A Look at The Future of Online Instruction


Photo credit: abbynormy on flickr.

Note: This is a collaborative blog posting made possible by PBworks. The concept behind this posting began with an innocent tweet from a few weeks back, in which I noted that my daughter asked me for knitting instruction.

Introduction

Want to learn how to knit, but don’t have an instructor available? The first place you’d probably turn is your preferred search engine. And after a search or two, you’d likely come across KnittingHelp.com.

On this site, you can find written content, a forum and a collection of excellent how-to videos. And while the content and videos are quite good, what if you wanted a little more hand-holding?

For instance, elementary or middle school students looking to knit for the first time may not know where to start. They’d prefer an after-school class or private instruction to get them started. Let’s consider a few web-based solutions that could address these aspiring knitters.

Real-Time Video Instruction

Instead of “on-demand videos” (the KnittingHelp.com model), a student could connect with an instructor over a real-time video conference, using systems such as Skype or Facetime.

A flexible webcam would work best, one that can seamlessly alternate between two angles: (a) a view of the participant’s face and (b) a view of the knitting needles. This way, the session can begin with instructor and student seeing each other face to face, which is important to establishing a comfort level with one another.

Then, with both webcams focused on their respective knitting needles, the instructor could perform a few steps, while watching the student follow along. Real-time video (and audio) allows the instructor to provide constant and immediate feedback, which can facilitate more productive learning.

Real-Time Immersive Knitting

Next, imagine a 3D immersive environment, in which the instructor’s avatar meets the student’s avatar. Using mouse or keyboard controls to manipulate the knitting needles and yarn, the instructor and student can take turns with “immersive knitting.”

Much like an online meeting in which the presenter “passes the ball,” the instructor can “pass the needle” to the student to take control and practice knitting. While the immersiveness can be useful to visualize the proper knitting procedure, it’s not as effective as handling the needles and yarn with one’s own hands.

(A comment from Jim Reilly [Twitter])

“I see this as having little value – why use a new language (using computer keys) to knit, so that you then have to translate back to the original language (knitting needles) when you actually want to learn the skill and create something real?

I would also suggest including an example of how this technology could be employed so the motions detected through the motion sensors could be translated, through a modified knitting machine (substitute potter’s wheel for another of your examples) to deliver a product, almost in real-time, on the other side of the world.

The possibilities for physically disabled people to use the immersive environment and associated tools to create art and functional items is also worthy of note.”

Real-Time Immersive Knitting with Motion Detection

This scenario can be thought of as “3D immersive environment meets Microsoft Kinect.” Imagine the same 3D immersive environment, but using a motion-sensing device such as Microsoft’s Kinect.

Now, you can handle virtual knitting needles and watch the resulting scarf and sweater on the screen.  A Kinect device on the instructor’s workstation allows her to “take control” of the knitting. Together, instructor and student can knit collaboratively – imagine the interesting sweaters and garments they could create and then sell in Second Life or IMVU!

Alternatively, imagine a “real” (physical) ball of yarn, with “real” (physical) needles, working in conjunction with a motion detection system. As the student knits, the instructor sees a digital representation of the yarn/needles and can provide instruction based on the student’s knitting motions.

But Can Knitting Students “Really” Learn this Way?

(The following segment was contributed by Heidi Thorne [website] [Twitter])

When I was about 9, I learned to knit from my dad (yes, my dad!). That was in the physical “real” space. When I didn’t know how to do something, I could ask OR I referred to books. My how things have changed! It would have been so helpful to have a KnittingHelp.com resource around.

Interestingly, I didn’t learn to do the stitches (English) exactly as shown in the video. It looks somewhat awkward. But I think it points to an important aspect of online instruction, whether it be online video, real-time immersive, or with motion detection: It standardizes the way things are done, detail by detail.

Old-time (like 40-50 years ago) books would show here’s what the work looks like at step 1, then what it should look like at step 2, and the part between step 1 and 2 was somewhat of a mystery. It’s really difficult to turn mystery into mastery! So in that sense, yes, I think these new virtual learning models have incredible potential.

As noted earlier, knitting, like many other tactile arts, is difficult to translate into mouse and keyboard controls. So the real-time immersive knitting, without motion detection, has limited utility in this case. A 3D immersive environment which uses Microsoft Kinect type technology presents possibilities.

But, again, learning to deal with the tactile sensation of fibers, which can be uniquely uneven by default or design, is missing. It’s similar to driver’s ed simulators. Yes, you can drive along perfectly and the virtual traffic behaves. In the real world, well, traffic is less polite.

In sum, I believe that these technologies are excellent for early learning experiences since they take away some of the bumps and bruises that go with it, creating confidence through success on a small scale and at a faster pace.

“Hands-On” Practice

(The following segment was contributed by Jenise Fryatt [website] [Twitter])

I believe there is great value in methods of teaching that actually give you practice while using your hands. I believe there is research that shows that using your hands actually helps the brain to think better. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/hand.htm

I also believe that when the mind experiences the sensation of doing something, whether it be flying a plane in a simulation or laughing at failure in an improv game, the same neural pathways are created as are created in real life. Thus games and simulations can be amazingly effective teaching tools. I don’t think we’ve even begun to explore all they may be capable of accomplishing.

Conclusion

In addition to knitting instruction, the technology models we’ve outlined (above) could also apply to guitar instruction, pottery, painting and more. With technologies such as video, 3D immersion and motion detection, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

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