While tagging along with my husband on a business trip, I had an unexpected ed tech encounter with a retired teacher and father of a 10-year-old. I asked what he'd been doing in the last few years he’d been retired, and he replied, “Not much. You?” I told him I recently co-founded a non-profit to get quality augmented and virtual realities' content and practices in the schools. Usually, when I mention AR/VR, the reaction is something along the lines of, “How cool!” or at the very least, “What’s AR?” Not this fella. He was adamant, almost visceral, that his son is lazy because his teachers used technology in the classroom. No matter what I said convinced him otherwise.
Immersive tech: An empathy machine?
I asked this gentleman what was sure to be my winning point, “In what ways does your son learn empathy?” The answer was a good one. “Reading.” No doubt. This English teacher agrees. Mostly. I had just spent the day at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta where there is a humbling immersive audio/vibration experience called the Lunch Counter. This extremely intense recreation of a diner sit-in was difficult to withstand for 90 seconds...and it wasn’t even “real.” (Check out a visitor’s description of the experience here.
But what about children who are striving readers? What about kids who don't speak English (yet)? What about experiencing events across time and place never visited otherwise? Even the best of readers can find it difficult to imagine the real emotional and physical struggles encountered by others, especially by those in the past or in an area with which they have little to no experience. So I pose the question: What if an immersive experience actually leads a child to read more, inquire/research, or even better, create about a given topic? People have chosen passions and entire careers based on just one impactful experience.
But what about instruction?
As a classroom teacher and content coordinator, I was a big proponent of simulations. To what degree possible, these experiences stayed with students long after the unit or school year. Whether we recreated assembly line pressures and conditions of the industrial era, injustices under British rule in the American colonies, or creating a class government based on our local community. Students empathized with those who work in poor working conditions today and learned that citizen voices are an exercise in rights. It only makes sense to progress from simulations to using virtual and augmented realities to accomplish the same objectives.
I had the opportunity to see this in action recently in an elementary school library using QuantumERA’s Experience Real History, Alamo Edition. Students took the point of view of the Mexican Soldados scaling the Alamo compound walls and then turned right around to the opposite experience as a Texian defending that same wall. I heard students say, “But they DIED” or look at their partner and question, “We LOST?” “Only 150 men defended the whole place? I had no idea it was so BIG.” That’s right. I could “teach/tell” them these discoveries, or even read about it. I can even have them watch an inaccurate, glamorized Hollywood version of the Battle of the Alamo. But at the end of the day, they still can’t experience it...until now. That’s the power of immersive technologies.
The retired educator father I spoke with thought ed tech stifled critical thinking. I naturally disagreed because there is one BIG variable in this picture he didn’t consider: the teacher. It's up to the teacher to ask amazing questions. It’s up to the teacher to provide experiences that invite students’ own questions and conjectures and seek out the why in the context of the time and location. It will always be a terrific teacher who makes the students do the heavy lifting. Tech or no tech.
It is 2019. We live in a digital world. How will students learn to navigate the digital landscape with minefields of biased and blatant mistruths? How will they empathize with global citizens who are different than them? How can they understand the perspective of a historical figure who made compromises that affect us today? The use of augmented or virtual reality to learn won’t make a student lazy. Funny, but I truly believed that education had moved PAST the tech or no tech in schools question and on to how and when to use tech. Apparently not everywhere.
The Institute for Learning Perspectives, or Perspectives XR, is an educational non-profit dedicated to helping educational institutions use immersive technologies to teach the humanities.