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The Immersive Classroom
What if a classroom could be more like a theme park? The ever-evolving nature of education means educators are constantly seeking to develop new and innovative methods to effectively engage with and deliver curriculum to students. With the challenges of the global pandemic forcing a radical change in learning environments and a significant decline in on-campus participation, never has the need for innovation in education been more pressing or pertinent.
AOA Conceptual Classroom Rendering
What if a classroom could be more like a theme park? Perhaps not in the sense of roller coasters and turkey legs, but instead by way of inviting students to learn in a devised setting that is engaging, immersive, and experiential. An ambitious thought, to be sure, but one that has led the industry-leading team at AOA to explore how the lessons of themed experience design could contribute to the concept of a “Classroom of Tomorrow.” The ever-evolving nature of education means educators are constantly seeking to develop new and innovative methods to effectively engage with and deliver curriculum to students. With the challenges of the global pandemic forcing a radical change in learning environments and a significant decline in on-campus participation, never has the need for innovation in education been more pressing or pertinent.
Tom Acomb, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Executive, sees these challenges as an opportunity to utilize the collective knowledge and experience at AOA to support and enrich the future of education, applying the same skills used to create immersive worlds of entertainment, dining, and retail towards developing a more immersive classroom.
Over the last several years, the themed experience industry has demonstrated a clear commitment towards creating continually more immersive and highly themed environments. The recent successes of Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley have set a new standard for entertainment experiences due in no small part to their ability to tell stories within a themed physical space. Visiting guests are transported to other worlds, allowing them to physically experience a story in which they are now invited to play a part. Audiences in these spaces are continually absorbing and connecting with the contextual information of the environment on multiple sensory levels, even subconsciously. In this way, a designed environment can both actively and passively prepare, deliver, and reinforce a given narrative to an engaged audience, even going so far as to result in an emotional response.
Given what we know about creating themed experiences, we at AOA aim to innovate classroom learning by reshaping how students are engaged in their education, believing that an experiential approach is a powerful tool with which to demonstrate and communicate complex ideas in a deeper and more meaningful way. When students’ senses and emotions are activated alongside their learning, information becomes “stickier,” easier and more efficient to recall and reinforce.
AOA has partnered with the University of Central Florida to test an advanced classroom experience within the College of Medicine, lending our storytelling expertise, technological integration, and live production savvy. Dr. Bill DeCampli, a Professor of Surgery at UCF and the Chief of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery and Co-Director of the Heart Center at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, believes that, “the use of creative ways to inspire students in their medical studies will be paramount to reengage campus life in a post-pandemic academic world.”
Working with Dr. Daniel Topping, Associate Professor of Medicine, and colleague Dr. John Langdon, the course “Psychosocial Issues in Healthcare” has become the testing ground for these ideas. In this class, first-year medical students learn about human development, lifestyle medicine, social issues in healthcare, ethics, and other important issues they could encounter when working with patients. Dr. Topping notes that these topics, based heavily in social interaction, are especially difficult to teach in an online setting. “Society is in the middle of a natural experiment,” says Dr. Topping, “where virtual learning has been foisted upon us. However, this is the perfect opportunity to seize upon the current challenges to develop solutions that will have a lasting impact on how teaching and learning is done.”
Breaking free of the gridded view with which online students have grown accustomed, a large lecture hall has been rearranged like the set of a television show, with talk-show style seats for the professors and presenters (complete with a large houseplant). Employing controllable 4K cameras positioned throughout the classroom, the presentation now takes on the polished look of a multi-camera television production. Michael Pugh and Ryan Retherford, members of the UCF Health Information Technology team, have been instrumental in the process, acting as live switchers in the classroom, able to select and control camera views that feed into the online platform where students are watching. The presenter likewise can see a live feed of the student participants on multiple large television screens set up around the classroom.
Professors and guest speakers are able to seamlessly combine their education materials, lectures, and interactive activities. Dr. Topping likes to add his own personal flair to the sessions, often playing guitar and singing songs (that correspond to the topic of the day) at the beginning and ends of each class.
The results have already proven to be a more engaging and dynamic classroom experience for the students, who are eager to show up to class to see what surprises will occur next. Dr. Langdon is inspired by the preliminary outcomes of this new arrangement. “In spite of the virtual nature, I felt the students were well connected to the material and the presenters,” he says.
As the classroom project continues, the team looks to test the further integration of other common themed experience technologies and approaches. For example, medical students would benefit from opportunities to more accurately simulate real life situations and settings. Creating an immersive classroom that can recreate, say, an operating room’s sights, sounds, scents, lighting, temperature, and other conditions would conceivably better prepare students for the physical skills and emotional pressures they would encounter in the real world.
On the other side of the coin, an advanced classroom could head in a more virtual direction as well. Utilizing a standard virtual reality headset, for instance, students could take part in a virtual learning environment that allows them to engage with peers and instructors in a shared 3D space. With the capability of modern game engines to render environments in real-time, that space could conceivably become anything that the instructors can imagine.
While technology does play a big part in the execution of these experiences, it is important to note that tech isn’t the sole focus. Paul Bailey, Managing Director of AOA’s Los Angeles office, emphasizes that technology is merely another tool with which to creatively solve problems and enrich storytelling, or, as he puts it, “technology is just another set of crayons.” Led by Paul, The Innovation and Technology Lab at AOA LA continues to research and develop the emerging technologies that will shape these future experiences. Applying technologies commonly used in the themed experience world to the realm of education invites students to better participate and connect with their learning, and could one day transform methods of classroom instruction beyond just virtual spaces.
AOA has always thrived at the intersection of art and technology. By bringing together cutting edge technologies with exceptionally crafted storytelling, we can continue to create environments that amuse, inspire, and ultimately educate.
AOA’s endeavor with the College of Medicine is a natural continuation of our existing relationship with the recently formed UCF Themed Experience MFA program. Through membership on the program’s professional advisory board, AOA is helping to shape academic curriculum and provide development opportunities to cultivate the next generation of themed experience designers.
AOA Conceptual Attraction Rendering