The future of virtual education is here courtesy of Arizona State University

Lisa Buie

BioBeyond offers students a 3-dimensional, immersive experience where learning happens by doing and every action provides feedback.

Apparently, Bill and Ted were onto something.

The two teenage slackers facing academic failure in the 1989 sci-fi film “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” turned from apathetic to excited about their world history project when given the chance to meet the likes of Socrates, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln by traveling back through time in a phone booth.

Fast forward three decades, and the concept of experiencing lessons firsthand not only is possible, but eventually will play a key role in the next generation of education.

While students connected with their teachers via videoconferencing and online collaboration tools from home during the coronavirus pandemic, they didn’t get the direct, continual instruction they were familiar with in a traditional classroom. Integrating immersive technology and virtual learning experiences offers teachers the potential of providing the best of both  worlds, sparking student curiosity and creativity even if teacher and student aren’t in the same physical space.

One example: BioBeyond, a course that allows high school students to have 3-dimensional, immersive experiences and master concepts while on an adventure that prompts them to answer the age old question, “Are we alone in the universe?”

“We know from research that we learn best by doing, by exploring, by engaging the material,” said Ariel Anbar, a professor at the School of Earth & Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

Anbar’s team developed the course, which originally was designed for college students. A geologist and chemist, Anbar narrates the course introduction.

The high school version of BioBeyond, which debuted at the start of the 2019-20 school year, is the flagship course at Arizona State University’s Prep Digital, an accredited online high school that allows students to take a single course or enroll in a full-time, diploma-granting program. Students also get the opportunity to earn concurrent college credit at ASU.

The $1 million course was funded through a grant from the Gates Foundation and NASA and is available for licensing by schools around the world.

“The university designed BioBeyond to capitalize on the natural curiosity that human beings have,” said Julie Young, vice president of education outreach at the university and managing director of ASU Prep Digital and ASU Prep Academy, a charter school network. “It’s beautifully done in terms of the look and feel of the course. We’re getting very good feedback. Students are excited about the content, and teachers are excited about teaching the content, and parents like how much they are learning from the content.”

(For more on Young and the future of education, listen to her podcast with Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit K-12 scholarship administration organization that hosts this blog.)

Instead of lectures and tests, BioBeyond brings lessons to life by taking students on a journey that feels like a video game. The adventure begins with virtual visits to five diverse locations around the world, including the ocean floor, to examine and classify species. Then students go on a virtual field trip to the Galapagos Islands to find out how species change over time. The course teaches cellular biology through a simulation that includes the inside of volleyball player’s nerve cell and asks students to make the cell fire so the player can hit the ball.  

The reason behind all the earthbound travel? In order to effectively contemplate the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the course creators reason, we must first gain a firm grasp of life on our own planet.

In addition to being interactive, BioBeyond is also adaptive, meaning it interacts with students to offer lessons based on particular interests and progress. If a student is struggling in an area, extra time is offered for problem solving or material mastery. If a student is making rapid progress in an area, he or she will have additional opportunities to dig deeper.

“The course acts like Google Maps,” said Amy McGrath, chief operations officer for ASU Digital Prep and an associate vice president for educational outreach and student services at the university.

For example, drivers, like students, are heading toward the same destination, but they may be starting their trip from different locations. Those who make a wrong turn or need to take a detour are simply rerouted to the same end point. The course also generates analytics that teachers can use to see each student’s strengths and interests and where extra help is needed.

“It’s high tech, but it’s also high touch,” McGrath said. “It allows for meaningful conversations.”

Grades are formative, meaning they reflect the student’s mastery at their own pace. Classroom teachers, however, are free to add summative assessments, evaluating student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.

ASU offers other courses that employ scenario-based learning, though none are as sophisticated as BioBeyond. In an online course, for example, students help treat a patient named Hero who has been diagnosed with cancer.

“As Hero goes through the journey and works through the treatments, the students are learning chemistry through that relevance,” Young said, adding: “This is who we want to be and how we want to design learning.”

Besides making lessons more engaging, the experiential content also creates equity. Students who can’t afford to travel can now “see” the world and get exposed to concepts and careers they might never have been able to consider.

“They can be under water with the sea lions, see coral and understand what a marine scientist does for a living,” said Young, a former Florida third-grade teacher who noted that many of her students had never visited the beach, despite living minutes away.

Though BioBeyond is currently the only course of its kind at ASU, Young reports that a U.S. history course is on the horizon and will be a reality in the next six to 12 months.

“We would like to see the kids have the opportunity to interact with Abraham Lincoln or George Washington or be on the battlefield in the Civil War,” she said. “It takes the student into the moment by utilizing the technology we have available.”

Bill and Ted undoubtedly would rate such a course “excellent.”

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