Physical objects in virtual environments


Earlier this year the EdTech and Co-design team did a piece of research into student loneliness as a result of the pandemic and lack of access to the campus.  It was evident that one of the key problems with wholly online line learning was the lack of physical interaction.

A few of us from the team decided to look further into ways in which improving the physical aspects of interaction were being explored in the virtual environment.

Research supports the need for physical interactions and the benefits of the use of physical objects in learning.  There are lots of examples of the use of physical objects in teaching and learning. Manipulatives such as Pattern Blocks and Cuisenaire Rods are frequently used in STEM subjects. Object based learning, particularly in relation to university collections, has been explored as a means to enhance the student experience. There are even programs dedicated to engagement with objects such as this one in at MacQuire University which supports individuals living with dementia.

As we carried out our research it became evident that there has been interest in the interaction of the physical and the virtual for many years. Innovators and technologist have explored the relationship between the physical and virtual and as early as the late 90s the term Tangible User Interaction was coined to capture the idea of a user utilizing a physical object to interact with a digital system.

We came across some interesting examples of industries that try to bridge the gap between the physical and digital. One sector which has accelerated hugely in this is the fitness industry.  Peloton is perhaps the best known example but there are now a wide range of examples of exercise equipment being paired with virtual / online classes and apps to keep individuals engaged from the comfort of their own homes.

We found some examples of tactile interaction, Reactable allows the users to create music by touching the table and moving the objects upon it. Hypersurfaces allows any physical object within reach of the user to become the mechanism by which the user operates a digital system, ranging from a computer, to a music system, to a car. Comind takes this beyond the tactile to envision “a future where humans will interact with technology using their brains alone”.

As a team we were interested to see if anything similar was being used by the education sector during the pandemic. We came across a few examples of teachers sharing ideas of how to make online learning via Zoom or Teams more engaging. We also came across some interesting ideas and guidance around using props in virtual teaching settings. University College London was one example where they took this further and posted resource kits to students to support them in learning clinical skills while learning remotely.

It was heartening to see the way in which the sector adapted so well to the pandemic and subsequent online teaching.  We’re always looking for examples of new and innovative practice we can share across the sector so we’d be really interested to hear from anyone who has an innovative online teaching practice to share.  We’d be curious to know if teachers or learning technologist were exploring any of the tangible interfaces similar to those outlined above.

While the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us it’s not over yet and all indications are that hybrid teaching is a model that will continue well into the future.  What innovations are you considering using to enhance the student experience of online or hybrid learning?


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