Interrogating the #HolographicAcademic at #ALTc

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If holographic projection was introduced and adopted by universities, what impacts might there be on teaching and learning? In September 2019, I made my first contribution to an ALTc programme and asked participants to broadly interrogate this question. This post recalls and reflects on that workshop. But before we get to Edinburgh, let’s back track a little.

Interplanetary UX, speculative design, and holochapters

In October 2018. I joined delegates from all over the world in London for MozFest, Mozilla’s annual ‘festival for the Open Web’. While many conferences can start to feel a little same-y after you’ve been to a lot of them, this was unlike any tech-related event I’d ever been to. A model for participant-centred event organisation, MozFest wrestled with a panoply of challenges and issues that arise in our increasingly digitised societies, while affording delegates such as myself the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Tim Berners-Lee or the leaders of Creative Commons. One of the sessions I attended, along with colleague Jane Secker, was run by Sands Fish of the MIT Media Lab and titled ‘Designing Interplanetary Communication Tools‘. Fish’s workshop was focused on designing future messaging apps for communicating with people on different planets or other locations in outer space, or in his words, ‘what does the Internet look like when we’re scattered across the solar system?

I had no idea what to expect from this session when I saw it in the programme, but something about it felt unmissable. The format was pretty straightforward – short presentation of work/ideas by session leader followed by a task-guided pair/group discussion and the sketching out of some ideas towards a possible artefact. Pretty loose, all in all. However simple the format might have seemed, the ideas that emerged from Fish’s presentation and the quality of the discussions around the table – largely involving ideas and concepts I’d never previously thought about – was unforgettable. With my ALTc session, I wanted to be able to generate a similar sort of feeling amongst participants, where the workshop had them feeling deeply involved and the ideas would stay with them for long after.

For those of you reading this that were not in the room at MozFest, you can read Fish’s reflection on the workshop on this Medium post. To our delight, Jane and I will be appearing in the line-up for MozFest 2019 – the last one to be held in London – with an ‘AI Board Game Jam’. If the prospect appeals, come and join us to help create a board game for teaching students about the ethical use of artificial intelligence. Details to follow, when Mozilla releases their programme.

Further back from MozFest, I attended a May 2017 Lunchtime Lecture at the Future Cities Catapult, by Service Designer J. Paul Neeley. Titled ‘Speculative Design and the Future of Cities‘, Neeley’s presentation introduced the notion of ‘speculative design’, a concept for researching possible paths that a society could develop in and considering products and services that could be prominent in those futures. You can read more about that session here, or watch the whole thing here. Although I have an informal design background, this concept opened up a whole new area of design I’d never previously come across. I’ll go into a little more detail on speculative design later on in this post, but if Sands Fish’s post on ‘speculative police futures’ is anything to go by, it seems I’m not alone in exploring the potential of speculative design.

A third and final piece of the puzzle, then off to Scotland.

Next year, I have my first book chapter coming out. The book is titled ‘Emerging Technologies and Pedagogies in the Curriculum‘, a Springer title on theories and best practices for incorporating emerging technologies into curricula. My chapter is on the use of holography and holographic projection to support the delivery of telepresent learning experiences, and asks a range of questions about the prospect of this, following on from the launch of such a tool at Imperial College Business School in 2018. The chapter’s abstract runs thus:

Via the birth and growth of holography and the range of emerging uses of the medium, (this chapter) introduces the notion of holographic lecturing, considers live teaching at a distance via telepresence tools, and the wider possible uses of holography in education. It is therefore intended as a set of practical considerations for teachers, technologists and policy makers that might wish to investigate holographic delivery for their own institutions, and much as a think piece on holography in higher education.

So, my ALTc session in Edinburgh was inspired by Sands Fish’s MozFest workshop, tackled the subject of educational holography, and intended to deploy speculative design as a framework for approaching learning design. Quite a tall order to try and pull off, and on top of that, it was scheduled directly after the opening keynote. All of which made me slightly nervous at the prospect. But if any audience was going to take that lot full on, I suspected that an ALTc one would be fine with it.

The presentation

I’ve described holograms in my book chapter as ‘a photographic-like recording of a light field that depicts a 3D image of a recorded subject and which does not require any specialist equipment to view‘. This, in its classical form, would mean a three dimensional but essentially static image, and which we can imagine to have certain light and colour qualities but with no possibility of interaction beyond a viewer moving around the image to see different sides to it. The picture of the mouse on the left is of a hologram that would match this description.

British-Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor is credited with the invention of the ‘holographic method’, for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1971. Six years later, a new generation would come to conceive of the potential of holograms, with the light field recording of Princess Leia that was projected from a small droid in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’.

Although science fiction, the Leia hologram was an advance on the classical Gaborian hologram, as it moved the idea of the medium on from being a photographic-like recording of a light field to a video-like recording of a light field. In the movie, Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are not able to interact with Leia-as-a-hologram, as she is essentially appearing to them as a video recording that they are viewing without any specialist equipment. This allows for an authentic message to be sent across a vast distance and give the impression of her presence in the room with them, without her actually having to be there. Holography in Star Wars thus affords being there without actually having to be there.

The effect – now on a much grander scale than the glitchy princess of ‘A New Hope’ – is becoming increasingly more commonly deployed in areas such as entertainment, media or politics. Rapper Tupac Shakur was ‘brought back to life’ for the 2012 Coachella Festival with holographic-type technologies, and Indian PM Narenda Modi was beamed to campaign events at multiple simultaneous locations the same year using holographic projection. Modi was deploying a modern take on the old conjuror’s trick known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, which is achieved via the use of offset mirrors. It has also just emerged in higher education, with Imperial College Business School running the ‘world’s first holographic event at a university’ in 2018 (the full event – ‘Women in Tech‘ – can be viewed on YouTube, and a review of that was included in my book chapter).

Given that the Imperial event claimed itself as a world’s first, it is not surprising that the literature on holography in education contains next to no empirical evidence of any educational impacts. Much of what I was able to find is of the purely speculative variety, imagining developments in future technologies that might make video conferencing smoother, or the creation of virtual teaching assets perhaps similar to Leia. I recalled to my ALTc audience an early learning spaces drop-in I was running at City, where the academic I met asked if I could help her with bringing one of her colleagues into a class via Skype, so that her students could talk to a field expert without them having to come in to City. Thinking back to all the clunky Skype calls I’ve been on, where the technology and its failings became the focus of the meeting than the actual content or purpose for people connecting, I imagined what it would be like to use Skype for classroom video calling, concluding that it wouldn’t be until such a thing could be achieved holographically that the technology would almost slip into the background.

cover of 'Speculative Everything' book

‘Speculative Everything’ by Dunne & Raby (MIT Press)

Speculative design takes the idea of possible futures and is often explored through the form of scenarios that might start with a ‘what if’ question. These possible futures are intended to open up spaces for discussion, typically about the kinds of ideas that people do (and don’t) want in their future. The best known proponents of speculative design are Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, whose work ‘Speculative Everything’ collates a series of ideas that explore ‘design as a catalyst for social dreaming‘ (PDF).

Prior to this workshop, I contacted J. Paul Neeley over Twitter and asked for some advice on running a speculative design workshop, having been taken with the concept at the time of his lecture but with no real idea how to do it. Neeley recommended starting with an overview of the ‘state-of-the-art’, followed by some visions of the future, and ending on participants exploring the subject through creating their own responses to particular scenarios. I showed some historical examples since claimed as speculative design, including the first iPhone and Star Trek’s use of technologies that we’d now describe as tablet computers and video conferencing. I then displayed a slide listing a large number of contemporary technologies and social trends, followed with a timeline of the past 20 years of educational technologies, and finally ending up on a few visions of the future, including Jisc’s theme of Education 4.0. My intention was to take the concept of speculative design and apply it to an educational context, thus leading to ‘speculative learning design’. I can only find one other example online of anyone else having combined the concepts of speculative design and learning design, so this was a flag in the ground of sorts for me, staking out new territory.

With the presentation, we had introduced the idea of the ‘holographic academic’ – a holographic representation of a university lecturer that could use the tool to provide teaching experiences over distances whilst seeming to be co-located with the actual learners. Presentation over, we turned next to the participant activities. The full slide deck from the presentation is displayed below.

The workshop

I had 17 delegates attend, which I felt was an excellent turnout. Putting them into four groups, I handed out a series of ‘what if’ prompts, and asked them to consider both challenges and benefits of introducing holographic projection into an establishment in response to their prompt. After their discussions, they were to produce some form of ‘artefact’ that could support such an introduction. The ‘what if’ prompts included the following:

  • What if your colleague was asked to deliver a lecture holographically with 10 minutes notice?
  • What if interactive holographic projection was enabled via 5G on mobile devices?
  • What if your institution had first access to a global network of holographic projection centres in major cities with access to all faculty in a major university/college?
  • What if a local Extinction Rebellion branch had successfully stopped most academics from flying to major international conferences on carbon footprint grounds?

To my delight, my delegates needed little prompting to get straight into their discussions, some of which became quite deep, while others became rather animated.

One group worked on the ‘enabled via 5G’ prompt, conjuring up notions of a holographic Brian Cox appearing as a guest physics lecturer, clearly considering this as more realistic than a video recording of him speaking. Their discussion seemed to prompt more questions than answers, balancing whether this might lead to a decrease in attendance for physical lectures with whether it might actually incentivise turning up. They pondered accessibility, how to measure the engagement, and whether an MC would be needed.

Another group took the prompt of holographic projection centres. Listing benefits and challenges side-by-side, they considered the environmental benefits from less travel and being able to link classrooms in multiple locations, with the possible perpetuation of the ‘sage-on-the-stage’ dynamic and the technical infrastructure that would be required to link up those multiple locations. The third group imagined bringing a CEO into class via these tools, having ‘iContracts’, and that lecture theatres would need to chance to accommodate holographic projection. Interactivity, they concluded, would nevertheless be a challenge.

The final group worked on the Extinction Rebellion scenario, and provided the most detail of all. They considered factors around academics being unable to travel, such as widening participation, ‘edutainment’, and how to handle factors such as pastoral care holographically. Considering the skills that would be required to teach holographically, they began sketching out a ‘Holo-quette guide’, with the following section headings:

  • Inclusion
  • Augmentation
  • Interacting
  • Showing attention
  • Pre-delivery preparation
  • Group work
  • Data protection

They also pushed the idea of holographic rights, imagining how such entities might even become abused, coining hashtags such as #DontTouchMyFace to support a future campaign. Sketches from these groups can all be seen in the gallery below:

It can be hard for a workshop facilitator to genuinely measure how effective their session was, or the impact it had, but this was one where the presentation seemed to be of interest and my participants were all fully engaged in the activity. As I’d asked them to do something a little unusual, there was a risk that this part wouldn’t go very well. However, with clear and easy-to-follow instructions provided and regular facilitation of the activity (plus a highly capable and keen group of people in the room), there was a real buzz to this part of the session.

I was thrilled that this session had been given the prominence in the programme that it had received, and that the organisers themselves had been so enthusiastic about it (see this post from ALT CEO Maren Deepwell or listen to this podcast). As there was also a contribution from Imperial about their actual use of the equipment that I’d written about, holography even became one of the unofficial or emerging themes of the event!

ALTc 2020 will be held at Imperial College, and so is finally coming to London. With a bit of luck, we might be able to get the stars to align and have one of the keynotes delivered holographically. Now that would be cool. Hopefully, there’s a half-life for the Holographic Academic yet!

Huge thanks to all that attended the session for their enthusiastic and willing contributions. Follow the #HolographicAcademic conversation here on Twitter, or see a few more reflections from the day below. This is intended to be one of two posts on ALTc, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the second one – there’s a long queue of other posts waiting to be written…


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