The dangers of techno-pessimism in education

I do research on the potential of Virtual Reality for education. Now, people generally find VR very exciting and because of this I get a lot of enthusiastic reactions. People can imagine all sorts of useful applications for education. Students could learn about our solar system while experiencing a space flight, or walk through ancient Rome and learn about its history.

Of course, I also receive a lot of reactions that are more critical of VR as a learning tool. We are at a point in time where there’s hardly any decisive research about learning performances in Virtual Reality. We don’t even know yet whether people will buy VR headsets. Shouldn’t we wait for these kinds of things before we invest in hardware and educational VR content? VR has been a hype before, can the technology deliver the promises that are being made?

Generally I can understand and appreciate these critical viewpoints. I often even agree with them. However, I also think that there’s danger in this cautious, sceptical stance that is often seen in education. The danger is that it’s quite different from the agressive venture capitalist approach often seen in the internet & entertainment industries. Virtual Reality has the potential to be huge, which creates the possibility to invest in a company that will be leading in this new market. This promise has been the reason for VC’s to invest billions and billions of dollars in companies that create VR hardware and software.

So, when VR would actually become a mainstream technology, the entertainment industry will have a multi billion dollar head start. This head start will have had serious influence on the way we view and use Virtual Reality. There will be solid software distribution platforms created by the VR hardware companies. VR will be primarily perceived as a medium for gaming and other entertainment purposes, and only very slightly as a tool for learning. Matthew McCoy points out how the choices we make today, will strongly affect our future use of the medium in this interesting article.

In a way then, techno-pessimism in education is self-fulfilling. We can follow a cautious, sceptical approach and wait for strong research results that conclude that certain Virtual Reality applications lead to better learning results. But by doing so, we give the entertainment industry a head start, making it very hard for education to catch up. I guess something similar happened with our smartphones. We don’t primarily use these devices for their powerful learning capabilities, but instead for posting selfies on Instagram.

I want to stress that a critical stance about the use of VR in education is very valuable. Virtual Reality is not a tool that will solve all the ‘problems’ in education. I do not think VR will transform or disrupt education, despite what the headlines of tech blogs state. VR is not the best medium for all learning material. Some is better explained through text, video, by doing an assignment, or by explanation by the teacher. I do think however, that we should experiment with VR in the classroom much more!

What do you think? Is this danger real? What should we do about it?

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