“Pivoting” isn’t just an industry term anymore – in the wake of COVID-19, educators have had to pivot as well, quickly adopting XR collaboration and video conferencing technologies just to teach their students. Educational consultant and innovation director James McCrary explains how his most important work lately is just making sure teachers and parents are adjusting to the new norm.
Julie: Ok. Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach, using XR technologies to explore, enhance, and individualize learning for everyone. Today, my guest, James McCrary, is an educator located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And since 2012, he began presenting at state, regional, and national conferences such as LAC– what–
James: Yeah, that’s LACU.
Julie: LACU! And FETC and CUE and ISTE, on topics around 3D and immersion technology. He is a co-founder of Singularity Media Group, which specializes in spatial awareness, and learning in augmented and virtual reality. He also hosts the VR podcast in Simulation Live, discussing the impact of immersion technology. In 2019, he was recognized as an Apple Distinguished Educator and Google Certified Educator for his work integrating immersion technology into the classroom and positively impacting students globally. Recently, he began partnering with LSU College of Education, Faculty and Research on virtual reality with pre-service educators, and as the incoming president of ISTE Virtual Environments. Thanks so much for joining me, James.
James: Oh yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I mean, I love talking about this stuff. And so I think podcasting just lends itself to me just kind of rambling on a little bit, so… [chuckles]
Julie: [laughs] Amazing. Well, there’s so many things to talk about in education today. And I know I’d love for you to share with our listeners a little bit about what you do on a daily basis, and how you’re making the biggest impact as your role of director of technology and working with schools in Louisiana to introduce immersive technologies.
James: Primarily, right now my direct role is I am a director technology at — essentially — an elementary school through fifth grade. And the thing that we focused on the most right now is a augmented reality, both in terms of consumption and creation. And I work with other schools in the area. I’m very fortunate to have really good relationships with a lot of other directors of technology, not just in our area, but in our surrounding extended metro area, in our state, even in surrounding states. And I’ve been kind of adopted [chuckles] by other organizations in Florida and California that have graciously allowed me to interact with their schools, their students, and their teachers to kind of go beyond just AR and looking at other type of spatial learning, using things like head mounted display, VR experiences, both in terms of consumption and also creation and collaboration. And so on a daily basis, throughout the day, I’m working with teachers and students, obviously with their technology needs, but also integrating the AR methodologies, primarily using things like CoSpaces and Merge EDU — that’s two of the biggest ones that we use — but also in the evenings, and on weekends, and times that I take off with other schools to implement those other levels of technology that we just talked about.
Julie: That’s great. I have to ask, how has that role changed for you since Covid has changed the way that students learn? You know, implementing that into schools is obviously a challenge *without* having a pandemic being a part of the solution.
James: It’s– [chuckles] Well, I’ll tell you, my sleeping schedule is very bizarre. It is not normal. But it has been interesting. I like to consider myself a techie. I love technology. And it’s obviously what brought me out of the classroom and into this role of technology and being able to lead people in that. But I will tell you that even with kind of seeing some of this coming, just paying attention to what was happening in China, I don’t think that I was physically and emotionally prepared for what was going to come, when our governor had closing schools and issuing the stay at home. Which — on the record — I’m 100 percent behind, I think it’s necessary. But I have found myself doing remote work that I felt that I’d actually enjoy greatly. But it is a little taxing if you’re not used to it and it’s a little bit of a change from going to a physical place. And so a lot of my time for the first two or three weeks was just making sure that our– that all of our teachers and administrators were okay with what we were doing. That they feel comfortable communicating with their students, with their parents, and then spending a lot of time during that — and even after that and continuing still — talking to our parents. Are they comfortable? Because thinking about elementary school, it’s– you’re communicating a lot more with the parents and making sure that they’re OK. Because they’re staying at home, they’re working, but they also have children that they’re now becoming the de facto educator in their child’s life. And you’re trying to make sure that they’re mentally OK, and that they’re not overwhelmed with the things that are being sent out to them, and just trying to be mindful. So I think the biggest shift for me during this whole process has been less about the technology, and more about developing relationships through distance, which has been an interesting concept to grasp. It’s more psychological in nature. So that’s really been the biggest shift that I’ve seen.
Julie: That’s so interesting, how something like this can shift your whole role — essentially — to such an important– part of the puzzle is that mental well-being. I have lots of conversations about the biggest investment in education right now we need to give is the investment of well-being for our teachers, and making sure that their knowledge transfer can be brought to a remote presence for these children who are learning from home. And their role continues to hold its value. And also they transition into the demand and need that the kids are now asking of them, as well as the parents asking of them. And then on top of that, these teachers have their own families at home, some of them with toddlers running at their feet.
James: Yes. [laughs]
Julie: It’s an unbelievable situation when you start to tell the story about that. So good for you for supporting teachers that way. And I hope that is something that’s continued through every community and region and education system globally, to recognize teachers in that sense too, making sure they’re OK. And then on top of that, making sure parents are OK. Everybody’s affected by this pandemic — in one way or another — in so many different ways. And right now the ability to transfer those lessons into a remote learning package that works for everybody functionally is an overwhelming thought.
James: We’ve talked before about that word, “pivot”. It’s not just for industry anymore. It is for education. There’s a lot of pivoting happening. And that word you use — “functionality” — is the big component. I think the functionality of how we’re doing distance learning — whether it’s online, whether it’s analog or whatever the case may be — you have to be really quick on feedback on being able to pivot what you’re doing as an educator, as a leader, as a parent, as a student, to making sure that all the parties involved are growing in terms of not just academics, but also in relationship or most importantly, foundationally, emotionally.
Julie: So that leads to a really important part of what you do is immersive education, both in the storytelling and understanding the power of being spatially present. Last year I wrote an article, actually, and it was about “it’s time to teach in an voxels instead of pixels” and engaging into three-dimensional learning, that we live in a three-dimensional world, why are we not teaching it? Obviously, there’s a lot of people who have us that way. And this is the introduction to spatial learning. And now that we’re being moved into this remote presence of learning from home — or working from home — being spatially present and having that engagement and understanding the humanics behind it. And I use that term, it’s a brand new one that I’m trying to socialize, because it’s the engagement of having the ability to speak freely, just as you and I are having this conversation. But then also understanding the data analytics behind us and the technologies that are taking place that immerse us into this experience. So how do we build humanics into our spatial presence, and be engaged in these immersive experiences to get the most out of what they’re intended to do?
James: The interesting thing– and I love that word. I don’t think I’ve actually heard it. And when you said it, it resonated with me. As soon as you said it, I knew exactly what it meant. I’m not sure if it’s a real word.
Julie: Actually, it’s funny. If you look it up, if you type it into a Google doc, it will spell “humanics” wrong, which is so ironic. You’ll have to try that, because spell check won’t even accept humanics, which is almost like– it’s the rebuttal of the robot ecosystem, they’re saying, “No, they can’t learn that word!” [laughs]
James: I would tell spellcheck the same thing that Thor said, which is “all words are made up.” OK?
James: So just go with that. But I think that it really is an interesting thing to think about. Dr. Jeremy Bailenson — who have just immense respect for — he has been talking about this video conferencing fatigue that we have. And it’s not something that’s just that he’s talking about, a lot of people are talking about. And that’s kind of like our stepping stone into trying to have the spatial presence is, “Oh, I’m going to go beyond just a phone conversation. I’m going to have video.” The problem is we are face to face with each other, almost video conferencing things in a very unnatural way for extended periods of time. I mean, we’re not all like people in a newscast, where that’s just the norm, where cameras are our faces and we’re seeing people up close and we’re having to kind of engage. And he has a solution that he mentions on that. But it really got me thinking in terms of what spatial presence is and what spatial learning looks like. And it’s multifaceted. But one of the components that I think about, we think about collaboration is OK, you have Zoom, you have Google Meets, then you have Teams, you have things like that. How can you take that to the next level, where you can create that natural distance that you have, like when we’re having conversations face to face where you can look away, you can pull away, or whatever. And that would be something like Engage, which I love Engage. I think Engage is one of the best platforms for VR that allows me to go in, and I can walk up– if Julie’s in Engage and I’m in Engage, I can walk up and have a conversation with you. But so-and-so is over there, and I’m going to go, I’m walk over and talk to them. Or if I want to pull away from the conversation, I will. I’ll go and I’ll sit somewhere else. And all the while I can still engage as much as I want, but I can also pull back from that. And that’s just a little snippet of what does spatial really mean, and what does it add to the conversation? And how does it add to — to steal the word — humanics? I think that’s what it does, it allows us to be natural but also be present.
Julie: Yeah. And another thing to add to Engage, I think one of the most momentous moments for me when I was a part of just recently the Educators In VR International Summit, and I was onstage with my husband and partner, Alan Smithson, and I was being interviewed by Steve Bambury. And then Daniel Dyboski-Bryant — who is producing the event with Lorelle [VanFossen] — came on stage, and reached out and shook my hand, and it vibrated.
James: [chuckles] The haptics.
Julie: Yeah. And this is where haptics in those interactions start to happen, where it feels real. And I remember just feeling a tingle. And I have to say that, because that’s how I felt. Daniel was in the UK and I was here in my house in Toronto, Canada, and I felt that handshake in my hand. And it’s that moment of, “Wow, I’m here. And I felt that.” And this is where interactions start to happen that bring us into the spatial presence. And haptics are certainly going to play a huge part of it.
Julie: But it also starts with the mind and it starts with that mindfulness of being able to be present, engage, and to kind of have a relationship with the technology, that you’re comfortable enough to be there. That’s a huge part of something that we’re working on at XR Collaboration right now. The project that I’m producing — if you want to take a look at that, xrcollaboration.com — that’s featuring over 70 different collaboration platforms that are meant for both industry and education. And the discovery of how to be there in a collaboration space is a conversation that’s starting to spark up a lot, because I think we need people to feel that in order to have the success of collaboration and communication. We have to have them feel that, or else we’re not going to reach the goals of what the purpose of collaborating is.
James: You know, when you get down to it — and I don’t want to nerd out too much on this — but there’s no difference between what we have in the touch sensory, like the energy that travels through to let us know from our senses that we’re touching something, versus the electronic signals that are sent over long distances over the Internet from one controller to the next to create haptics. There’s not much difference. The only thing is the input methodologies are not as advanced as what they’re going to be in the coming years. But when you felt that you were probably the same way when I felt that the first time was, “Wow, that’s amazing.” But instantly you start thinking about what the potential is from that.
James: And you go, “Oh my gosh. This is where we’re at right now. What is it going to be like in four years, five years, 20 years from now? What is that going to look like?” And you start to really understand that something like this pandemic happens again in 20 years. We may be — as a world, as humans — be more prepared for that, in terms of the impact that social distancing is having on us emotionally right now, the impact it’s having on education right now, the impact it’s having on the economy right now. Where, “Okay, great. All right. Well, we’re just gonna continue doing what we’re gonna do, and we’re gonna do it using digital spatial presence.”
Julie: Exactly. Let’s draw back to our little K-12s. The future of all of this entire ecosystem and the future of humanity. And how do we engage with them with some of the barriers that we have, not just only with the school systems and Privacy Acts and things like that, but how do we use this technology to the best benefit? So I’d love to hear about some of the things that you’re discussing, and how do you suggest to introduce K-12 into your immersive technology?
James: It is– one of the things, and especially my teachers, when they hear this, they’ll probably say “Mm-hm!” I’m a real stickler for things like privacy policies and terms of service, because I’m really interested with how the data that is being collected. Because now that data is en masse, like it is a ton of data, especially when it comes to spatial learning. There’s a lot of data that is occurring. And how much of that is user data versus programming data is up for debate, but I’m really concerned about that, especially for our young students. And so that is kind of tied in with my fascination that I have with federal regulation and guidelines. One of the things that I really like to do is examine number one, new technology comes out. Let me see what they say their terms of service are as it relates to the age groups. And if they say, yes, we are COPPA compliant, which — I won’t bore people with a lot of acronyms — but this is something that went into effect in the early 2000s. It was a part of the CIPA that came in, which was Internet privacy protocols, or to protect students from inappropriate things on the Internet. But COPPA was really for vendors, when they’re creating things to say, “No, children under the age of 13, we are not collecting data from them, that we know of.” And that’s kind of a little caveat. Or sometimes they’ll say, “If you’re under 13, you can’t use it all, because we’re not really monitoring what type of– what age groups of data we’re getting from, or that’s not gonna be a part of our thing.” And so that creates some difficulties for up to seventh grade, for the most part, with trying to figure out what tools to use. I’m very fortunate to live in the day and time that we do where the world, even though it is growing, it is getting smaller by connectivity. And so these companies, it’s really easy to reach out to them and say your terms of service are not quite aligning with what you’re marketing towards these age groups. And I think your tool is great, and what you’re providing is a great experience. But can we do some things to get your terms of service in line with usage for these age groups? And so I work with companies to help frame that and to bring that to their attention. In some companies that haven’t even had an EDU model, they have switched over to EDU models — and not just because of me, there’s other educators that are hounding on them to do this, too — to be able to give these experiences to the younger age groups, where public schools, independent schools, private schools, parochial schools can all use this with younger ages. And for the most part, that deals with augmented reality. Without getting to head mounted display VR — that’s a whole other story — but AR is really the entry point for those age groups. And the tools that are used to experience and also create multiples out there that are fully compliant, not just with COPPA, but if you’re in the EU, the GDRP. Companies like CoSpaces EDU, which is wonderful. Based out of Munich, it’s a wonderful company. Eugene and crew, they’re phenomenal people, they listen to a lot of feedback. And they’re fully COPPA compliant here in the States, and they’re GDRP compliant in the EU, and it can be used for all age groups. And so you can experience augmented reality, even room scale augmented reality, which is really fun, especially for those that really want an immersive experience. You can throw it out in AR, which you can actually have buildings blow up, so you can actually walk around and through buildings. And companies like Merge EDU, their terms of service for things like their Merge Cube and stuff like that, and their Explorer platform are really conducive to those younger age groups. And so that’s really where I concentrate the most on, with those age groups. And of course, you kind of get into a head-mounted display stuff with companies like what Google does with Expeditions, down to the age of seven. So you have a little bit of that. And certainly, you can work with companies and you can get parents to sign off on waivers and schools and districts to allow usage of head-mounted display as long as it fits, physically, the children’s IPD and stuff like that. But that’s really when they start to get older.
Julie: Yeah. So I guess that kind of leads to the fact that the younger generation is learning a lot faster, too. And that’s a whole big pack of worms. And the fact that kids now have access to technology that provides them with learning faster and the tools that are becoming available, they’re becoming– I don’t want to say smarter faster, but smarter at a younger age, that they’re able to take on different things, that age group of 13. I can’t even imagine. My daughter’s only 12 right now. And I can’t imagine not having that technology available to her later than that. There’s quite an age difference and an age gap, that we’re going to have to fill that with technology engagement some way in order to number one, keep them engaged, that we don’t lose them into the abyss of not liking learning, because they don’t have access to anything that’s applicable to their lives. But that’s something that certainly needs to be addressed too, is this earlier age in this that kids as young as 14, 15, 16 are coming up with solutions to world problems, that we should be listening to them, right?
Julie: Well, James, thank you so much for our conversation today. There’s so much that we can go down the path of. And I’d love to bring you back into another session down the road, where we start to see some of the different things that are happening in the schools. I know that even my daughter’s schools are changing the way that they’re teaching. And there’s so many different conversations about the content, the curriculum, the methods, the responses of the students, and that sort of thing. So I think we need to schedule a part two to this, as we try and focus on that micro-learning part. Let’s get everybody digesting on this. I’d love to have you close off with some lessons for our listeners, advising on what you’re seeing and how to get through these next few months.
James: Probably the most important thing — especially to the lessons from now until where we can all meet back face to face — is focus on being kind to each other and having patience. That’s probably at the basis of it. But then from that point, it’s now a time that we can be a little more exploratory, because there’s a lot of lax on summative assessments that are happening and standardized testing that’s happening. So now is the time that we can actually encourage our children and our students to explore things that maybe they don’t have an opportunity to normally explore in school. So things like going and checking out things that are in AR if you’re in elementary school, absolutely. I mean, even if it’s something as simple as going into the App Store or Google Play store or typing in “AR” and seeing those options that come up, or checking out CoSpaces EDU for things that are out there. You can check Twitter for teachers that are created things, or students that have created things. I’ve got one on my Twitter page. It may be the pinned tweet that talks about storytelling in AR, and how you can create fragmented and branched storytelling in augmented reality. Or if it’s something like even about empathy development through VR for older age groups. You can literally just go to YouTube and type in “empathy 360” or something like that, or you just Google it. Steve Bambury has a really good site, VirtualiTeach, where he talks about some really good empathy experiences in VR. So go check out Steve Bambury’s site and look at that. But these are the times where we can start to look at these alternative things, or what has been seen as alternative. They’re actually really impactful.
Julie: Well, that’s a great way to end off this podcast session. Thank you so much, James, for speaking with me today on the XR for Learning podcast. If you know a teacher or parent that’s struggling, reach out to them, because they’re certainly going through some heavy changes personally, I’m sure, as well as professionally.
James: Thank you so much, Julie. I appreciate it.
Julie: Thanks so much. James.
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