Technology - Touch of class

19th February 2010 at 00:00
Haptic devices allow veterinary students to 'feel' virtual animals as they practise hands-on skills, but they also have potential in the classroom - providing you can deal with the price tag

Seventy years ago, the American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey said that "all genuine education comes through experience". But while we learn using all of our five senses, digital technology can currently only really work with two of them.

However, increasing availability of haptic technology means that there are more possibilities to bring physical, hands-on learning experiences into the classroom.

Haptic technology explores how we can interact with digital technology through our sense of touch. These technologies can take many forms, ranging from your mobile phone vibrating to let you know you have a text message, through to sophisticated devices that attach to your hand and give you force feedback so you can "feel" a virtual object.

Haptic technology can create realistic simulations to practise tactile, hands-on skills in situations that can be hard to replicate. It can also provide opportunities for students to isolate and develop specific tactile skills, such as differentiating between textures or sensitivity to pressure.

Training veterinary students to diagnose conditions is a prime example: they need to develop specific skills, and they need to use realistic simulations. While models have been used to teach veterinary practice for some time, Dr Sarah Baillie has used haptic technology to create a range of virtual animals including a cow, a horse and a cat to overcome many of the challenges of teaching veterinary skills. As each animal is virtual it means she can offer a range of learning experiences - the haptic cow simulator has over 30 virtual cows that students can examine.

Using the simulator means that the teacher has complete control over the learning environment and can support the student's development - for example, exploring the physical qualities of each organ in situ. They can also monitor the student's progress by seeing what they are doing (something that's very difficult to do with a real cow). The sense of realism that students get is remarkable: they are able to feel the pulse of the animal that they are examining as well as the different physical sensations of each of the organs.

But tactile skills aren't only useful when examining cows. Haptic technologies are increasingly being used to train students in the medical professions, and they can also be a valuable aid in developing other skills such as computer aided design. Here designers can work in three dimensions in an intuitive way, and even apply "traditional" physical skills to virtual environments. With some commercial art packages, such as ClayTools, students can take the normal physical skills of sculpting and apply them to virtual objects.

Haptic technology also offers interesting possibilities when you consider the decreasing opportunities to be involved in many hands-on activities in schools. Animal dissection rarely occurs in the classroom nowadays and simulations can at least offer some of the educational benefits of this learning experience. Canadian developer Nasim Vafai has designed a prototype of a haptic frog, which replicates the real-time dissection of a frog.

While the possibilities for using this technology in education are enormous, there are, as ever, things to consider in bringing haptic devices into the classroom. Not least is the cost. A mid-range device can cost #163;1,000, meaning it is beyond the reach of many schools. That said, basic haptic devices have been released for the games market for about #163;150.

In the immediate term, haptic technology raises some interesting questions about how we recognise tactile skills and experiential learning in the classroom. Engaging senses other than seeing and hearing can enhance educational experiences for many students.

Kieron Kirkland is a researcher at education RD charity Futurelab -

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