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John Spencer

Dr John Spencer began his teaching career in 1981 armed with a Sinclair ZX81, thereby demonstrating two things at once: Firstly he was in at the very start of ICT in the classroom and secondly he is a sucker for duff technology. Thereafter he taught joining a start-up open source company as their Head of Education in 2002. Now John is bringing his iconoclastic disposition and tendency to throw a spanner in the works to blogging.

Will 3D visualisation improve results in the classroom?

Or are we barking up the wrong tree entirely?

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Yes, three-dimensional images may be on the way out in the cinema, but it’s not hard to find a biology teacher who bought a projector and found a 3D animation of the heart which was so inspiring it motivated his students to do better in a test.

On the surface, we have an example of how technology is working with education to motivate and engage students to improve learning outcomes in the classroom. If you are Mr Gove, you should respond positively to my selection of words in the previous sentence. If you are not, you should recognise the hijacking of contemporary edu-jargon by vendors and remain unmoved.

Vendor cries of "buy my 3D technology and your students will do better" may make us cynics laugh at teachers who just want their pupils to do well, but it is no worse a sales pitch than an improbable probability engine to beat the competition using obscure maths.

You can just ask HP how effective that was. Snake oil is such a great product we all fall for it from time to time.

A more serious problem however is the heady cocktail so prevalent education which comprises gullibility, naive procurement methods and recidivist behaviour. The procurement buttons of pupil performance are pressed just a little too often, never better illustrated than by the current fad for 3D.

The next big thing

We humans have learnt to interpret both still and animated 2D images, and can internally render them as 3D. So-called 3D cinema adds a stereoscopic dimension to an image that our brains can interpret as separate planes, artificially creating a perception of depth which would otherwise have to be inferred by other clues such as scale, colour intensity or hue.

Fifteen years ago, Dorling Kindersley produced a series of CDs for education which featured 3D animations, including a pumping heart. DK’s excellent CD proved two things at once, the first being that we can see a revolving 2D image in 3D, and secondly that you cannot make money from multimedia in this market. So that was that.

Adding planar dimensions to a 2D animation (making a heart float in space) adds almost nothing other than novelty floaty bits, but it is also overwhelmingly likely that no one is going to make money providing high quality 3D resources to schools. It looks like yet again we'll be left with two or three cool exemplars from initial enthusiasts to demonstrate on our 3D projectors twenty years on.

So what’s my problem? Ineffective spending, that’s my problem.

Keep spending

3D projectors cost between £250 and £1000. Most schools have invested very heavily in Interactive Whiteboards with 2D data projectors at great cost to the taxpayer (£2-3,000 a go) and the market is now saturated.

They were sold incredibly successfully to schools as exemplars of how computers would enhance learning outcomes, engagement, etc. All nonsense of course, but when something is so expensive heretics would be burnt for saying so, and as far as I know still are.

Any growth in the ‘educational display’ market is now perceived by the major vendors as coming from moving to 3D. Hence my ambitious biology teachers’ success in improving test results on the back of a transient interest from pampered pupils. Expect far more ‘studies’ showing the same improvement just to flog a few projectors.

At this point I probably sound like a Luddite, but nothing could be further from the truth. Of course I recognise that 3D projection will become the norm in science and technology and will find a role in schools, it’s just I don’t want them sold as a panacea for our educational ills as so much technology has been in the past.

So, seriously, what do we want from high tech displays in schools?

Educational displays

There are two types of display historically used in teaching.

One is for a mass audience (blackboard, whiteboard, clip chart, projector screen, IWB 2D, IWB 3D) and the other is for individuals (textbooks, worksheets, PCs, laptops, netbooks, tablets, e-readers).

Fifty years ago we had large displays of text, images, movies, music and broadcast multimedia in classrooms. Today’s versions differ only in that the many devices have become the few, and analogue has been replaced by digital.

Hopefully within ten years large-scale digital displays in school will be sufficiently advanced to write and draw on as well as on a chalk board and be able to display movies in two or three dimensions. That’s nice, but from an educational point of view less a revolution than a format shift like vinyl to MP3 or Super 8 to MPEG.

It’s limited because there is only so much that can be achieved through mass presentation. I mean, how different are PowerPoint presentations versus my Kodak slide shows? Mass presentation does not allow for individual rates of learning in the same way as a textbook.

The missing link in the display market is the modern individual display. No one seriously wishes any more to disrupt a classroom by providing a PC per child, although I must remind everyone it was not long ago that that actually was the aim. A few still aspire to the ‘one laptop per child’ version of the above, but in reality this idea is dead and everyone relies on the worksheet and the textbook.

Thus the obvious gap is the individual display that combines textbooks, worksheets, multimedia and the web in digital form. After all schools have invested very heavily in content delivery infrastructure (Intranets, extranets, VLEs etc) which would be ideal for personal displays, but have none to deliver it to.

The obvious answer is the tablet/slate e-reader browser device. It’s so obvious that you have to wonder why it has not happened. Where are the headlines ‘biology teacher gets 17.5% better results in a test when students had tablet computers’?

There are two answers to this puzzle. First is that tablets are still too expensive, and secondly the publishing houses are reluctant to let go of the lucrative paper textbook market.

This situation cannot last and soon all students will have a personal digital display device. Maybe Amazon’s £120 loss leader has what it takes. Such a move would enable schools to buy new technology, so that up to date education content can be delivered to students conveniently and above all cheaply.

Cheaply that is, if the textbook market cartel is broken. How about nationalising GCSE textbooks and release them as epubs?

Then one might be able to see real enhancements in student performance. Forget 3D for the time being and start pushing for 2D tablets, one per child.

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