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
THE WONDERS OF STEREO VIEWING IN 1938
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.
THE VIRTUAL STEREOPTICAN
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 … “
TELEVISION AND PRINT
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?
YOU ARE NOT ALONE—OR ARE YOU?
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.
DON’T ASK WHY
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.
HOT OR COOL
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.
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
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.