Jani Holopainen: Technology helps turn learning into a personalised experience that leaves a strong memory trace

The more concrete the approach you can take to a complex topic, the wider the potential audience that can master that topic. At its best, digitalisation makes education more democratic, science more readily accessible and innovativeness more easily available to all.

Let’s imagine that as a child, you dreamed of becoming a doctor, but the moment you leafed through the entrance exam reading materials, you became convinced that you could never overcome the challenge ahead. What if, instead of learning from books, you could have studied the human body by picking up and examining bones, internal organs and molecules – or even by looking inside them? The seemingly disheartening task might just have turned into a doable and fascinating challenge.

Ultimately, learning is an emotional game. The more surprising, insightful or comprehensive the learning situation is, the easier it will be to remember the desired information. Although people have relied on learning from books or lectures for the past millennium, why not complement them with alternative methods that rely on digital technology?

Mixed reality introduced senses and experiences in teaching

In the Mixed Reality Hub of the University of Helsinki, we have spent the last couple of years researching how mixed reality (MR) could be applied to university education and industry. Mixed reality combines virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and modelled objects, thus offering new opportunities in multisensory experiential learning. The Mixed Reality Hub is located on the University’s City Centre Campus, and it welcomes all visitors interested in mixed reality.

Mixed reality offers delicious opportunities for both teaching and research, because it allows various different research and experimental designs to be implemented on one uncomplicated platform. To stretch the limits of your imagination, all you need to do is put on your virtual reality glasses and grab your game controller.

Virtual reality allows us to construct models of microscopic objects, such as atoms and bacteria, magnify them into any size, turn them around and even look inside them. Enormous objects that would otherwise never fit in a classroom, such as ships or forestry tractors, are also within easy reach in virtual reality.

New technologies promote a multidisciplinary approach

The possibilities of mixed reality are in no way limited to studying natural or technical sciences. In fact, the Mixed Reality Hub hosts a multidisciplinary group of researchers, digital tutors and master’s degree students from the different campuses of the University of Helsinki. The tools of mixed reality are currently being implemented in six courses in the following four fields: medicine, forest sciences, educational sciences and biological sciences.

One of our master's degree students is currently writing a thesis about how virtual reality could be used to boost the sales of apartments and the furniture of Artek, a Finnish furniture company. Together with the discipline of philosophy, we are looking into the possibility of creating virtual mind maps: new terms, large entities and complex systems are more easily understood if you can experience and explore them in a three-dimensional space.

The unquestionable asset of these digital learning methods is that they unite people regardless of their field. Mixed reality technologies are rapidly becoming increasingly scalable, thus expanding the walls of the classroom. Modern multi-player functions also enable multiple students to convene in virtual reality and work together on a shared challenge in real time, even across continents.

Mixed reality caters for different learners

At best, the new digital forms of learning make education more democratic, science more readily accessible and innovativeness more easily available to all. At their core, both universities and the business sector seek to understand complex issues and to create something new. The more concrete the approach you can take to such abstract matters, the more people can master them and thus further advance our society.

Using virtual technologies also allows non-theoretical learners to take in abstract wholes. Open online courses can include elements of mixed reality by, for example, including videos of the instructor modelling the topic in virtual reality. Through teacher education, new digital methods of teaching and learning are effectively carried over into the school world and society in general.

Technology does not change the experiences of learning and realisation, but it does offer us new ways to achieve these experiences. In my vision for the future, learning involves more of a do-it-yourself approach, with more room for tailoring. Thanks to virtual technologies, each learner can have a personalised experience that creates a strong, memorable impression. This approach will revolutionise teaching as we know it and unite people regardless of their background and field. And all of this is already a reality at the University of Helsinki.