Will Virtual Reality Be Different?

Why VR may be an opportunity for our edtech community to atone for our past sins.

July 13, 2016

Carl Straumsheim's excellent article, Virtual Reality on the Horizon, has got me thinking about the conversations I expect to have on my campus about VR over the next few years.

Do we need to follow the same campus path of skepticism, hype, disillusionment, and acceptance with VR that seems to accompany every new tech innovation?

Is there any way that we can avoid the tired old arguments about the role of new technologies at old institutions?

My recommendation is that when it comes to virtual reality that we stipulate a few things first:

1 - Technology Is Not All That Consequential:

None of us has any idea how big VR will end up being.  The technology could change how people consume media, or it may only have a marginal effect.  VR could be the new 3D (little impact) or the new smart phone (big impact).

Whatever happens with VR, however, it will not have that big an impact on higher ed.  Why?  Because the importance of content - and the platforms/technologies that content is delivered - is quickly diminishing in education.

VR might be a better way to deliver content (or maybe not), but content in higher ed has become commoditized.  New ways to deliver educational content is simply not a very interesting, or consequential, challenge in higher ed.

Any technology built on passive experiences may be interesting to play with, but the real action is with methods and technologies that enable active learning.

2 - Technology Is Only A Tool:

During this latest tech cycle can we avoid talking so much about the technology?  Can we talk more about the goals of our educators?  Can we talk about what our faculty want to accomplish in their classrooms, and then about the constraints and challenges that they face in reaching their goals?

It may be that VR will help some of our faculty solve some of their teaching challenges.  Great.  We should do everything we can then to partner with these faculty.

What we need to continually do when talking about virtual reality is always to be saying that the role of technology is to assist.  Technology never replaces or substitutes for the work of the faculty, it only (and at best) aids the work of the educator.

3 - Technology Is Not the Challenge:

Most of the discussion about VR is about how fast will the technology develop.  When will the price of VR rigs come down?  When will VR become wireless?  How long until compelling content is developed that can take advantage of the new virtual reality systems?

I submit to you that from a higher ed perspective - none of these questions are really all that interesting.

What is interesting is how our postsecondary system can move towards prioritizing the autonomy, security, and success of our educators.

What is interesting is how we can ensure that higher ed is an engine of social mobility, and not only a mechanism of class replication.

There are a ton of interesting questions about the future of higher ed.  The future of VR is not among these questions.

We can ask, however, how we will make space in higher ed to experiment and innovate?

We can ask how we can responsibly investigate the potential of VR while keeping the focus on the core issues of investing in all of our faculty (including contingent).

VR provides our edtech community with the opportunity for a tech do-over.  We can atone for our sins with open online learning, analytics, mobile, etc. etc. by situating our enthusiasm for the new and shiny world of VR with the fundamental challenges faced by educators and learners.

Can our edtech community be more passionate about public disinvestment in higher ed than the latest Oculus Rift release?

Sadly, I am not hopeful.




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