VIRTUAL REALITY, A TEACHER’S DREAM The fact that I can virtually take them some place we’d never be able to visit is just a teacher’s dream,” she explains. But that dream is just not affordable for many schools.
–Rebekah Henick, school teacher



When I was about seven years old, we lived not far from the downtown public library in Portland, Oregon. My brother and I and our neighbourhood friends were frequent visitors to the children’s department there. One day we discovered, or were shown, and were allowed to use a stereopticon. These were binocular-like devices that enabled you to view photographs in 3-D, unlike anything we could experience beyond the real world. There were black and white photographs of mountain, waterfalls, and views of Africa. We would pass the device around while commenting enthusiastically about what we saw. And, by the way, the librarian made us wash our hands before she would give us the precious viewer.



I was thinking of this when I heard about virtual reality and how it is considered to hold great educational promise. As the teacher quoted above said, “I can virtually take them some place we’d never be able to visit … “ And thus the schools are rushing to adopt yet another form of the latest technology.


Virtual reality is an artificial environment that is created with software and presented to the user in such a way that the user suspends belief and accepts it as a real environment. On a computer, virtual reality is primarily experienced through two of the five senses: sight and sound.

I hasten to add that virtual reality is still in its infant stages. Who knows what the future holds, but you can sure that it will be more than “two of the five senses … “


In his 1993 book “Technopoly”, Neil Postman compares print and oral learning with computer and television learning;

On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. On the other, there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response.

In other words, print encourages thoughtful consideration and internal image-making. Television—and I would suggest all other screen technologies—provide entertainment, infotainment (often masquerading as education), and salesmanship. As an extension of the television experience, I would suggest that virtual reality performs a similar function. Rather than passing a stereopticon from hand to hand, each student will be isolated in his or her own experience of what may seem startlingly real. Like television, virtual reality places its user on the receiving end. Putting on a VR headset blocks out the outside world and presents a whole new view for the user, immersing one in a highly realistic experience created by simulated sights, sounds, and sensations of movement. Almost as good, maybe even better, than the real thing. The viewer is a passive recipient of a predesigned programmed experience.


The young Canadian entrepreneur Josh Maldonado says, “Just like [sic] the internet democratized information … virtual reality will democratize experience.” Just what this means is not made clear. If by “democratizing” he means making available to all, he has a point. The internet has indeed made information readily available to all, information that is packaged in tidy quickly digestible parcels. It has been said, and I think accurately, that the internet has provided us with information, but no knowledge. I pads, smartphones, cellphones, computers–and now virtual reality–give us ready handheld access to a world of pictures, games, news, curious happenings, dietary advice, constant advertising, pornography, and cute cat videos, along with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, Tumblr, and hundreds of social networking sites participated in by billions of people worldwide.

Like schools, most people seize on such technological wonders as though they are necessities of life. Businesses, like London Drugs, Safeway, etc.—and even the public library—are installing self-serve check out devices, enabling them to lay off more and more staff. Government now expects us to perform most transactions on line, with the same results in staff cuts. We pay our bills on line, we do our banking on line, we buy books, clothes, and glasses on line (with groceries to come). How long will it be before we go through life without ever having face-to-face-contact with another human being?


As long ago as the year 2000, Robert Putman wrote “Bowling Alone, the Collapse and Revival of American Community”. Based on thorough research, Putnam shows how Americans—include the rest of us—have lost touch with family, friends, neighbours, and democratic structures. I would now add trades people, shopkeepers, bank tellers, and fellow students. Though he optimistically proposes ways in which this trend can be reversed, the past seventeen years have shown that it only continues to grow. While it may seem unimportant, even a friendly “hello” from a clerk or librarian provides us with regular human contact and acknowledgement that we are part of a larger community.


In Technopoly, Postman also wrote:

In Technopoly, we improve the education of our youth by improving what are called “learning technologies.” … To the question “Why should we do this?” the answer is: “To make learning more efficient and more interesting.” Such an answer is considered entirely adequate, since in Technopoly efficiency and interest need no justification. … “Efficiency and interest” is a technical answer, an answer about means, not ends; and it offers no pathway to a consideration of educational philosophy. Indeed it blocks the way to such a consideration by beginning with the question of how we should proceed rather than with the question of why.

I would suggest that the same observation applies to technologies as they are increasingly applied to public and commercial services as well as to personal communications. I needn’t remind the reader that e-mail, Facebook, and Instagram have already taken place of written letters, telephone conversations, and real live human contact. Sadly, schools are usually concerned with how can we do what we do more efficiently rather than why do we do what we do. Instead of examining and questioning the basic assumptions upon which our school systems are based, teachers and educational “experts” devote their energies to cooking up new and clever ways to do the same old thing. You can see why schools are so eager to seize new technologies like virtual reality.


Marshall McLuhan distinguished between hot and cool media. “Hot” media are those that require little or no mental or emotional participation of the observer, content may be said to be spoon fed. “Cool” media, on the other hand, offer minimal stimulus and require the observer to participate actively, to fill in the gaps, to perceive abstract patterning. As examples, we might cite a popular songs, with simple harmonies, basic repetitive rhythms, and commonplace lyrics, of three to four minute duration, as opposed to, say, a classical symphony that will be of prolonged duration, involve complex harmonic, melodic development pushing the boundaries of expression. The listener will be required to devote care and attention as well as repeated hearing to the experience. McLuhan saw art at a means for societies and individuals to recover from the numbing and “massage-like” effects of technological innovation.

Schools are rushing to adopt the latest in “hot” technological media like IPads, computers, and virtual reality while abandoning “cool” media like music, art, poetry, handwriting, spelling, and grammar. Schooled in the notion that learning should be easy and—God save us!—fun, and offered no alternative, young people gravitate to the immediate gratification of texting (who needs to know how to spell when you have spell check?), obsessive cellphone use, video games, and drugs. The search for entertainment has replaced the search for knowledge and wisdom. Commercial interests have been only to eager to offer immediate gratification in the form of mind-deadening sit-coms, violent movies, banal songs, and anti-nutritious fast foods.


McLuhan’s most important message is that media determine the way in which information is perceived. (“The medium is the message.”) To accept technological media as being simply new and efficient ways of delivering experience is a major error. All media must be looked at critically with an eye to understanding how content is controlled and influenced by the medium itself. Facebook, Instagram, e-mail and Twitter already control how we communicate with each other.

If we don’t control media, media will control us.

Now there is a subject worthy of attention in schools.

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My friends, here is a most extraordinarily awkward avoidance of “me”, from an announcement of an AGM delivered today via e-mail:

“… receive and approve our Treasurer’s Report, receive and discuss reports from myself, our Artistic Director, and … ”


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Imagine, studies show that during the summer break kids forget a whole lot of what they were taught in school.

According to On Line College, scores in standardized tests are lower in the fall than they were at the end of the school year in June. That’s because kids have usually lost at least two months-worth of math computational skills. (I don’t dare ask just what two months-worth might mean, but I can’t help wondering. Do mathematicians measure their skills in months?) Oh well, as if that weren’t bad enough the kids have also slipped two months or more in spelling and reading. According to The New York Times article This Is Your Brain on Summer, “Summers off are one of the most important, yet least acknowledged, causes of underachievement in our schools.”

Oh heck! Just when I was beginning to enjoy it.

Golly, what are these kids doing all summer? Just goofing off when they should be practising math and spelling? Or is it just that what they have been “taught” matters so little to them that forgetting is perfectly natural and to be expected? I’ll bet they haven’t forgotten how to play soccer.

As you might expect, the suggested remedy is more school. Cut out summer vacation completely or provide more school during the summer. The usual philosophy is: If it isn’t working, give them more of it.

Nevertheless, school people bemoan the fact that the first couple of months of the school year are spent in catching up. After all, those standardized tests are lurking there ready to pounce, so the kids had better get brushed up and ready or else the school will look bad in the comparative ratings. However, do not fear, various experts on Summer Leaning Loss have emerged and are providing helpful tips to remedy the problem. Sarah Macoun, educational psychologist with the University of Victoria, in a CBC interview, suggests “Do a little bit of math” and “Keep reading”. I guess kids don’t get out during the summer and build forts and race tracks the way we used to, and, school has apparently turned reading into such an unpleasant chore that books are to be avoided at all costs. As someone once said, the surest way to stop a runaway horse is to bet on it, and accordingly, the surest way to kill interest in anything is to threaten to have a test on it.

But Professor Macoun also has her soft side; her Tip Number Three is “Have fun.” “[Kids] are learning specific facts and skills when they’re in the classroom, but it’s really important that they’re applying those to real life situations and that they’re having those less-structured experiences.” Imagine! You have to apply what you learned–or forgot– in school to “real life situations.” There’s no escaping it.

Finally, As Ivan Illich puts it (in Deschooling Society): “A major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching.” and “Schools themselves pervert the natural inclination to grow and learn into the demand for instruction.”

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In the previous post (FRASER INSITUTE SAYS PRIVATE SCHOOLS ARE OK), I pointed out how we were told repeatedly that any notions we might have of private schools as expensive and elite were uninformed, misguided, and incorrect. Furthermore, private schools provide us with choice. Just think, you can choose between sending your kids to any of the, relatively uniform, public schools in the city or to one of the private schools that may offer just what you’re looking for in the way of religion, academic emphasis, or educational philosophy.

The Fraser Institute, I said, exists to provide appropriately slanted “research” to support and legitimize right wing government and corporate agendas. So what is the agenda supported by promoting the “choice” offered by private schools? And why should government support private schools to make them more “affordable”? It’s not exactly rocket science to figure out that the Christy Clark Liberal government favours a two-tiered school system just as they favour a two-tiered medical system—not mention the various PPPs (Public-Private-Partnerships) that they enjoy and promote.

The “choice” offered is simple: Take the under-funded, trimmed down public school (or health system) paid for by your taxes, or pay handsomely for a private school (or a deluxe medical clinic). The more you pay the more you get in the way of prestige. It’s an excellent way to reduce taxes, especially for the wealthy and for corporations, and to cut down on government funding for and “interference” with public institutions. It’s the “small government” that the right wing conservatives love so much.

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The Fraser Institute has released a study (A Diverse Landscape: Independent Schools in Canada, June 29, 2016)

The study informs us that private—they prefer independent—schools are really just for regular folks who happen to think their kids should not mingle with the riff-raff in the public schools. The study is quick to reassure us that “Contrary to the common caricature that they are enclaves for the urban elite, independent schools parents come in a wide variety of types and serve many educational preferences.”

And, of course it’s OK—even desirable—that the government provides funding for these schools because they provide such a valuable “service.” (See “Independent Schools Getting Money,” The Tyee, May 17, 2016) But, hey, haven’t I paid taxes so I could send my kids to a public school? Then why am I also paying taxes to support private schools? Oh yes, remember how often we are reminded how important it is for people to have “choice”—especially if they can afford it. In a Fraser Institute press release we are told that “It’s time for British Columbians [to] understand and recognize the tremendous value and choice provided by independent schools to the education system and to families across the province.” (emphasis added)

The Fraser Institute research report reiterates (ad nauseam) the message that we are mistaken if we think that private schools—oops, independent schools—are only for some (vaguely defined) elite. We are re-assured that the research “ … seeks to address the persistent myth that independent schools are of one dominant type serving a single sort of family. Contrary to the common caricature that they are enclaves for the urban elite, independent schools [sic] parents come in a wide variety of types and serve many educational preferences.”

In case you missed the point, we’ll tell you again–and again:

“Rigid typecasting of independent schools is more myth than reality. In Canada, the lingering stereotypes are not reflective of the landscape.”

“Furthermore, it is vital that lingering stereotypes and common caricatures of independent schools be questioned for their accuracy. The broader implications address government stances toward educational diversity and choice … “ (my emphasis again)

“[Parents] are choosing schools that differ in many ways from one another, the vast majority of which do not conform to the prevailing caricature that private schools in Canada are exclusive enclaves serving only the wealthy urban elite.”

The Institute’s press releases hammer home the message:

“The widespread misperceptions of independent schools in B.C. impede honest debate about the benefits of these schools in the province.”

“The numbers tell the tale. Old myths about independent schools in Canada simply aren’t supported by the facts. They are not defined by exclusivity. They exist for parents and students who want something other than what they can find in public schools.”

And in case you still have any doubts:

“The evidence examined in this study leads to a clear finding. Rigid typecasting of independent schools is more myth than reality. In Canada, the lingering stereotypes are not reflective of the landscape.”

And while we’re at it let’s get in a little jab at the government-run system:

“Independent schools are also almost always self-managed, relying on leadership and management internal to the school, rather than the echelons of specialists resident in public school board offices.”


But wait a minute! What would it cost for me to send my kids to a private school? Say I have three kids, all of elementary school age. I could send them to the Vancouver Waldorf School, which seems to be the least expensive, at a minimum of $3,720 per child. This would cost me $11,160 per year. Or should I prefer a Montessori School, the price jumps to $5,050 per child or $15,150 per year. If I’m living over in Shaughnessy or Kerrisdale, I can choose to send my daughter to Crofton House for a mere $18,950. Most private school fees range anywhere from $15,000 to over $25,000 per year. At least there’s choice.

Sorry to say, folks, I could never have afforded even the Waldorf School. I’m sure the Fraser Institute people would not consider $11,160 a year a tuition fee for the elite, but it’s far beyond the means of average wage earners trying to provide food and clothes for their kids. Maybe I just don’t understand what “elite” means.

As you might expect, the conclusion is that independent schools merit support from the government (my taxes, that is). After all, the Fraser Institute exists to provide appropriately slanted “research” to support and legitimize right wing government and corporate agendas. Well, look who’s paying for it: According to journalist Murray Dobbin, 31% of the Fraser Institute’s revenue comes from corporations and 57% from “business-oriented charitable foundations” such as the Donner Foundation and the free-market-oriented John Dobson Foundation. In addition, a report stated that the Fraser Institute received $120,000 in funding from oil giant ExxonMobil a.k.a. Koch Brothers.”

As you can see, the Fraser Institute is well funded, and having lots of money gets you attention in the media. Fraser Institute reports are announced as “news” in the papers and on radio and television. If you’re waiting to hear an alternative view, forget it. The views of the left-leaning think tank, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, rarely enter the picture

You might like to know, too, that the Fraser Institute is opposed to Canadian gun control laws. Studies prove …

Maybe if I had been properly trained in an “elite” private school I would understand. Damn!


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Have you noticed how some people avoid using the word “me”? I guess they were told in childhood that it is impolite to refer to oneself in the first person objective case. As in “gimme, gimme, never gets”? As an example, I was recently offered “Here is a photo of Mary and I.” (Names changed to protect the guilty.) I doubt that this person would ever say, “Here is a photo of I.” Or, if self-effacement is the name of the game, perhaps they would never allow a solo picture to be taken. But then if such a photo were taken, they would have said, “Here is a photo of myself,” as though “self” is somehow a separate, ever-so-genteel, entity from “me.” However: “I took this photo of myself, but Mary took this one of me.”

Here are few more examples of the self in action: “That article was written by myself” or “Mary and myself had our pictures taken.” (Correctly:” That article was written by me.” “Mary and I had our pictures taken.”) There are many perfectly useful applications of “myself”, for example: “I’m going to get myself a new suit” or “I’ve planned this party just for myself.” “I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter.” You can see that “myself”—a reflexive pronoun—can be an intensifier or a way of putting yourself at a slight distance. However, this is neither appropriate nor sensible when simply referring to an action done to or performed by “me.” To set the record straight, the reflexive pronoun (myself, herself, himself, itself, oneself, yourselves, themselves, etc.) refers back to the person already named in the sentence. For example, “Mary cut herself.” or “I photographed myself.” Therefore, the reflexive pronoun cannot stand by itself as a subject or object of a verb or preposition.

It helps to remember that English is best spoken (or written) directly and simply. Just use plain old Anglo-Saxon grammar. I think I’ve already railed against the use of “at this point in time” instead of “now.”

There are a few grammatical aberrations that have become acceptable: The use of “they” to refer to a single person (see above). It has also become acceptable to reply to the question, “Who is it?” with “It’s me,” using the objective form of the pronoun rather than the more stilted sounding, but correct, “It’s I.”

Then there is “Please give that letter to him and I.” Have you also heard, “Him and me are going steady. “

Enough said!

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Canadian news media were full of prideful announcements when Milos Roanic defeated Roger Federer “in a breakthrough semifinal performance that will be remembered as a watershed moment in Canadian tennis.” It is notable that Federer, known as “the Swiss superstar,” had never been defeated in the final four at the All England Club at Wimbledon. “It’s a pretty special recognition to the state of Canadian tennis and it’s not just me,” Raonic said.

At the same time, another Canadian, seventeen-year-old Denis Shapovalov, won Wimbledon’s boy’s title by beating out Alex De Minaur, an Australian, in three sets. Shapovalov, who is from Richmond Hill, Ontario, said, “Canadian tennis is moving forward a lot. Hopefully it doesn’t stop here. Even the next generation can see it’s possible and start working hard and we will have more Grand Slam champions in the future.”

These young men are talented and hard-working at what they do, and they certainly deserve their notoriety and our admiration, but what about two other young Canadians who have advanced to some of the highest positions in the musical world? Media were almost entirely silent.

Nikki Chooi, a young violinist from Victoria, B.C. has recently been appointed as concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. This is one of the most prestigious positions in the world of music. Not only is the Metropolitan Opera among the four or five major opera companies in the world but its orchestra is also recognized as one of the finest. Chooi, born in Victoria in 1989, has performed with orchestras throughout Canada and around the world. He made his debut, at the age of twelve, with the Victoria Symphony. He went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York, and has performed with orchestras throughout Canada and around the world. Reflecting on his appointment with the Met orchestra, Chooi said, “It’s a dream job. The orchestra is known to be … one of the leading ensembles in the world, and just to think that I’m about to be a part of it this coming September, it’s crazy to think. It hasn’t settled in yet. I’m still on cloud nine.”

Another Canadian appointed to a top position at the Metropolitan Opera was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a young conductor from Montreal. The forty-one-year-old French-Canadian conductor succeeds James Levine, who held the position for forty years but retires at the end of this current season. Nézet-Séguin made his Met debut in 2009 conducting Bizet’s Carmen – a “bracing, fleet and fresh account of the score” from which “the singers benefited immensely,” wrote the New York Times’s reviewer. Nézet-Séguin has since conducted Don Carlos, Rusalka and La Traviata there, and opened the 2015-16 season with Verdi’s Otello, about which the Wall Street Journal wrote: “If the action on the stage sometimes flagged, there was plenty in the pit, where the superb conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, etched a high-tension dramatic arc.” “Becoming the music director of the Metropolitan Opera is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me,” said Nézet-Séguin. “I believe [it] is the greatest opera company in the world with the best principal singers on the planet.”

Why weren’t these appointments major news items? If Wimbledon is the Metropolitan Opera of tennis, then surely the Met is the Wimbledon of opera! Go figure.


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