SDM Voice | Dr. Steven Urueta

SDM Voice | Dr. Steven Urueta

We talk with Dr. Urueta about the challenges of technology in the classroom and how he was able to find a way forward at SDM.


Dr. Steven Urueta

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Foreign Language Studies, Mejiro University

Dr. Steven Urueta's research focuses on designing and implementing VR systems for educational use, including face-to-face and distance learning applications. Dr. Urueta holds a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering from the Graduate School of System Design and Management (SDM) at Keio University and is currently trying to implement a larger-scale VR system for virtual study abroad experiences.

Overcoming the Hurdle of High-Tech in the Classroom

My research focuses on making it easy for ordinary teachers to master new technologies for university instruction. I've always been interested in using the latest technologies in the classroom, but there have been plenty of roadblocks to their implementation. Many teaching staff do not have a technical background, which can impede the introduction of technologies like AR, VR, or AI. For example, many teachers have said that the pandemic has prevented their students from having an authentic study abroad experience in another country. But I think virtual study abroad programs are one way we can give them an alternative experience. Part of that would be using AR or VR content to see a country differently and hopefully increase student interest in studying abroad.

My thesis at SDM was on a new process called "dual frame system design," which separates the difficulties of implementing these technologies from more manageable tasks that the teacher can handle. Ideally, more complex tasks would be done by an educational technologist on staff at the institution, while classroom implementation could be done by an ordinary teacher without any prior knowledge. For this to succeed, you have to separate the functions and systems into subsystems. One of these subsystems was an instructional design module for the rapid deployment of these technologies in the classroom. I've even implemented this design in my own classrooms to considerable effect. I was worried because many students don't have access to AR/VR technology, but they all have smartphones. So, with a bit of tweaking for AR/VR compatible devices, you can have AR/VR experiences at a very low cost, which significantly lowers the barrier to entry.

Finding a Path Forward at SDM

Since so many technologies are either in the basic research stages or are too narrowly focused, I wanted to find a way to integrate them into practical language instruction, which required a wider, bird's-eye view of the situation.That's when I found SDM. It fit perfectly with what I wanted to do. The introductory courses were especially beneficial for understanding how to use these frameworks. We did group work where we designed systems and made architectural diagrams, which helped me understand the process and techniques I could follow to build these systems. My research has focused on architectural diagrams and systems design processes based on agile practices, IEEE guidelines, and other iterative approaches, and now, all of my research and much of my teaching is based on systems design frameworks.

Professors from backgrounds outside of engineering, like Prof. Tomohiko Taniguchi and Prof. Naoko Taniguchi, as well as other doctoral candidates gave me plenty of insights into SDM's wide-ranging applications. I got to see how they published papers and learned from their experiences, for example. My advisor was the infinitely friendly and understanding Prof. Tetsuro Ogi, with whom I shared a somewhat similar background. We both worked at Mitsubishi Research Institute, a consultancy in Tokyo, and went to the same university for graduate school. We also shared an interest in VR and AR. There is an amount of uncertainty in the academic market for new interdisciplinary paths, so he gave me plenty of guidance and helped me put my research on the right track.

Putting SDM into Practice for an Engaging Learning Experience

I originally had the idea of using technology in the classroom as a master's student at The University of Tokyo. That's when I first started looking at doctoral programs in places like the US and UK. But then I thought about Japan and its relationship with 3D printing, robotics, and tech, as well as its monozukuri manufacturing culture, all of which resonated with me. Plus, the use of new technologies like AI and VR in English instruction is a very young field, so there are relatively few researchers and much of the research focuses on linguistics. With so few people researching the implementation of VR in language teaching, you could say I've found my niche.

At Mejiro University, for example, we are planning to offer VR content to all instructors in the department, and if that goes well, we hope to participate in industry-academia collaboration to make products available across Japan. In the classroom, I usually create content in VR formats like VR180 or 3D stereoscopic 360 and upload them to YouTube or the university intranet for the students to watch. Much of my research is focused on making this content more accessible to students. For example, we use QR codes, which drastically decreases the time and effort required for students to access a video. Much of my work has to do with taking these technologies beyond their novelty status and increasing their practical value in the classroom. Very little content in the VR/AR space is tailored to Japanese learners of English, and what little exists is not Japan-specific. It's the same for learning 20 or 30 different languages, so I think there is a gap in the market for our research.

The most significant point of debate is the effect of VR and educational technologies on learning outcomes. VR is cool, but does it actually have a positive impact on student learning? In my experience, the answer is yes. Even more importantly, it clearly increases student interest in topics like studying abroad, leading to more measurable learning outcomes. One worry, however, is that VR will decrease students' interest in traveling or studying abroad. Maybe one day, we will all be plugged into the Metaverse like something out of the Matrix, but I believe that VR actually complements physical classroom-based instruction very well. It won't be any competition for real experiences for at least the next twenty to thirty years. I want to find ways to complement--not replace--existing physical experiences.

The most exciting and most prominent strength of SDM is its adaptability. If systems design can be applied to a field like language pedagogy, I think the future of academia and work is interdisciplinary. For example, the university juggles all kinds of systems: grading systems, class systems, attendance systems, media, uploading and viewing systems, and the challenge is how to integrate them into something that is user-friendly. Finding solutions to challenges like these is extremely beneficial. To any students considering SDM, I encourage you to give it a shot, especially if you have a field of interest in mind. You can always find ways to apply systems design thinking, regardless of your background or area of expertise. As soon as you start brainstorming with systems thinking, answers are bound to follow. SDM is the perfect beacon of guidance, an incubator for a seed of an idea or a broad direction of interest. The SDM framework has become an invaluable asset to my career, and if you are driven, it will do the same for you.