Holograms on campus: good for teaching, good for the environment?

Imperial College London reports positive results from experiments in lectures and academic seminars

October 15, 2019
Source: Imperial College Business School

The use of holograms in the classroom may seem the stuff of science fiction, but it could be the technology that unlocks the potential of online learning – and reduces academia’s carbon footprint, according to researchers.

Imperial College London’s EdTech Lab has been using holograms, which allow remote speakers to appear as life-size three-dimensional entities, in one of the university’s lecture theatres over the past year.

For David Lefevre, director of the lab, the technology has been a big success. Surveys reported that students not only enjoyed the “sense of presence” provided by the hologram – of an academic “live” elsewhere – but also found the experience fun and engaging.

Educational research has shown that a sense of presence and interaction is incredibly important for students’ learning, Professor Lefevre told Times Higher Education. Importantly, a hologram can look a student in the eye. “That makes all the difference,” he said.

An initial study at Imperial found that three-quarters of the 102 student participants agreed that holograms were more likely to facilitate engagement, and 70 per cent said that holograms enhanced the effectiveness of interaction between student and instructor. The technology has the potential to “significantly enhance the effectiveness of classes delivered by remote teachers in differing geographical locations”, the study says.

Although novelty clearly plays a part in the enjoyment, the “sense of presence” will be important for online learning, Professor Lefevre said.

The EdTech Lab, created in 2003 by Imperial College Business School, is now embarking on even deeper research: using brain-scanning technology to measure students’ responses to the different forms of presentations.

Imperial has so far done only a handful of lectures with holograms because the technology is still hard to set up, Professor Lefevre said. One was for an event run by the business school’s Centre for Climate Finance and Investment, in partnership with the University of Toronto. “It was about how to build financial models around climate change, so we couldn’t really fly people over for this event. The hologram technology allowed us to be carbon-neutral,” he said.

With academics and universities increasingly concerned about their environmental impact, holograms could provide an alternative to flying, EdTech Lab researchers believe.

“People still find it necessary to be face to face – that sense of presence is important – but if you want to reduce the carbon footprint of academia, people have to stop jumping on planes,” Professor Lefevre said.

The next project for the lab is enhancing the use of virtual reality. One way VR is already adding value is through lessons on presentations, a key component of business education. “We have a VR lab where we train students to give presentations, and we can give them an audience of 10 or 10,000. They can be in a boardroom of 20 people or a 1,000-seat auditorium,” Professor Lefevre said. “We also have a technician who can change the mood of the audience, change the engagement or applause. He can make the audience use their laptops, for example.”

On the theme of “best seat in the house”, another project aims to allow students who are working remotely to feel as if they are in a lecture or event via a 360-degree VR camera. “We’ve seen recently that the closer the students are to the physical campus, the more engaged they tend to be,” Professor Lefevre said. The work, which is still in its early stages, aims to tap into that. “The thing about VR is that the 3D experience has to add value,” he said.

Professor Lefevre wants the EdTech Lab to revolutionise online learning as it becomes more prevalent in higher education, particularly in business schools. “The idea is to create a new paradigm. We think online learning could be much better than it is,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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