holobox “thrilling” students . . . I have a bad feeling about this . . .

That clip from Star Wars

I am old enough to be young when the first Star Wars was released. I still remember the excitment of seeing the glitchy hologram images of Princess Leia, then the thrill of seeing her whole message. Wow, in a galaxy far away they knew how to communicate.

And now, as no doubt many of you will have seen in this Guardian article earlier this week, the dream of 3-D has is becoming reality in a university not so far away from me. The holobox technology developed by LA based start up Proto has been making inroads with its holographic box technology for the last couple of years. From the quick search I’ve done, it does look quite impressive and the box idea is a great way to create shadows to increase the 3-D effect. Of course this technology is going to revolutionise “everything”. It’s another future education moment, providing the future of online education, allowing “teachers to connect with unlimited students around the world.”

I think I may have heard this line before, but at least they’re not saying yet this will mean the death of the university. This future is not going to let the lecture die, the future is one to many, mass distribution. We’ll work out the cost, the access to tech/networks later . . .and not bother with that in our promos.

screen grab on image with text "future of onliline learning"

But wait, not only that, the “expert beaming” this box offers also increases engagement. Apparently “the engagement and interaction our holographic display achieves is unprecedented

screen shot of web page with words "expert beaming means more attention"

I couldn’t find any stats to back up how this unprecedented engagement is measured, and I will caveat that with the fact that I didn’t look that hard! But I did pick up that the system uses tech that can distinguish viewers based on age and sex, which as they point out is really handy for personalised advertising, bringing you the “stuff” that’s appropriate to your demographic. So that’s alright then, because there’s no problem with bias in algorithms used in facial recognition. Just pop that into the education offering with a bit of eye tracking and bingo – engagement stats.

The technology can also bring people back from the dead. The Guardian article includes this:

“David Nussbaum, who founded Proto four years ago after working on dead-celebrity holograms, said his company could soon bring some of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers back from the dead.

He said: “Proto has the technology to project an image of Stephen Hawking, or anybody, and make it look like he’s really there. We can hook it up to books, lectures, social media – anything he was attached to, any question, any interaction with him. An AI Stephen Hawking would look like him, sound like him and interact like it was him.

But who controls the interaction? Who is responsible for the curation, the fact checking? How do we teach using this technology allowing students to make sense of the mass of information and make critical judgements? This point was raised in the article too and I was pleased to see this quote included:

Gary Burnett, a professor of digital creativity at Loughborough University, said: “Different immersive technologies and AI are the new forms of literacy. Students need to understand what it means to use those, to be in those worlds, to experience them, to interact … and these are all things they’re going to need for their future careers.”

But the headline was all about the ‘thrill’ that students were experiencing with the box. I do wonder about that ‘thrill’ – and how long it will last. Just now it might be more thrilling to have a guest lecturer appear 3-d like on a box on the wall than a 2-D version on a big screen. But how long will that thrill last? What meaningful engagement will result from the lecture?

Now, I don’t want to knock this technology completely. I can see the potential for 3-d holographic images in education, we’ve been working with developing technology around simulations and improved real time communication for decades now. I can also see the potential for us all to have our own Princess Leia hologram moment. But the hologram technology itself is not our only hope. Like any technology we need to work with educators and students to understand how to use this technology most effectively for learning and to increase our understanding of what effective engagement in education is, and what data really matters to our understanding of that.

In theory it’s great that “experts” can appear (almost) like they are are in the room, anywhere in the world, but who has access to a room that has that technology? What language is being used? Do students know what data the system is accessing from/about them? We need to be mindful of equity, accessibility and the cost of this type of technology. And until the headline lines messages and actual evidence of companies like Proto include more about this I will always have a bad feeling about anything claiming to be the future of education.

4 thoughts on “holobox “thrilling” students . . . I have a bad feeling about this . . .”

  1. Yes, I picked up he Guardian article yesterday as well. Your piece looks longer than the article, probably because you put in all the points the article left out. Like you I’m not fully convinced yet, for example the emphasis on ‘the lecture’ and ‘name lecturers’ as the be all and end all of the university experience. So, no mention of the reality of designing a course out of a variety of activities to produce a coherent set of learning experiences called a degree. In essence no change from the long established media and political stereotyping of ‘the university’ as ‘ the lecture’ albeit wrapped up in a ‘thrilling’ holographic ‘interaction’.

    Still a positive article given that the Guardian has been running with reports about the threats to universities posed by funding problems, over-reliance on overseas students etc. There has also been commentary on the need for a system review to address the various problems in the sector built up over a decade. A recent review in Australia providing a timely nudge in that direction.

    So, technology, funding and review gives us a neat triangulation of the dynamics of university education, which is a bit more useful than banging on about culture wars and wokery. Especially as we are looking at an election year in the UK, when you would hope the future of higher education will be high on the agenda. That said a promise of a review could be an easy win on the campaign trail, but even easier to ‘vanish’ once the election is over. Maybe a simple pairing of tech/funding will be closer to the likely realpolitik?

    Anyway, the mention in the Guardian article of professor Burnett’s comment “Different immersive technologies and AI are the new forms of literacy.” is interesting given the proliferation of ‘literacies’ in educational discourse over the years. Perhaps scope to get a perspective from Information Literacy drawing down on the decades of research and practice available?

  2. Talk about problems of literacy with an article launched with the “thrilling” headline and not a whiff of anything to support it. Bleccch.

    I’m just as old to match your Star Wars memory. I was in 9th grade, and in Miss Walker’s English class we were studying the genre of American Western stories. She told us one day we would have a field trip to a movie theater to watch a new Western.

    It was “Star Wars”! Miss Walker said nothing of space ships, robots, no tech thrills. The lesson was in the story. The thrill was the experience so much I can remember her name and visualize our classroom.

    Once again it’s hyped that the modality of a communication makes a difference. Yet I’ve dozed through dull presentstions using thrilling gizmos and sat on the edge of my seat in talks where a person just… talked.

    Will the Guardian be there when https://youtu.be/4fk2prKnYnI

    1. Wow – you got taken to see Star Wars – amazing! That would never have happened in my primary school. And you are so right -the shiny is just a distraction from what makes a truly engaging and memorable learning experience.

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