Gesture-based tech: A future in education?

An analysis of gesture-based technology and its future role in education.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

It was not all that long ago when classrooms were utterly devoid of modern technology. The most sophisticated devices that were supplied to teachers would be a cassette player -- still often in use -- the occasional projector, and even rarer still, a computer.

That is not to imply that educational establishments are not investing what they can in the next generation. Budgetary cuts, financial constraints, large class sizes and simple impracticality may all be reasons why more innovative tools and technology are not readily implemented across Western educational institutions.

However, there is a shift towards technology-based classrooms. From Apple striking deals with colleges to provide iPads to students to smart board installations or even bring-your-own-device schemes -- the change is gradual, but we are unlikely to see a return of the chalk and blackboard era.

Naturally, not all schools are able to provide modern technology for their students. However, those that can and are willing to invest in such devices may be interested in the next leap predicted to take firm hold in education within two to three years -- gesture-based technology.


What is gesture-based computing?

According to the latest NMC Horizon Report, gesture-based technological models will become more readily integrated as a method of learning within the next few years.

It is now commonplace for those in the West to own devices that function through the use of gestures rather than just via typing or moving a mouse -- whether for business purposes, education or purely for entertainment.

The iPhone, iPad, Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect technology and other gesture-based devices and software receive signals in the form of physical movements - including tapping, swipes, touches or movements that allow a user to control the system.

Not only is the nature of gestures universal, and more natural than operating a mouse or keyboard, but it could be a valuable tool in maintaining and focusing students' attention, and promoting an interactive classroom.

If you've ever checked in at the airport with a touch-screen machine, it is gesture-based. This kind of technology does not necessarily require an external controller -- in the way the Nintendo Wii does for example -- and Microsoft's Kinect technology is based on this idea. Instead of a peripheral device, your entire body acts as a control mechanism.

The potential of this technology is incredible. Advances are being developed across many areas in order to develop gesture-recognition technology to control a wider range of devices, and educational use has not been forgotten.

Why use gesture-based technology?

The use of gesture-based control mechanisms allows a user to engage with a virtual environment and manipulate information instinctively. Not only can it be used in lessons, it can also be implemented as means to expand classroom resources and data management systems to connect students to their education in a new way -- by allowing them to take more control of their own learning.

Some schools have taken on board just how much potential gesture-based technology has to improve the quality of our classrooms. According to the Maple Valley Reporter, Thuan Nguyen, chief information officer for the Kent school district’s information technology department said:

"We really want our students’ learning to be more interactive, which can be done through many emerging technologies. We feel it is our responsibility to match what is going on in our society. Our society is becoming more technological and digital, meaning we need these same tools in our classroom so that our students can graduate and be successful in the real world."

We owe it to the next generation to prepare them properly for an increasingly digital society. Many examples exist -- such as medical students being able to practice procedures and manipulate data from virtual cadavers or x-ray scans, and not only are we able to make students more comfortable using modern technology, but it may be a means to encourage innovation and development in the future.

Businesses are increasingly concerned about a lack of technological training in school leavers or graduates fresh from university, and we are only damaging our economic growth if the problem is not addressed.

Active vs passive learning

Gesture-based Computing has the potential to be a transformative technology, because further than being used simply as a medium for learning, it also may change our attitudes concerning how we interact with computers in class, and promote active learning methods.

The traditional classroom no longer has to be the focal point of learning, and we no longer have to rely on passive teaching styles. Gesture recognition technology is far more than using a Nintendo Wii to exercise -- game environments can, and are being developed, to promote activities that improve social skills, involves team work, and allows users to solve problems through collaboration. This, in turn, promotes a method of teaching which is student-focused rather than teacher-centered.

There is a modern shift towards less passive learning styles, and more active, student-centered approaches to classroom learning. Instead of a lesson being structured around teacher-talking time, where students listen and do not necessarily engage with the content of a lesson, it is more common for students to be actively participating in activities; whether through project work, media, presentations or team objectives.

What makes gesture-based technology unique in this respect is that it has the potential to allow collaborative efforts on a wider scale -- more than setting up a classroom blog, or using Powerpoint to create a presentation, and can be used to further promote content engagement.

There is a world of difference between the options available. Microsoft's Kinect technology and the humble tape player are examples worthy of note. A tape player is a tool in which to facilitate learning -- by playing a language exercise, for example -- whereas Kinect technology can be a way of learning in itself. Gesture-based technology can be considered a medium within itself that students can learn from, as an interactive, active learning platform, rather than simply a means to play or access study material.

Everyone has a unique skillset, and students learn in different ways. Some students learn best through doing, some through visuals, and some by listening. There is a fine line between interactive activities that promote the core of a lesson, and those that simply waste time -- and the use of gesture-based devices is no exception.

However, the possibility of immersing students in a virtual world that encompasses a broader range of environmental factors that can engage learners through the ways they learn naturally can be a valuable way for teachers to engage students more readily.

What are the issues associated with this kind of technology?

Gesture computing has potential, but it is also limited in educational use by a wide range of factors. These include:

  • Cost benefit vs longevity. By the time a school has the means to, or decides on investing in such technology, new advances are likely to already been developed. Academic institutions have to make decisions about what technology is financially worth investing in, and whether there will be benefits to students -- especially as it is possible that new, more innovative technology will be on the market by the time purchases are made.
  • Training. Students are often more tech-savvy than their teachers, and if schools choose to invest in new devices or software, they must also invest in their staff and the required knowledge and training to operate and understand it properly.
  • The novelty factor. There are many arguments for and against the use of technology that has the potential to distract students -- and may be more of a novelty than a quality tool for learning. As such, teachers have to decide the best means to use this kind of technology effectively.
  • Feasibility. Students often expect to be able to use technology in class. This often causes issues for schools, and the ability to change school curriculums to accommodate new technology is not necessarily possible. It's not all about the budget; it can also concern just how limited schools can be in relation to adapting courses in a exam-cramming, time-constricted educational system.

The prediction of the adoption of gesture-based technology in schools within the next two to three years appears to be somewhat idealistic. Student may expect more innovative technology in education, however, the cost-benefit and investment required, especially within the current financial climate, may be too much of a stretch within school budgets.

There is still a deep distrust of using laptops and smart devices for learning purposes -- compounded by teacher technophobia and those that see little more than novelty in the use of such tools.

Whereas gesture-based computing can be far more than Angry Birds or Xbox games, it is still a struggle to prove the value of such technology. It may be more realistic to suggest that it will be the Gen-Y generation of education professionals that will be more comfortable using and appreciating the value of such advancements.

Although technology like Microsoft's Kinect can connect all dimensions of learning and appeal to a wider range of learner types, it cannot be done with a device alone. It requires the support of both education professionals and the system itself in order to invest in its potential, and in order to recognize this can be used as a process of learning, rather than merely a novelty or tool.

Image credit: Open Exhibits


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