John Richard Schrock is a professor at Emporia State University in Kansas, where he teaches science and prepares science teachers.

Virtual Unreality

Headlines have declared that this spring has seen the breakthrough in “virtual reality” (VR) media. Facebook released the Oculus Rift headset on March 28. Right behind it was the HTC Vive and the SONY PlayStation VR.
The hype behind VR is that it creates an “immersive environment” similar to the real world. First pitched in the 1990s—VR was poor quality and an immediate failure. But this new technology has Goldman Sachs predicting the VR industry will become bigger than television in the next ten years.

The new VR systems provide goggles with high definition resolution and a flicker speed far beyond what the human eye can detect. This is combined with movement sensors that detect head tilt and give the wearer the impression that they are in a real visual environment. Stereo headphones provide directional sound. A person wearing this head mounted display can “look around” and believe that they are in an artificial world.

More advanced “haptic” systems add the senses of smell and touch, the later through wired gloves or other devices. The goal is to convince the user of their “telexistence” or “telepresence.” So far, all of these expensive headsets also require expensive and specialized personal computers.

The industry hype that these “virtual worlds” possess all of the qualities of real world interactions has not been lost on the educational futurists who can hardly wait to have the first school on their block to brag about having this advanced technology.
Unfortunately, this simulation technology is worse than useless. Besides being orders of magnitude more expensive than genuine learning experiences, it lacks three important properties that real experiences have: true interaction, test-truthfulness, and real consequences. We know this because computer simulations invaded our classrooms as soon as personal computers became commonplace.

They all claim to be “interactive.” This was printed on the label of every simulation from 8-inch floppy discs to current thumb drives and cloud-based media. But the “interaction” of typing a keyboard or clicking a mouse to crossbreed fruit flies is nothing like actually handling the real flies (and having most of them drown in banana culture). And while we may lift our kids into the “seat” of a video-arcade “racing car,” we certainly know not to accept this performance as readiness to drive a real car.

Only the real world provides “test truthfulness.” Cross a hundred generations of fruit flies with dominant and recessive traits in simulation and the 3-to-1 ratio comes out textbook perfect. Not so in the real world. The value of real labs and other real experiences is that there is variation from the norm. Sure you can “program in” the variation; but the students’ know that variation was scripted as well. The real world is not scripted.

“Real consequences” are vital to learning in the real world. Even the student who flunks out of high school is careful to drive on the right side of the road. Why? To not stay in the lane is to face the real consequences of crashing. Get “killed” in a videogame or VR simulation and you just quit and walk away.

We can blindfold students for a day and tell them that this is what it is like to be blind. But it is not! At the end of the day the student can remove the blindfold. The blind person cannot.
Woody Allen once said: “I hate reality, but it’s still the best place to get a good steak.”

Reality is also be best place to get a good education.