Pirker researches and teaches at the Institute for Interactive Systems and Data Science at TU Graz. The main focus is on the use of virtual reality and video games for better learning methods.
As a computer scientist and futurologist, Johanna Pirker collects ideas of what e-learning could look like in 5 to 10 years. With her team at TU Graz, she is developing, among other things, virtual reality formats for schools that deepen the teaching material in a modern and exciting way. To do this, she has the projects tested on site by motivated and interested students in order to improve and develop them further. Then the corona crisis came and the schools remained closed.
“One of our main areas of research fell away from one day to the next. In the beginning we were all passed out, but I am a scientist and I wanted to help in the situation, ”said Pirker, describing her situation in an interview with futurezone. As a researcher specializing in e-learning, no one should have been as well prepared for the crisis as she is, she explains. But there would have been many problems that she was previously unaware of.
Your work for the future of learning therefore had to rest for now. “We’re still futurologists, but we’ve come very close to reality. And that was important because we were faced with a present that is even a few years behind, ”she explains.
Instead of complex VR environments to which students have no access due to a lack of hardware, the projects were implemented as low-threshold as possible. Often there is only one computer available for all the children in the family and that device is not necessarily powerful. Therefore, they reduced their projects so far that they can also be accessed in the web browser.
E-learning – also for refusers
“That got us down to earth. A school is an environment where many generations meet. As developers we had to ask ourselves nowwhat needs they havewho are actually not interested in this technology or who have even resisted it, ”says Pirker. But that is a positive situation, because the e-learning tools must be easily accessible for everyone.
That doesn’t mean that VR has disappeared from the researcher’s everyday life. She is currently working on a project that is exploring the potential of game-like environments for togetherness.
Even people without an affinity for games should be able to come together in a virtual city center, for example to take their grandchildren for a walk through the – virtual – park. “I was sorry that we didn’t have VR available at the moment. It would be great support for learning, for work and for the psyche, ”says Pirker, describing the technology.
You can make video conferences, but you always see that you are not in the same place. “It’s a visual barrier. But in a game or in VR we spend time together in one place, in VR you are with your whole body. Completely different emotions are addressed again, ”says Pirker, explaining the advantages of virtual spaces.
In the past few months, they have acquired a new status. E-sports suddenly found its way into conventional sports reporting, mainly due to the lack of alternatives, while team sports were canceled due to the corona. “This has given gaming attention and a certain seriousness. Gaming is still often ridiculed, but the industry has grown during the crisis “.
Her team recently showed with a study that platforms such as Twitch, which are particularly interesting for gamers, are now also being used by artists and musicians who currently have no opportunity to perform. Pirker himself also uses the platform to stream her lectures.
Million dollar lab for everyone
Even if it is more difficult now, Pirker is of course not giving up her passion for VR. She draws the intention for projects such as the virtual physics laboratory maroon from her own experience. During her studies at MIT, she saw their million dollar laboratory, in which first-semester students are allowed to do experiments and get enthusiastic about the subject.
This motivates her for her current projects: “Not all of them have exciting physics lessons with experiments and a passionate teacher. But universities and schools cannot afford such complex laboratories. Experiments that are too expensive or too dangerous can also be carried out in VR. So it can be brought into any classroom or home. When there is self-will students can even do research at home. That is the vision of my work ”.