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E-learning and the challenge of the senses

Detractors of e-learning often point to a lack of full sensory immersion. Learning online is contrasted with the opportunities a physical classroom environment has to demonstrate concepts using all five senses: for instance the color, smell and touch of a flower, the sliminess of a mollusk, the acrid smell of ammonia.

The senses play an integral role in learning - one can go so far as to say that from an evolutionary standpoint it is their sole function; we learn through experience best, and the more vivid that experience is, the deeper the learning and retention. Developmental psychology literature (both popular and academic) agrees that external stimuli - particularly in children - grow neural pathways, and exaggerate and enhance learning.

Young children have a surfeit of neuroglial cells, and the credo “use it or lose it” applies - neural cells and pathways not used in discovery and learning new things eventually degenerate and die. The most prevalent example is the relative ease with which young children can learn new languages, compared with when they get older.

So how does online learning, as a bona fide and increasingly important aspect of the educational edifice, respond to these critiques? How can it absorb the common wisdom that sensory immersion is required for long-term retention?

Personally I think it would be an error to try and synthesize the entire educational experience - no one can argue the innate benefits of youngsters feeling shapes as they make a puzzle, or the elatery thrill of turning a magnifying glass just so, until a beam of lights sets a a dry leaf alight. For many people there is something nostalgic and beautiful in the image of children learning through experience - preferably in a pristine natural environment. This soft-focus image is counterpointed with an instinctive distaste of an imagined future where sedentary and identical learners are plugged into computers - silent and unmoving - a dystopian view mirrored in films like Gattaca and Wall-e.

While home- and Montessori-style schools will always offer hands-on, exploratory education where learning by tactile discovery, experiment and exploration is preeminent - it also clear that this type of bespoke education is extremely resource-heavy and remains beyond the financial reach of the majority of world’s students and families. Scaling our educational models beyond physical limitations, affords many more students a chance at better education. And so a middle-ground needs to be found, the much-vaunted blended learning model.

However, without promulgating the dystopian view of education previously described, there are also many new technologies being explored that could bring sensory learning stimulation - via online learning - to a greater number of students. Let’s explore some of these sensational (literally) developments.

360° Video

Most of us will be familiar with this technology via Google’s Street view. Using an Omnifocus camera the video is shot up, down and a full 360 degrees horizontally. It is also interactive, meaning when you click on arrows inside the video you can navigate throughout the field of view depending on what you want to see, arguably blending both sight, sounds and touch senses. There are exciting YouTube channels that use this technology to explore diverse topics ranging from the life of a Nuba rebel soldier to wonderful experiences of the Aurora Borealis. From an educational perspective there are a number of interesting initiatives that tasks students to create 360° video content to share their projects with other students across the globe.

Haptic feedback

The cute vibration you feel through the screen of some phones when you make a mistake on a game, or drag something across the screen is called haptic feedback. Haptic technology brings the sense of touch into an online experience, and has been used in innovative ways to enhance online study for the visually impaired. By using varying vibrations, combined with different sounds technologies are now being developed where graphs, and other mathematical visuals projected by professors onto a screen, can simultaneously be cast to visually impaired students’ tablets where they can follow what the rest of the class is seeing by touch. Haptic feedback is also used extensively in surgical simulations where both force and vibration feedback helps surgical students to differentiate between materials such as bone, fat and skin, without the cost or risk of cadavers or live subjects.

Video Performance Assessment (VPA)

There are also instances where online learning and technology have created sensory immersion in the classroom, where previously none existed. The area of scientific assessment is currently conducted via open ended questions or multiple choice. The critique of this form of assessment is that often 4th grade physics questions, require 10th grade reading and language skills! Driven and developed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education Research VPA is designed to enhance the assessment of a student's scientific inquiry in an immersive, game-scape world. A number of VPAs have been developed, and the Schools’ studies indicate that by adding a VPA to existing assessments teachers gain important insight into a student's learning pathways. Read more about this interesting area of educational research here.

Blending online and physical learning is in most cases the ideal future scenario for education, and there seems little reason to fear that online models will be devoid of the bright, immersive, and inspiring inputs that will one day stimulate all of the senses.

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