things that we thought would be science fiction exist, where you can reach everything at every time, any time,” stated Diane Von Furstenberg in a promotional video for Google Glass.[1] Wearable technologies, like Google Glass, have evolved and supported flexible learning that can take place any time, any place, and by various means. Early definitions of wearable technology[2] viewed wearables as self-powered and self-contained.[3] However, this view of wearables as detached tools has since progressed to include integrative devices that serve as bodily extensions to the wearer. Wearable technologies have also been at the crux of a digital shift from simulation to augmentation.[4]

At the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked as an instructional design consultant for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Division for Prosperity. One of the teams I worked with had traditionally delivered in-person courses on the topic of disaster risk reduction to learners based across the Pacific. Before the pandemic, this course took a lightly blended approach, with a handful of in-person workshops, mentoring through online distance learning, and culminating intensive week-long study tour that brought participants to the Division’s office in Japan. But, when global lockdowns began, that programme and other in-person courses run by UNITAR moved entirely online.[5]

Amid the move online, UNITAR programme lead, Junko Shimazu, suggested using wearable technology as a possible way to account for the loss of study tours.[6] The study of disaster risk reduction is a topic that often benefits from participants seeing actual sites of disaster and where communities are rebuilding and speaking with community members. Participants in years prior would have visited places in Japan, where the UNITAR Division for Prosperity is based, to learn about the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, the reconstruction of Kobe following the 1994 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and evacuation plans in Wakayama Prefecture.[7]

To recreate parts of the study tour experience, Shimazu’s team worked with a videographer and recorded a series of 360-degree videos of study sites that participants would usually visit in person, as well as video testimonies from survivors of disasters. Learners then inserted their mobile phones into folded cardboard virtual reality (VR) goggles to access the content. In a VR setting, learners could explore the 360-degree space on their own. Additionally, learners could choose to activate or deactivate the subtitles and narration, as well as pause, rewind, or even join the discussion board to ask questions before continuing the video. There was flexibility in the space, time, and ways through which learners could interact and engage with the content.

In one video lesson, participants watched a tour through the halls of Sendai Arahama Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture in Japan.[8] The school flooded in 2011 during the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami with water rising to the second floor of its four stories, trapping 320 people who eventually evacuated safely to the building’s roof.[9] The building now functions as an educational site run by the city of Sendai to raise awareness about the necessity of risk mitigation and disaster preparedness. During the 360-degree video tour of the building, participants were guided through the damaged rooms, learning about the scale of devastation. Including Arahama Elementary in the 360-degree videos was essential as it had served as a study site in previous in-person iterations of the course.

Learner feedback from the VR module was positive, with participants citing how the immersive experience was visceral and further motivated them to work in disaster preparedness in their communities.[10] Results published for the 2020 programme featured a noteworthy 100% of the 68 participants reporting the training course to be useful and 90% agreeing that the technology used during the course was effective.[11] However, there were some obstacles as postal service disruptions slowed the delivery of the VR goggles to participants who lived further from city centres.[12]

Access became one of our primary concerns in creating and delivering programming. The programme report for the 2020 cycle also cites how instructional staff remain aware of the digital divide amid the shift to an online format.[13] Even with innovative means of accessing content, accessibility to learning spaces remains critical to creating positive, non-exclusionary environments.[14] Reliance on devices, especially one-to-one devices, raises questions about equity and access. Further, switching to a digital instructional space underscored the need to address structural inequities in terms of digital access and the need for increased disability consideration in content creation. To address these issues, team members on the project have prioritised making content accessible through features such as translation, narration, and subtitles and continue to explore delivery supports for subsequent cycles such as download centres at community buildings and NGOs paired with offline access to content, device borrowing, low-bandwidth content, and cell data stipends.

The sheer variety of experiences that learners can now access using wearable technology in a flexible learning environment are invaluable. Although there are potential downsides, especially in terms of access and the digital divide, there are accessibility features that are possible through wearables that allow increased access through features such as language translation and audio/text support, which means augmented reality devices can potentially enhance the ability to cater to individual needs.[15] The COVID-19 pandemic forced many to adopt and experiment with flexible learning support materials, like wearable technology. This has opened more doors for learners to control how they learn.[16] Overall, wearable technologies support a move away from a one-size fits all learning experience[17] and continue to evolve alongside an increased cultural mentality of “anytime, anywhere access,” which is changing how we approach the future of learning.[18]

Disclosure: The author acknowledges that information herein are the personal views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent those of UNITAR. The author serves as a consultant within the UNITAR Division for Prosperity.

[1] Google. (2012, September 13). DVF [through Google Glass]. https://youtu.be/30Pjl31cyDY

[2] Barfield, W. & Caudell, T. (2001). Basic Concepts in Wearable Computers and Augmented Reality. In W. Barfield and T. Caudell (Eds.) Fundamentals of Wearable Computers and Augmented Reality (pp. 3–26). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[3] Viseu, A. (2003). Simulation and augmentation: Issues of wearable computers. Ethics and Information Technology5(1), 17–26.

[4] Bower, M., & Sturman, D. (2015). What are the educational affordances of wearable technologies? Computers & Education, 88, 343–353. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2015.07.013

[5] United Nations Institute for Training and Research. (2020, November 6). Training with New Online/VR Tools for Women Leaders in Small Island Developing States (SIDS). https://unitar.org/hiroshima/about/news-stories/news/womens-leadership-workshop-tsunami-preparation-with-vr-technology

[6] United Nations Institute for Training and Research. (2021a, June). Learning with VR Technology: Transcending Time and Place. https://unitar.org/about/news-stories/news/learning-vr-technology-transcending-time-and-place

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] City of Sendai. (n.d.). Ruins of the Great East Japan Earthquake: Sendai Arahama Elementary School. Retrieved June 7, 2021, from https://sendai-travel.jp/activities/arahama-elementary-school/

[10] United Nations Institute for Training and Research. (2021a).

[11] United Nations Institute for Training and Research. (2021b, June 8). Project Completion Report

2020 Cycle: Women’s Leadership in Tsunami-Based Disaster Risk Reduction Programme for World Tsunami Awareness Day. https://unitar.org/sites/default/files/media/file/DRR_Project%20Completion%20Report%202020.pdf

[12] United Nations Institute for Training and Research. (2021a).

[13] United Nations Institute for Training and Research. (2021b).

[14] Benade, L. (2019). Flexible Learning Spaces: Inclusive by Design? New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 54, 53–68.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s40841-019-00127-2

[15] Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition. The New Media Consortium.

[16] Huang, R.H., Liu, D.J., Tlili, A., Yang, J.F., Wang, H.H., et al. (2020). Handbook on Facilitating Flexible Learning During Educational Disruption: The Chinese Experience in Maintaining Undisrupted Learning in COVID-19 Outbreak. Smart Learning Institute of Beijing Normal University.

[17] Huang, R.H., Liu, D.J., Guo, J., Yang, J.F., Zhao, J.H., Wei, X.F., Knyazeva, S., Li, M., Zhuang, R.X., Looi, CK, & Chang, T.W. (2020). Guidance on Flexible Learning during Campus Closures: Ensuring course quality of higher education in COVID-19 outbreak. Smart Learning Institute of Beijing Normal University.

[18] Perry, M., O’hara, K., Sellen, A., Brown, B., & Harper, R. (2001). Dealing with mobility: understanding access anytime, anywhere. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 8(4), 323.

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