Immersive Technologies, Learning and Rural Development
Immersive Technologies, Learning and Rural Development David Wortley, Immersive Technology Strategies, Leicester, United Kingdom email@example.comAbstract— Rural and remote communities have been amongst the This phenomenon has been called the “Prosumer Revolution” becausehardest hit by global developments in Information Communications it provides unprecedented access to technologies which not onlyTechnologies. Globalisation has impacted these communities and facilitate Consumption of goods, services and knowledge, but also thecaused a loss of services and jobs as the internet revolutionised Production and dissemination of knowledge, services and goods to acommerce and communications. There have been a number of global audience. Whilst disruptive communications technologies haveinitiatives over the last decade to explore how emerging digital media been commonplace in mankind’s history, including Roman roads, the printing press, canals, railways, radio, telephony, cinema andtechnologies and applications can support lifelong learning and rural television, all previous communications revolutions have alwaysdevelopment. disrupted consumption patterns without empowering individual citizens to produce and disseminate information on a mass scale withThis paper reviews some of these initiatives at UK and European the infrastructure to reach a global audience.level and explores how the latest generation of immersivetechnologies which include video games, virtual worlds and social These developments, driven largely by the internet, have had a majornetworks can reverse some of the trends of previous years and act as impact on communities and the social relationships which sustain allan engine for innovation and growth in these more remote areas. aspects of society. The traditional and long established hierarchicalThe projects to be discussed include the Community Commerce and relationships which governed the way we live, work and trade withKnowledge Network (ComKnet) and Harborough Community each other have been broken down in a process of “disintermediation”,Learning Network projects which were UK regional development creating new ways of doing almost everything in our daily lives. Theinitiatives based around community learning networks in rural impact of these changes has probably been most deeply felt in rural communities which have suffered the loss of the kind of facilities andenvironments, and the European Rural Development by Education services which form the bedrock of their lives including local shops,project (ERDE) Grundtvig 2 mobility project which involved partners transport, banks, post offices and schools.from the UK, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Austria and Germany. Allof these projects were focused on Lifelong Learning and the use of II MASS MITEC AND THE MMDPICT to support the social and economic development of ruralcommunities.Examples of innovative uses of technology within these projectsincluded “The Radio with Pictures Show” which combinedcommunity radio with web and tele-conferencing technologies andthe Virtual Pub Quiz in which village pubs in remote ruralcommunities competed against each other on line.Today there is a new generation of immersive technologies whicharguably have even greater potential to unleash the talent whichexists in rural settings and can support many different kinds ofapplications for community social and economic development.Building on the experience of earlier projects, this paper exploreshow immersive technologies can harness local resources in new andinnovative ways. Mass Mitec Offices in rural LeicestershireKeywords-component; Immersive technologies, e-learning, rural It was against this backdrop that a rural SME in the UK becamedevelopment, serious games involved in the initiatives described in this paper. Mass Mitec, founded by the author in 1984, was a high technology SME based in the village of Lubenham in the East Midlands of the UK. Their office I. INTRODUCTION location was about 2 miles outside the town of Market Harborough, aToday’s globalised information age has created unprecedented very traditional market town with a mixture of small businesses andchallenges and opportunities for society. Individual citizens with one or two larger companies. The village of Lubenham had no realaccess to the internet have the tools to not only obtain goods, services indigenous business apart from farming and from the time Mass Mitecand knowledge in new rich and on-demand ways, but also the ability located the business there in 1988 in a converted barn to the presentto communicate their own experiences, knowledge, desires and date, Lubenham has lost its shops, garage, and post office as victimsemotions to a global audience. of globalization.
The nature of Mass Mitec’s operation within business presentation It came as a big shock to learn that this web site had been developedgraphics and collaboration technologies meant that by a local man who delivered milk every morning and who had taughttelecommunications played a vital role in the delivery of services to himself everything he needed to know to build his computer andcustomers with a consequence that Mass Mitec’s customers were create this web site which contained many of the elements planned forliterally all over the globe with quite a number of corporate clients in a £250k Govt funded project.the UK. However, somewhat paradoxically, there were none of thebigger companies in Market Harborough who chose instead to go tolarger cities like London and Birmingham to acquire the same services III THE COMKNET PROJECT LESSONthat Mass Mitec could provide on their doorstep. It was this challengeof developing a more local customer base to counteract competitive The ComKnet project had established, through the discovery offorces in Mass Mitec’s sector that led the author to submit a proposal milkman Frank Bingley and other local talent such as a senior BBCto the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry as part of the Govt’s cameraman based in Lubenham and a “Harry Potter” video specialMultimedia Demonstrator Programme (MMDP) designed to stimulate effects expert based in nearby Market Harborough, that modernthe use of multimedia technologies within SMEs. communication and collaboration technologies could not only help to identify local talent but could also empower citizens with knowledgeMass Mitec submitted a consortium bid for a project known as and skills that they could use not only for their own benefit but also toComKnet (Community Commerce and Knowledge Network) based on support the sustainable development of rural communities.the development of web-based services designed to encourageknowledge sharing and trading within rural communities typical of The ComKnet project acted as a gateway for Mass Mitec to engageMass Mitec’s region in the UK. The proposal was based on the with the international community to share experiences and expertise inpremise that every community has untapped human potential which the use of learning and collaboration technologies for sustainable ruralmight be harnessed by modern technology and thus challenge the development. Over the two years spent developing ComKnet, itnegative effects of globalization. became clear from the other projects presented at social enterprise conferences around the world that the ComKnet phenomenon of localThe consortium bid was successful and the project started in 1998 by talent engaged in community development is far from unique withusing the web search engines to find local community champions to many examples from across the globe in places as diverse as theact as a foundation of the network and focal point for knowledge Peruvian jungle, Indian rural communities and Alaskan herd dwellers.sharing. IV THE RADIO WITH PICTURES SHOW The Radio with Pictures ShowBigfern Community Web Site for Market Harborough In many international projects, community radio had played a largeIt was this initial desk research that discovered an existing community role in rural community capacity building and learning. As a follow-portal web site for Market Harborough which contained many of the up to the ComKnet project, Mass Mitec devised a further projectfeatures planned for the ComKnet project. The Bigfern web site called the Harborough Community Learning Network, a component ofrepresented a possible competitive challenge to Mass Mitec’s business which was a community based radio program which brought togetherbut the webmaster of Bigfern was invited to a meeting to discuss local, national and international community technology practitionersinvolvement in ComKnet and potential collaboration opportunities. in a series of breakfast radio chat shows which combined community radio with virtual classroom and teleconferencing technologies to share knowledge about how these technologies could support community development and lifelong learning. Each morning’s radio programme was based on a different topic relating to the use of ICT for development activities such as Education, Innovation, Disability and the Ageing Society. This project connected the rural communities of South Leicestershire with other communities across the globe and acted as a valuable demonstrator for the power of this “mash-up of related technologies for buildingBigfern webmaster Frank Bingley – local milkman learning and trading relationships across international boundaries.
The power of radio and telecommunications technologies was also of the village had been used to stimulate lifelong learning using ICT inamply demonstrated in another annual event called Global Learn Day, the local school community centre to engage both young and old.organized by a social entrepreneur called John Hibbs, Founder of theBenjamin Franklin Global Education Institute based in San Diego and The UK section of ERDE was hosted in the Teeside area by a socialcommitted to use technology for education that can be accessed by as entrepreneur friend called Steve Thompson whose activities in settingmany people as possible whatever their level of connectivity. Both up a network of rural technology and learning hubs is a model of bestGlobal Learn Day and the Radio with Pictures show reached some practice, whatever the latest technology might be. Steve’s ability tovery remote locations, including the Arctic Circle via Satellite Radio. engage local communities and inspire them to organize and participate in ICT and learning activities in remote locations was second to noneThe Radio with Pictures Show was another example of how emerging and he continues his work in the North East, now working with virtualand established communications technologies can come together in world technologies such as Second Life.support of learning and collaboration activities which can be accessedeven by remote rural locations. VI IMMERSIVE TECHNOLOGIES AND CONCLUSIONSV. THE GRUNDTVIG ERDE PROJECT All the previous projects have used the current communications and collaborations technologies as a catalyst to harness local skills,The exposure gained by both ComKnet and the Harborough passions and talents to the cause of knowledge sharing, collaborationCommunity Learning projects led to Mass Mitec and the author of this and lifelong learning. The current immersive technologies of videopaper to be involved in a European funded Grundtvig project called games, virtual worlds and social networks are being used by the nextERDE (European Rural Development by Means of Education) with generation of learners, the so-called Digital Natives or Generation Y,partners in Austria, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and the to transform learning from a teacher centric activity into a much moreUK. ERDE was a mobility project designed to share best practices personalized learner-centric activity.across Europe for lifelong learning initiatives based in rural areas. These latest technologies are the most successful in engaging the time,The common theme for virtually all of the European projects was a attention and money of a wide spectrum of the population with acommunity learning centre as a hub of rural learning and development proven ability to educate, influence, inform and train people of allactivities where access can be provided to up to date Information ages. The challenges for rural communities in a globalised economyCommunications Technologies and hosting in some cases of will remain but can be partly addressed by ensuring widespreadcommunity radio projects. availability of the fast wired or wireless broadband networks that are key to accessing rich digital content and collaboration applications.All these projects in all countries depended on engaging localcommunity champions with both the knowledge and the passion to I learnt from my experience over the last 15 years of being involved inmake a difference in their communities. The main lesson that I drew the use of advanced technologies for lifelong learning and ruralfrom my involvement in these projects is that technology and development that there needs to be a balance between 3 essentialinfrastructure, whilst important in the success of the projects, was less components :-important than the commitment of local social entrepreneurs to makeuse of these technologies to engage people of all ages in lifelong • Top down vision and commitmentlearning activities. • Grass roots engagement and supportPossibly the most striking of the European projects was the one based • Appropriate financial, technological and human resourcesin Poland around the town of Malechovo. The Project Manager for thePolish Partners was a somewhat eccentric but very engaging man These components are like the 3 legs of a stool which need to becalled Wojak Idziak who had been instrumental in developing what properly balanced – over-emphasis on any one of these componentswere called “thematic villages”. Wojak worked with each rural can lead to imbalance and failure but at the end of the day, it is thecommunity to establish a unique identity or theme for each village, desire and passion of key individual champions within these ruralbased on local talents and cultural heritage. This was a great and very communities that will determine the success and sustainability of anyeffective concept and in one of the villages, the paper making heritage rural lifelong learning projects.