3D and haptics in education

Unless you’ve been walking around with a bucket over your head for the past year or three, you must have noticed that 3D is definitely the “in” thing. It’s almost de rigueur for new movies to be in 3D, and there is even at least one smartphone which has a 3D display. But what about educational applications?

Before thinking about that, consider also that 3D isn’t confined to seeing. There is a growing range of 3D printers too, which produce three dimensional objects. They are used mainly for rapid prototyping at the moment, but universities are researching the possibility of churning out 3D hip replacements – see 3D Printing for more about such applications and other developments. But again, what about the educational possibilities?

There has been some research into the possibilities of using 3D display systems in schools. See, for example, How to use 3D in the classroom effectively. I have also come across research which concludes that pupils who are taught about real world objects in a 3D environment gain a more accurate knowledge and understanding of those objects than pupils taught using the traditional 2D approach (ie photographs, diagrams or videos).

Perhaps there are some other, less obvious, areas where 3D viewing or 3D printing could be effective. Take Economics, for example, a subject I know a bit about and used to teach. Many of the graphs presented to students represent snapshots in time, but should really have a third axis: time. What if you could actually print out a 3D facsimile of the three-dimensional graph? Or what if you could use 3D viewing software to explore a 3D image of a graph, in much the same way that you can, say, explore a landmark. (Try this out for yourself: download and install Google Earth, which is free, and then look at http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/ to find images to view in Google Earth. You can then examine the object from all different angles by changing the compass setting, and zoom in and out.)

Another interesting development is haptics, which is to do with touch. I recently visited the HapTEL lab in Guys Hospital, London. There, under the auspices of Professor Margaret Cox, dental students are learning to practice their skills using a computer set-up that gives them feedback on whether they’re drilling in the right place and at the right pressure. Moreover, it’s a huge cost-saver: a real tooth costs £16, and once damaged can’t be re-used. Virtual teeth, on the other hand, can be used over and over again, saving the dental school at least £16,000 per term.

For more on the HapTEL project – which has, by the way, won an ICT Award in the “Innovation in ICT” category, see my article ICT gets all touchy-feely.

Again, is there scope for a haptics application which enables you feel particular things? There’s the obvious, of course, such experiencing what it’s like to be in an earthquake, but what about less obvious applications? What does an economic recession feel like, for instance, or the growth cycle of a plant? Is there even any merit in these kind of ideas?

Before becoming too carried away it’s as well to remember the technology effect, which is to say that it almost goes without saying that any new technology is likely to get the pupils more excited and, therefore, more engaged. Engaged pupils tend to learn more, and retain more, than non-engaged ones, and the more engaged they are, the better the outcome. I experienced something of this sort of effect myself, when the demonstration of exploring 3D on a SMARTBoard 885 interactive whiteboard had me gripped.

There is also the experimenter effect, which is that people, in this case teachers, tend to get the results they are expecting. In other words, a teacher who is enthusiastic about using a particular technology is almost bound to see good results from it. This ties in with something that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere: the teacher effect. Everyone knows from their own experience or from anecdotal evidence that the teacher makes all the difference, but it’s more than that. There was some research carried out over thirty years ago into using technology in the teaching of economics. It was found that some teachers really flew with the new technology of the day, whilst others did little or nothing with it that was new or particularly interesting. In other words, what made the difference was not so much the technology on its own, but the technology in the hands of the “right” teacher.

Oh, and what was that new technology? The overhead projector!

It seems to me, though, that the challenge there is to go beyond the initial “wow” factor and find genuinely appropriate educational uses for these new technologies. When it comes to education, the key question to be asked is “so what?”. That is, what is so special or important about this particular technology? I don’t think it’s enough to say that it will motivate the pupils. As I said in an article about 15 years ago, so would a pair of Reeboks! You have to go beyond that I think, and ask:

What can we do better or easier with this technology?

And, even more crucially:

What can we do with this technology that we otherwise could not do at all?

If you’d like to explore the possibilities of 3D printing without breaking the school bank, have a look at Shapeways. You can create and upload your own designs to be printed, or use the ready-made ones available. The cost is quite low, although obviously if you were to order class sets of objects the outlay would escalate rapidly. I see this being useful for particular activities in school. For example, a Young Enterprise company might want to order a couple of different prototypes of its idea in order to obtain feedback from focus groups before going full-steam ahead. Perhaps a school could even make some money by selling personalised cufflinks (say) at a small profit.

Or how about this for putting ICT on the school map? I have long believed there are grounds for raising the game as far as marketing the image of ICT is concerned, which you can see from my suggestions in The Case for Print-On-Demand. Why not purchase, for each member of your team, a fully-functional QR Code steel tag which can be put on a key ring? This costs $65.80, which comes out as just over £42 or just under €49. The QR code could take you to a URL which had links to all the ICT policy documents, scheme of work, resources and anything else deemed to be useful. Is that too profligate in these straitened times, or a worthwhile (one-off) investment?

Some schools have already started experimenting with different aspects of 3D, and some of the people involved have been kind enough to relate their experiences in this newsletter. I hope you find their articles interesting.

There is also a very useful article in this newsletter by Inition, a company which lives and breathes 3D in all its forms. It very kindly gave me a guided tour of their workshop, which was fascinating in its range and complexity.

Amongst other things, Inition does work using Augmented Reality, which apparently the Barbican is exploring for use in plays. Augmented Reality glasses are being developed, for use in head-mounted displays to put the wearer in an immersive environment. Obvious applications include games, defence and warfare, but there are potential medical applications too, such as in helping the rehabilitation of stroke victims.

If any of your students show an interest in this line of work, then maths and physics are key skills, but not the only ones. For instance, one person we spoke to is a human interaction specialists, which sounds like a training in psychology would not go amiss. Programming skills are an obvious recommendation, but as Augmented Reality, 3D and haptics all have application in, and can “join up”, several disciplines, no doubt a whole range of skills and qualifications can be useful in this fledgling industry.

Do read the Inition article, The 3D Landscape, for some facts and terminology relating to some of the concepts discussed here.

This article was first published in Computers in Classrooms, the free e-newsletter for people with a professional interest in educational ICT.

Other recently-published articles about 3D

The 3D Landscape

Educating In The Third Dimension

3D At Oakington Manor Primary School

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