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The rise of the digital natives


David Wortley takes a look at how the immersive technologies of video games, virtual worlds and social networks might impact learning and development over the next decade.

I first heard the phrase 'Where the eyeballs are' from Ron Edwards of Ambient Performance, a friend and fellow evangelist of the role of immersive technologies in learning and development. These few words articulate precisely how we can determine which technologies are most likely to influence learning and development over the next decade for it describes those technologies and applications into which we invest most of our discretionary time and money.
"The impact of immersive technologies is already being felt in the phenomenon of the so-called “Digital Native”: Young people born into an Information Society in which the internet, mobile phones, PDAs, MP3 players and personal computers already existed."

Investment of time and money shapes the direction and priorities of technology as consumers vote with their eyeballs and drive innovation in new directions based on our choice and preference. The immersive technologies of video games, virtual worlds and social networks are where most eyeballs are today and consequently it is these technologies which are likely to have the most significant impact on learning and development.

The main characteristics which immersive technologies are constantly refining and improving in order to “keep the eyeballs” are :
  • Customisation of the application experience to the individual
  • User interface devices and accessibility
  • Persistent user profiles and history
  • Serendipity and discovery
  • Data and sensory visualisation
  • Challenges and incentives
  • Tools for individual creative expression
None of these characteristics are being specifically refined to support learning and development (except within “serious games”), but all these characteristics will have an impact on technology enhanced learning in the next decade and this article describes just a few important examples.


Digital Natives and Immersive Technologies

One of the first impacts of immersive technologies is already being felt in the phenomenon of the so-called “Digital Native” or “Generation Y” learner. These young people were born into an Information Society in which the internet, mobile phones, PDAs, MP3 players and personal computers already existed. As a consequence, the use of these technologies is second nature and intuitive. There is medical evidence that young people’s brains are being “re-wired” for multi-tasking capabilities that already outstrip previous generations. Not only do young people seem capable of simultaneously listening to music, sending text messages, participating in multiple chat rooms and watching television, these multiple sensory inputs seem to be becoming an essential part of their learning process.

Whilst multi-tasking capabilities are a valuable part of learning and development, these skills may be being acquired at the expense of an ability to focus or concentrate at critical times or differentiate between the important and trivial. This clearly has implications for learning and development and the use of technologies which monitor brainwave activities (e.g. Neurosky) is already being researched as a mechanism for using immersive technologies to train the mind to concentrate.

Over the next decade, our understanding of and ability to use immersive technologies for improving the effectiveness of learning and development will become more refined and lead to a better blend of learning technologies and methodologies. It is also conceivable that brainwave monitoring devices like these might become part of a standard learning environment toolkit used as a feedback mechanism of the learner’s emotional state which could then influence the content and functions of the learning application.




Another impact of immersive technologies is the trend towards increased personalisation both by and for the individual. Current popular video games such as Guitar Hero, Virtual Worlds like Second Life and Social Network sites like Facebook all allow the user to create their own personal space so that the individual has control over their view and operation of the application. These personalisation techniques are being refined through the use of artificial intelligence so that the application is able to detect and respond to user abilities and preferences. Instead of asking the user to personalise the way the application works e.g. left or right handed user, the application is able to “intelligently” detect basic information from user behaviour.
In learning and development, this will lead to increased personalisation of environments to shape the content, pace and interactivity to optimise the motivation and retention of the learner. This personalisation will also be supplemented by better tools and techniques for supporting self-directed learning based on discovery of knowledge instead of “pushed” knowledge.

Persistent Transferable Learner Profiles

Profiling is another significant trend within immersive technologies. Social Networking sites especially rely on some initial profiling in order to add value to the user experience and facilitate connections between the user and other members of their community of interest. This initial profiling takes the form of the user completing information about themselves but is then refined by using artificial intelligence and the “wisdom of the crowd” to deliver new services to the user.
Currently these profiles are all specific to the application but I believe that learning and development applications could see the emergence of “industry standard” learner profiles (e-portfolios) that reflect the interests, preferences and abilities of the learner that can be transferred between learning and development applications.

In these and other ways the technologies and techniques used in video games, virtual worlds and social networks will have a major impact on how, what, why and where we all learn and develop.

David Wortley has been director of the Serious Games Institute at Coventry University - a centre of excellence for the emerging serious games application area - since November 2006. He has spoken at many international conferences on the information society, globalisation and the use of technology for sustainable social and economic development, and in 2009 he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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