Kyle Johnsen Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Computer Engineering
Dr. Johnsen is an Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia. Dr. Johnsen joined the University of Georgia in 2008 after earning his PhD in Computer Engineering from the University of Florida. His research focuses on emerging human-computer interaction technologies for health, education, and the environment.
“Virtual reality potentially gives you an infinite space, or an infinite canvas, to sculpt whatever learning environment you want around you.”
A short conversation about engineering education with Dr. Johnsen:
What do you like most about working in the College of Engineering at UGA?
The College is obviously different. It’s young. It’s growing. I don’t think there’s another place in the country where you can be at a tier one research university and be in a brand-new College of Engineering—if there is one, I don’t know about it—and so, because of that, there’s been a lot of change. I think it’s very interesting to be a part of a place that’s changing as quickly as we are. It’s certainly not a boring job and you don’t feel like things will never change because they’re constantly changing. I think a lot of people get very, what’s the word, jaded when they work at institutions that have a lot of history, but within engineering, I’ve never felt as though I couldn’t make something happen. You constantly have a sense here that you can do something. You can do something out of the box. Some of that, of course, will change as we get bigger. It’s grown quite a bit already, but it’s still young and growing and that provides opportunities.
What role do you see learning technologies play in ENED?
That’s a very cherry-picked question. My background is in virtual environments and virtual reality. I think that those technologies specifically have the potential to really transform the teaching and the structure and the learning experiences. I think that when a lot of people think of learning technologies, they think of just the computer and they look things like Google and stuff like that. Those really have transformed learning quite a bit in terms of how students engage with problems and what-not, but the introduction of immersive virtual reality into both teaching and learning, I think is going to allow us to play with the fundamental components of learning. I think a fairly well-established model is you’ve got the individual, you’ve got the social, and you’ve got your environment. You can really play with all of those in virtual reality. It’s going to allow us a lot of flexibility to try to optimize the learning experience to the extent that it’s possible.
Do you see the introduction of immersive virtual reality as having more of a benefit for conceptual understanding or are there other dimensions at play as well?
It could be all over the place. It could literally just be that people are more comfortable in the body of an avatar than they are sitting in a classroom. That actually could have a profound effect on even just our inclusion of people that would otherwise have a difficult time. If you’re going to be the only woman in a classroom that might have an effect on you. But if you’re in avatar, you can be whatever you want. Being able to explore that is going to be really interesting. There are downsides, of course, to not being physically present in a place, but being able to customize what we know to be determinants of learning and being able to play with those where you can’t play with those in real life could offer some potential advantages. But in this case, you are sort of equalizing everybody and you are making it about the content and about the delivery and not necessarily about the social factors. It becomes more immersive, so that’s the environmental factor you can play with right? So it’s not a classroom anymore. classrooms are supposed to be built for learning, but they’re actually more just built for efficiency’s sake of holding a certain number of people and giving them enough space to not feel claustrophobic. Virtual reality potentially gives you an infinite space, or an infinite canvas, to sculpt whatever learning environment you want around you. That can be both the content that’s actually there and you can build and bring the Brooklyn Bridge in and talk about it, right, so that’s one aspect. But then, it’s just for comfort and what are the relationships you want to have? everybody can sit at the front of the room kind of thing. It allows you to explore those sorts of concepts that could really be powerful moderators of learning. We don’t know yet because no one’s ever tried it.
What have you observed in the classroom that puzzles, interests, or intrigues you? What do you find curious about the way that students learn?
One thing that’s always in my classrooms that’s really puzzled me—and I have yet to really nail down what the cause is—is how friendly I feel I am and how much I interact with the students. Sometimes I have a very sort of natural, casual relationship with the students and the class feels fun – The class feels like I don’t have this sort of disconnected feeling standing in the front of the room lecturing. Sometimes it feels that way and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the class, they talk to each other and sometimes they don’t. It just seems very random. I don’t know what exactly causes that or if it’s sparked in some way or if it has something to do with how the class is initiated or just the type of people that are present. I have some working theories that it has something to do with the diversity of those present; that if you have good gender mixes and people aren’t sort of isolated together you can create that environment. I feel like that actually is one of those social determinants of learning; if you can get a very positive sort of vibe in the classroom, people are going to try harder and they’re going to pay more attention. But I have yet to be able to control that. It just seems to happen. That’s sort of a puzzling thing to me and something that I am always cognizant of it in the classroom.
What does the future of ENED look like?
I think I’ve already answered that at some level. I do think that instruction is going to shift a little bit towards the online, shift toward the more controlled learning experience than what we have right now. You don’t know what you’re going to get when you walk into any random classroom. It’s going to depend on the instructor, it’s going to depend on the time of day, it’s going to depend on who’s around you. I think that things are going to get more controlled as we get more media online, more opportunities for learning, better evaluations of what’s happening because we can do that now. Everything’s recorded. The data is actually being collected and as we start using more learning technologies, the possibilities for that become greater. We’re looking at a good opportunity to try to optimize our learning system. I think that’s going to naturally progress towards more standardized, more online, more self-paced types of learning. We’ll have to figure out what the role of the physical is. We sort of take for granted that we have it right now because they’re here. Students are here. We can give them things. We can pass it around, right? But in the virtual, you lose that. When you’re working on just an ordinary computer application, you lose the ability to interact physically with your body with where you can touch things. If things do indeed move that way, to being much more virtual, we’re going to lose that physical. We’ve never lost that, really, before, not in any way that people would really engage with. For example, the video-type interactions, most people view it as sort of inferior at some level to physically being there. It’s not the same. A lot of people just prefer to be in a real, face-to-face interaction, especially when it involves social things, video conferencing doesn’t really work that well, but when you’re able to do this in VR and we’re able to have these kinds of close-range interactions and I’m able to move my hands around and you can see that. I’m able to gesture. I can pick things up. All of a sudden now, that changes and you start saying, “Okay, maybe that’s going to work,” but now you lose the physical. You lose the real aspect of it.
How might virtual interactions lead to more meaningful interactions between students and instructors?
That flipped interaction, I think, is something that we’re going to have explore more and make being here about working with real interesting things that we can’t predict well enough to employ inside the virtual world and get a real response. I think we’re going to have to start shifting more towards that, but it’s going to be hard thing because most of our time is still spent doing these lectures and it’s a dramatic shift that is going to need to happen if we do move towards more delivered content that people can access at their own pace. An alternative vision is the instructor is still very much a part of it. The instructor is still in real-time, teaching inside these environments and the students are there in real-time. It’s literally just a remote classroom and you’re attending virtually and then, that’s maybe not a whole lot different than our existing classrooms. But I kind of see our ability to create, or understand what’s happening in the classroom rising and rising. The term big data gets thrown around a lot, but it’s applicable here that the more data that we have, the better we’re able to learn what that data can be used to predict. As we learn how people learn through all this data, we’re going to be able to build tutoring systems. We’re going to build intelligent tutoring systems, basically, to help people learn just like an instructor would. What’s the role of the instructor, then? What’s the role of the school? We’re going to have to evaluate that and it’s going to be a very gradual process. I don’t see this as happening overnight, but we’ve already seen that people question the value of an education, still question the value of college because of what’s out there right now and people’s ability to just learn constantly. The information is everywhere and so the value of an instructor right now is that they can help the user deal with that deluge of information. There’s 500 videos on a particular topic. Which one do you watch? No one knows what you know, but as we’re able to determine that, as more and more of what we’re actually doing in our history is going into data bases that can be analyzed, we’re going to be able to determine better what to deliver to you. I think the future of engineering education is very bright, actually. I think we’re going to be able to educate people, the instructional process, the learning process, should be amplified greatly by technology. But the institutions are going to have to really deal with this changing dynamic. I think that it’s going to be about the physical. I think it’s going to be about the facilities that we have here to let you experience the real that you’re not going to be able to get elsewhere.