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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence: Higher Education Disrupters?


Written by
Clare Sansom

Virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence are technologies with a great potential to influence teaching and learning: and all the more so if that teaching and learning is carried out at a distance. In an interesting session at RIDE 2020, CODE Fellow Marco Gillies from Goldsmiths College in London and Abiodun Musa Aibinu from the Federal University of Technology in Minna, Nigeria described some current and potential uses of these technologies, emphasising their potentially disruptive nature.

Marco Gillies

Marco, the academic director of distance learning at Goldsmith’s, began by posing the question: what can virtual reality bring to distance education? The key to virtual reality is its immersive nature. When you wear a VR headset, you are immersed in a 3D virtual world that responds to movement like the real one, so that, for example, your view changes naturally when you turn your head. Until a couple of years ago, its viability as an educational tool was limited by the cost of headsets.  Even in 2018, the most popular headset, the Oculus Rift, cost about $800 and you needed $2-3,000 worth of hardware to run the programs effectively. Only two years later, Oculus were selling their ‘bottom end’ headset for $400, and its software could run to good effect on an ordinary PC.

Marco stressed that virtual reality in education is not just another way to impart knowledge at a distance. Instead, it is most appropriate for recreating experiences that would be too difficult, expensive or dangerous for students to experience in the ‘real world’. Therefore, US students in training for quarterback positions in American football use it to practice fast responses, and bioscientists can physically experience a drug’s position in the binding site of its target protein. It is increasingly used for teaching medical students the social skills required for good consultations, where using real patients would be unethical and actors too expensive.

Abiodun Musa Aibinu presenting at RIDE 2020

Musa began his presentation on artificial intelligence by defining it as programs that enable a computer, or a digitally controlled robot, to perform tasks that are generally associated with intelligent humans; that is, to make a computer ‘think’. A wide range of AI algorithms have been developed over the last few decades, with names including ‘fuzzy logic’, ‘ant colony’ and ‘hill climbing’. Fuzzy logic is a type of artificial neural network: as its name implies, an algorithm that works by mimicking the activity of the network of neurons in the brain. It involves decision-making based on imprecise information, and it has many potential applications in education including grading, predicting learning styles, and supporting learners via ‘chatbots’ programmed to respond to queries.

He went on to describe four different ways in which AI is being developed for use in open and distance education in Nigeria. These are: with computer vision, to check students’ identity and, thus, prevent malpractice in exams; to pick up potential mental health problems from students’ responses as they develop; in an open source, scalable and failure-resistant learning management system; and in improving network connectivity for open and distance learners. This last is a particular challenge in Nigeria. Much of the country is still using 2G or even 1G networks, and many distance students experience a very poor service. An AI based device has been developed that gives learners some control over how they connect to the existing system and so make the best use of it. These applications will all help disadvantaged learners and so contribute to Nigeria’s progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.