VR/AR represents a new medium – it is not “just another display”. New mediums require significant experimentation before they become useful platforms for engagement. Right now we’re in the “gee whiz” phase and that novelty will wear off quickly. Academia can play a role in helping to figure out the “why” of VR/AR. Business will focus on selling product and content – someone needs to work on the deeper meaning.
VR/AR presents a huge opportunity to transform education. Starting with the “computer revolution” (roughly starting in the 80’s), there has been a constant infusion of technology into the classroom. In fact tech goes back further (film strips, movies, overhead projectors, etc), but computers, then more broadly, digital content/capabilities, have accelerated adoption by orders of magnitudes. Often tech in the classroom has been pursued for the sake of “new” rather than based on pedagogical needs and desires. Part of the challenge is that new tech does require experimentation. But all too often experiments get pushed as solutions, and then fail to produce desired results (if people even know what the desired results are).
Digital’s big advantage is scale – it provides that ability to reach many more people than a single human can, and extend availability to point and time of need. It does not replace a human in the process, but it can replace some of the tasks currently done by teachers, administrators, and other people in the education chain.
The challenge is that VR/AR is still in the wild west phase of development, and experimentation (and failure) is necessary (and assured). People have gotten used to technology having more capabilities and just “working,” but content, context, and experiences, as delivered by VR/AR, are a more difficult problem space to explore and solve. Imagine that it is 1900 and Thomas Edison has given you a film camera. Time to shoot a movie…but what is a movie? You don’t know what an edit is, you don’t know a tracking shot, depth of field and how it influences viewer emotion – you’re starting from scratch.
VR/AR content and experiences are somewhat in the same place, though we *expect* them to be better since film and games are so advanced, and we think that we can port the old content models to the new medium. But immersion is a different relationship with the user, and the new sense of agency that end users wield massively complicate content development.
Once you start to get compelling content and experiences for the classroom, you also have to solve the question of what really *is* the classroom, and what do you do there? Given this ability to deliver immersive content to point and time of need, what does that in-person transaction look like? We need to radically rethink “school” and what goes on in the real-time physical space. School still serves a critical function in teaching and providing practice for interpersonal skills. Even in increasing digital spaces, the analog, human interaction still has value and will continue to be necessary for success.
So the distillation – the physical space/time at school is important, and we should optimize that experience to leverage things that are more difficult to teach/train/learn digitally. At the same time, we should experiment, understand, and optimize the digital experiences and figure out how that works for humans, and why it is important. VR/AR will go from a novelty (as now) to a market (in the next few years) to a commodity capability (like chairs and tables). Getting to that point will take technical advances, content/context experimentation, and deep thinking about the morals, ethics, and deeper meanings that are presented by these immersive virtual worlds colliding with humans.