Confessions of a Technology Evangelist

Or, how AR and VR will (really) transform education to create a meaningful future.

GUEST COLUMN | by Todd Richmond

CREDIT IEEE image.jpgI was recently asked to give a keynote talk on virtual, augmented and mixed reality (VAMR) for a group of K-12 teachers, administrators, and CTOs/CIOs.

The first two talks – one by an architectural firm and the second by the educational arm of a VR company – lauded the impact that VR was having in their industries, and painted an exciting picture of remote collaboration, rich sensory experiences, and improved communication and learning.

These are tools—albeit profoundly powerful ones—that need to be understood and used in meaningful ways.

Then I got up and served as the wet blanket – a reality check on where we really are today, and offered cautionary tales on technology hype and early adoption.

I opened the talk with a confession: I used to be a technology evangelist, but now—after a few decades of being in the trenches—I’m much more of a technology realist.

Computers in the classroom, mobile, and now immersive – each held out as a “silver bullet” that will magically transform the classroom and education.

But the reality sets in, and we find that these are tools—albeit profoundly powerful ones—that need to be understood and used in meaningful ways. That said, even a realist can be excited about the possibilities.

Here’s why.

Real-time Collaboration

While still clunky, we now can interact in shared virtual environments while being physically located mostly anywhere.

This means that a “classroom” can extend far beyond four walls, and “group projects” can now include students and mentors that are spread around the county, state, and around the world.

It really does begin to enable borderless education, and the possibilities around language study and cultural understanding are particularly exciting.

The same technological advances will change the workplace in similar ways, so the good news is that the shared virtual educational environments can seamlessly transition into shared workplace environments.

Almost Like Being There

As the saying goes, those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it. One challenge is that history is historical, and can be difficult for a student to engage and understand, particularly devoid of cultural associations and experience of the various locales.

VAMR provides the opportunity to immerse students in places and events.  While the efficacy and educational outcomes are still being studied, we know that the first step to understanding is engagement, and VAMR currently excels at that task when done right.  

Driving Admissions

One strong capability of VR is to allow a user to become embodied in a place (assuming a well-crafted virtual environment).

Educational institutions who are looking for prospective students have historically used print materials combined with perhaps video to give a taste of the place.

Beyond that, a visit to the physical space is the only way to give a more immersive experience. Virtual tours can give prospective students (and parents!) a much deeper insight into not only the facilities, but the culture of the school and campus.

This also can enable a “life-long” connection with the school, as students can begin their interactions before beginning their studies, and continuing after matriculation, graduation, and then as alumni.

The Empathy Machine (?)

Many have described VR as an “empathy machine”, due to the ability to embody characters in virtual (or 360 video) environments. While VR certainly helps increase awareness of the situations and environments of others, whether that leads to empathy is still an open question.

In fact, there is a danger of what I call “false empathy”, wherein a VR user takes their experience as equivalent to “being there” and then assume that they truly understand the plight of others.

It will be important that educators strive to find balance and temper digital experiences with an eye towards what levels of transference are possible.

The Tyranny of Literalism

My wife is an artist and faculty at CalArts. We often discuss education, particularly in light of a rapidly changing digital world. One course she teaches is called “Vigor and Rigor.”

For her, it often relates to having a group of highly vigorous young art students and getting them to understand that art is not just a noun—it is a verb that includes practice and process, both of which require rigor.

My applications are usually the opposite, as I work with a variety of scientists and technologists who have been steeped in rigor for years, but have shed some of the ability to color outside the lines.

We as a society tend to increasingly suffer from “the tyranny of literalism”, where we accept things at face value, and don’t really do much critical thinking or deeply consider issues of abstraction and representation.

One fear with VR is that it may take the place of the imagination, moving ‘theater of the mind’ onto the headset.

Recognizing that possibility, we need to build tools and experiences that instead challenge our thinking and augment our creative abilities and outputs. And it is critical to include artists in the process, as they are trained to work through issues such as abstraction, which are key to breaking down and understanding complexity.

The Chinese have the concept of Yin/Yang – that for every force there is a counter balancing force. Day and night, hard and soft, dark and light, good and bad – you can’t have one without the other.

It is important that we keep this dynamic in mind as we develop educational applications for VAMR. If there is great power, there also is the potential for abuse, negative training, and other downsides.

It is critical that developers and educators remain cognizant of the downsides as we embrace the new capabilities that can and will transform education. In a spirit of thoughtful experimentation rather than “easy solutions”, we can and will invent a meaningful future.

Todd Richmond, IEEE Member, currently heads University of Southern California’s Mixed Reality Lab as its Director, where he works in a variety of areas related to emerging disruptive technologies (Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality, Artificial Intelligence) and their implications and applications for training, learning, and operations. Future environments for communication and collaboration, immersive technologies, interactive education, and visualization and analytics—are some of the areas in which Todd and his team focus. He is also research faculty at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, working to better understand VAMR. He earned a B.A. in chemistry from the University of San Diego and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Caltech, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in protein engineering at UC San Francisco.


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