Please, Please Stop Calling Virtual Reality the 'Future of Education'
December 22, 2020
was a middle school teacher during the rise of the iPad, and I remember all too well the grandiose, hyperbolic marketing from education technology companies or ed-tech "gurus" offering some kind of consulting service.:
"the iPad is the future of education"
"the iPad will revolutionize education"
"the iPad will change learning, forever"
"the iPad brings classrooms into the 21st century"
Did it? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Now that immersive technology seems to be the frontier tech du jour for the education space, this kind of language around VR + AR is reaching new heights of absurdity. I would argue though, that this sort of "VR is the Future of Education" rhetoric isn't just silly. I think it's actually detrimental to education, virtual reality, teachers, and students.
WHAT? HOW CAN YOU BE SAYING THIS? HAVEN'T YOU WORKED IN VR FOR MOST OF THE PAST 5 YEARS? ISN'T THIS BLOG PART OF A SITE DEDICATED TO VR? Yeah, I sure have, and it sure is. I am indeed a big believer in immersive technology, and I do think there are lots of interesting ways teachers and students can leverage VR in pursuit of a wide range of goals. My recent effort, Frame, revolves around helping people build VR experiences that run right from a web browser and which can be used as meeting spaces for immersive gatherings. In particular, I'm really interested in helping teachers and students come together online inside of immersive environments for communication and collaboration.
That said, I take serious issue with the way technology companies talk about the intersection of immersive tech and education. Generally, I see a disconcerting smattering of garbage that can be boiled down to a few common themes:
"education is broken (one way or another) and needs to be fixed"
"VR is here to save the day"
"VR is revolutionizing education"
"VR is the future"
"If you as a teacher don't know about VR, you will be left behind"
"VR will replace the textbook/classroom/teacher - woo hoo!"
I also admit that I've been guilty of using this kind of language to push the hype train forward in years past at various roles. As I've thought about this more, though, I feel strongly that saying stuff along these lines isn't really helpful to anyone besides those that are selling the hardware, the software, or their VR + ed consulting services. Besides the fact that these statements are breathtakingly vague (e.g. what the hell does it mean to be the 'future of education'?), I think it's misleading, sets the wrong expectations, and alienates a lot of teachers who might not be super tech-savvy and are already overwhelmed as they try to keep up with the latest tech trends that their school is pushing onto them.
There are only so many "revolutions" that teachers can take before some serious fatigue sets in, and I wouldn't blame any teacher for casting a very skeptical eye on this "VR education revolution". In fact, I think we need a lot more skepticism directed towards new technologies like VR and the companies that use language like this without any sense of context, actual research, or deep knowledge about learning and the daily lives of teachers and students.
In my opinion, there's a lot to be concerned about when it comes to immersive technology, but I'm noticing that people don't seem too inclined to think about things like why it wouldn't make sense to use VR for a particular activity, or why VR could be problematic. Swap in any tech you want in place of VR. We need more "Why Not VR" infographics, not just "Why VR" ones. Are we really imagining a future where most students spend most of their days in VR headsets, or inside of some reality that isn't that which is right in front of them? I have yet to hear anyone explain why that future is desirable or fundamentally better for most teachers and students around the world. I'm all ears.
I'm not a technophobe by any means, but I also know a lot of extraordinarily gifted teachers who don't know a darn thing about VR, the latest version of Google Apps for Education, or whatever. And I don't see that as a problem, because what they do is magical. Some of them have mastered the use of a piece of technology that I think did usher in a real revolution, the implications of which human society is still reeling from: the book. Some of them have cultivated the empathy and listening skills required to interact with students at a deep interpersonal level, giving them a connection that enables them to help students learn and grow in ways that no AI-powered bot inside a VR classroom has proven able to do.
And yes, of course there are many teachers and students that are doing incredible things with virtual reality. It's opening up new avenues for exploring content, creating content, and interacting with that content and each other. I truly couldn't be more excited about immersive technology and education. But my final thoughts are still:
Teachers and students are and will always be the future of education, not any particular technology and certainly not VR.
Revolutions happen in education as a result of pedagogical changes in combination with technological ones, and they are gradual. No technology on its own ushers in any kind of revolution. It's thoughtful examination, skepticism, and creativity from thousands of practitioners over time.
If you see a lot of "VR is the future of education" jargon coming from some company, be supremely skeptical and probe deeper. What kind of future is that, and what kind of future do you want?