A Possible Future for Distance Education

Chris Lee over at Are Technica recently wrote an article outlining a number of the issues that are facing both teachers and students when it comes to remote learning. Every point that he makes is spot on and, what's worse, is that a lot of the comments that people have left in the few hours since the article went live are also spot on. Educational institutions and teachers of all stripes have made some admirable efforts to make systems like Zoom, Teams, Slack, and a host of others work to replicate some aspects of in-person learning, but these tools are designed for business use and, damningly, they're not even very good tools for business. Suffice it to say, the current crop of digital tools that people are expected to use to conduct person-to-person lessons are a poor substitute for being in a classroom, regardless of how many people might be occupying that space. As Chris says, teaching is an intimate activity.

What's the solution, though?

This is a question that I've been thinking about for quite some time and not only because I work for an education-providing organisation. Chris Lee and the commentators are all correct that the tools we have need to be better in order to resolve some of the fundamental problems faced when trying to replicate a traditional environment — whether it's a classroom or a meeting room — on a laptop, tablet, or phone. First, let's list out some of the most common problems that create the friction we all despise:

  1. Camera angles are unflattering
  2. People don't mute their microphones
  3. People don't attend while in an appropriate environment
  4. The sound quality is generally awful
  5. Eye contact is literally impossible
  6. Visual cues and subtle body language is much harder to pick up on
  7. Note-taking (and sharing) is a pain when it's not 100% text presented in a list format
  8. The tools have complex, convoluted, or otherwise confusing sets of menus to perform typically common activities for online meetings
  9. We have no idea who is paying attention or currently present

We can even reduce these nine items down further to:

  1. What we see is suboptimal
  2. What we hear is suboptimal
  3. What we use is suboptimal

Mind you, there are some groups of people who have had so much experience with online meetings and seminars that many of the items listed above are non-issues. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule. How would one go about resolving some of these issues, though?

What We See

A year or so back I started toying with the idea of an application that would first map our face to build a 3-dimensional understanding of what we look like, then present that to people. Our current facial expressions and mouth movements would be tracked and sync up with whatever it is that we're doing and, because it's essentially a living avatar that's being presented to the other people on the call, a person's angle and eyes could be better lined up for the viewer. The participants would all have their cameras on, after all, so it wouldn't be impossible to have an on-screen avatar's head and eyes "follow" the current location of the participants. This would be rendered locally, too, making it relatively smooth and natural in appearance. This would have the added bonus of giving people the option to "tweak" their appearance for the day. Didn't shave? No problem! Still in your pyjamas? Don't worry about it. The avatar will look just like you on your best day.

This would solve items 1 and 5 in the first list above, but probably contribute to number six.

What We Hear

One of the most frustrating elements of every meeting that I attend online is the sound quality. A lot of people do not use a headset with a microphone for some reason and a lot of people do not seem to realise that typing on a laptop that has its microphone built into the base of the unit results in a painfully distracting series of taps that can bring any productive conversation to a halt. I've had meetings with people who were obviously sitting at a Starbucks. I've had meetings with people who were driving down a highway with their windows open. I've even had meetings with people who might have been at an outdoor rock concert. There really is no limit to the number of inopportune environments a participant might find themselves in when attending an online class, seminar, or meeting.

With this in mind, the solution I have been toying with builds on the visual idea of using a rendered avatar. A person would "train" the avatar to speak in their voice. There would be a multitude of sentences that a person would have to say when first setting up the application so that the general tone and pitch of the voice is captured. By doing this it becomes possible to send none of the audio from a person to the participants in the class, seminar, or meeting. Instead, the words that are spoken would be transcribed and transmitted as text along with a musical representation of what they said. This would then be reconstructed on each of the participant's devices. This would mean that people in very noisy environments would sound incredibly flat to the listeners, but it would be superior to the cacophony that so many of us are subjected to with today's solutions.

This would not be a great solution for people who need to convey sound that is not spoken words, but there is no reason why people couldn't choose to listen to the raw audio if they so chose.

What We Use

This is the hardest of the three fundamental problems because different groups need different solutions. What works for a class consisting of 30 teenagers learning geography may not necessarily work for 15 young adults practicing the violin or 10 middle-aged managers discussing next month's production quotas. However, if we take the first two technical solutions and carry it forward, what we could have is something very compelling: Virtual Reality.

When it comes to VR — and its related technology, Augmented Reality — I have been a bit of a cynic. The hardware requirements were always too great for the average person and the use cases all seemed to consist of graphically violent games or vivid sexual fantasies. However, if the goal is to simulate a traditional environment as much as possible to enable or encourage an intimate setting where people come together to solve a problem, be it learning the quadratic equation or discussing corporate strategy, and many of the problems that people have involve poor visuals, poor audio, and poor tools, then perhaps an immersive setting would resolve some of the issues. People would have the ability to write on virtual whiteboards, present virtual models of possible products for participants to examine, and more. The cost for VR equipment has come down quite a bit since 2010 with some headsets being available for around $300 USD. This cost would certainly be a barrier to entry for some, but this could solve some of the problems that people face when working with colleagues a continent away or with classmates who are quarantined.

But then we have many of these technologies already, don't we? Second Life is an online world with almost a million people. The platform would not be a panacea, but it is one place to start. Issues involving system resources, frame rates, and congestion would need to be resolved before groups of more than a dozen could get together in any meaningful manner, but technical issues are rarely insurmountable. Something like this might be the stepping stone to a better virtual learning environment. Some schools have a presence on the platform already, too.

Further research will be necessary.