Avoiding Oculus VR Education Fantasies

Why virtual reality matters for learning less than we might wish.

March 30, 2014

Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face, just by putting on goggles in your home.”  Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s $2 billion dollar acquisition of Oculus VR. (Emphasis mine). 

Prediction:  Our edtech crowd is going to get somewhat excited about virtual reality.  

We are going to give presentations at conferences, write blog posts, and try to cook up pilot projects around the intersection of learning and virtual reality.  We will spin attractive tales about the power of immersive learning experiences, dreaming of the educational benefit of situating our learner’s in the middle of historical events, far-off geographies, and heretofore inaccessible biological systems.

Does anyone remember the educational excitement, and then rapid educational disillusionment, around Second Life?

The dream of the gamification of learning, and the development of educational materials that match the narrative intensity and production values of digital entertainment titles, exerts a strong pull within our community.  

How could it not?  

We understand how immersive digital environments, combined with sophisticated narratives and gameplay options, encourages deep engagement with video games.  We hope that today’s escapist-centric game narrative can become tomorrow’s learning-centric narrative.  Same platform, same players, different results.

You and I might think that Facebook wildly overpaid for Oculus VR.  The truth is, it doesn’t really matter if this investment was smart or dumb, as no matter what Facebook does with Oculus we will see some pretty amazing immersive gaming platforms emerge in the next few years.

VR may just revolutionize gaming.

What will not happen, however, is any virtual really driven revolution in learning.

Ten years from now, virtual reality hardware and software may cause long-form video games (and maybe even watching March Madness basketball) to be experienced very differently.

But virtual reality will have no such impact on higher education.

The reason why VR platforms like Oculus will impact gaming and entertainment, but not education, is that education is not like gaming or entertainment.

Education, at least the type of education worth paying for, is different than gaming or entertainment because education does not scale.

Education requires a personal relationship between educators and learners. 

Education requires that the learner produce, not simply consume or experience.

The price of an education that is about consuming information is rapidly dropping to zero.  That is a good thing.  

The value of an education that is about collaborating with and learning directly and personally from skilled educators is only going up.   

Perhaps in the future we will be able to incorporate virtual reality gear such as Oculus VR into our classes.  Can’t wait.   

But the true value will be in the professor working closely with the student in the context of a relationship where everyone is learning from each other.

Let’s get excited about more opportunities for faculty and students to work closely together.  Let’s get excited about our students creating and sharing new knowledge.

But let’s temper our educational excitement about any new technologies, even toys as shiny and fun as virtual reality goggles, with the knowledge that authentic learning is never about the stuff - and always about the people.


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