on education

thoughts from a graduate student at the university of mary washington

new technologies. week eleven.



Here are some folks getting ready for their class meeting in a virtual world. 

This week, I must admit, is a hard one for me. I want to be on the forefront of all of the educational technology that’s out there, but this is where I draw the line. I will say it, loud and proud:

I absolutely do not like and will never use virtual realities in my classroom. 

Now, this is a bias I’ve carried with me since these things cropped up years ago. But after investigating them this week, I can’t say that my mind has been changed at all. I looked at the web-based virtual homeschooling site, and I wasn’t really that impressed with the demo campus tour. I could, however, see the benefits of home schooled kids collaborating with others on group projects since they don’t have that opportunity sitting around their kitchen tables with mom and pop. In this sense, when the students are cut off from others, I suppose that a virtual reality is better than nothing. Even so, they freak me out. To me, they disengage you with the actual world around you and thrust you into something make believe, and everything about that sits wrong with me. I guess I’d rather take my students on a field trip and let them talk to real scientists, see real experiments or microcosms representing what they’re learning. Be hands-on in that way.

Now, on to the thing that really, really got me going. My husband had to listen to me rant about this for at least half an hour. Ladies and gentlemen, the TED talk. Does nobody else find this kind of technology alarming and ridiculous?! And that line at the end about coming back with an IMPLANTED BRAIN DEVICE?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Just no. No, no, no. My mind is going so quickly, I’m not even sure where to begin with this. I suppose that in a nutshell, this is how I feel about the technology these people presented: It stops you from thinking. I know, I know. It’s supposed to be about expanding our horizons and giving us real-time access to information, but that’s just not how I process what’s happening in that video. Take, for example, the projection of a word cloud onto a person that you’re meeting for the first time using keywords from their blog posts, Google search results, what have you. This device is preventing you from thinking about this person. It’s telling you what to think. Its persuading and forming your opinion based on words that it chooses. And again, with it being able to pull up information for you about a book or a product, same result: you don’t have to think! It does everything for you — the research, the synthesization of information, and the end product. Who cares if the book gets 5 stars or 2 stars? If you want to read it, read it! If you want to know the most ecologically sound toilet paper to buy, look them up before you go to the store AND MAKE YOUR OWN DECISION ABOUT IT! And by the way, this lady is so wrong — I do, in fact, hop onto my iPhone and look things up while I’m standing in the store every now and then. I’ve never once in my life wished I could pull a Tom Cruise in Minority Report and look at metadata (or metacontent, if you will) moment. It seems to me that this kind of thing almost borders on encouraging groupthink, and lacks the kind of divergent thinking and critical thinking that I’m trying to instill in my students.

I understand that I’m probably in the minority in this, but that’s the beauty in designing my own classroom and my own philosophy of how this all plays out. I’m totally allowed to think this whole thing is nuts!

I suppose that, truly, my biggest beef with these virtual worlds that we’ve been exploring this week is that I feel like it’s displacing the role of the teacher and the school environment in favor of a completely simulated one with perfect conditions. I’m anti-textbook, I really am. I enjoy bringing technology into the classroom. I like using iPad apps and making Skype calls between countries or with subject matter experts. I’m in favor of authentic learning experiences. Most of the things we’ve explored in this course have piqued my interest. Just not this. I know that in the Solomon & Schrum text they talk about how these virtual “MUVEs” are supposed to create divergent thinking and offer complex, real world problems/solutions, but I’m not really buying into that for my age range. It would appear to me from reading the text that these are geared toward older students, anyway. The examples they gave of elementary grades and projects/simulations in these virtual environments still seemed to me that they used a lot of time out of the virtual world, and their end result (in my opinion) could have been reached without using the virtual world at all.

My content area is pre-k thru grade 6. My job is to teach these kids how to research and dissect information, synthesize it, begin to think critically, and come to their own conclusions. These ideas are so new to them, I want to be there to guide them through it. I want to do it together in this actual, physical world. Maybe it’s the limitations of my own mind, but I just don’t see how Second Life is going to help me do that. Also, you know, if we’re talking about me doing pre-k or kindergarten, my role is mainly to teach them socially appropriate and acceptable behavior. Yes, we’ve got content that we’re learning, but as I’ve witnessed in my kindergarten practicum placement, it really does take a backseat to teaching them to be good citizens, first and foremost. I’m not so sure that these virtual environments will be useful to me in these grade levels. If we’re going to take a virtual field trip somewhere, I want to log in to the field trip that’s being held at the real, physical place! I want a real scientist guiding me through or a real expert on botany or what have you. I’m not interested in some made-up world with cool computer graphics. Are you?

I read through several studies about education and virtual realities, and I found a few that talked about the side effects of these kinds of things, but none of it really suited me to the point of including it here. I’m talking headaches, disorientation, etc. I’m more interested in the effect using these virtual worlds has on our ability to interact in and engage with the real world, but I couldn’t find anything about that. I guess this one thought sums up why I dislike these worlds so much: “Students do many things these days in the world of virtual environments. They invent extensive and creative lives for themselves in which they play, build, interact, and explore” (Solomon & Schrum, 2010). They invent extensive and creative lives. Meaning, they’re not themselves. What’s wrong with the life they’ve got? And I can promise you the people they’re interacting with aren’t being their authentic selves, either. So they’re playing, building, interacting, and exploring in a world full of little white lies and falsities, in which, at the very base of it, their creativity is making their actual lives not good enough. They come out of these worlds feeling a little less than, I think. I want my students to build their self-confidence and explore their interests outside of a fantasyland. I want them to collaborate with the people sitting next to them, or use the class iPads to Skype with students in Beijing learning about the same topic, and they can brainstorm and work together in that way. With other real kids. In a real setting. These virtual worlds may be beneficial in learning about, I don’t know, exploding stars, but that’s not what I’m teaching to young kids. If I want them to feel like journalists, I’ll send them out to interview actual people in their communities. I’ll schedule a video chat with an author. I am absolutely confident that my classroom would not be lacking in creativity simply because I choose not to use these MUVEs.

I want you to peek into how my brain is approaching this, if only because I’ve known a few kids that have gotten too into virtual worlds, and ended up losing the self-esteem battle if you can gather what I’m saying. You’re using the homeschool website I mentioned above. You’re logging in as a student for the first time. You also happen to be 150 pounds or so overweight with acne and crooked teeth. Tell me something: is that the avatar you’d build for yourself? I bet it’s not. Already, your true self is a little less than, and for what? In the name of innovation? You walk through your virtual world, and what else are you making up? What about the people around you in your virtual world, what are they making up? So much for it being authentic. So much of what we do in school goes beyond information. And it’s equally as important, if not more so, in the lower grades. Now, I recognize that not every assignment will be done completely  in a virtual realm and that, according to our text, much still has to be done outside of that environment, but for me…. it’s just not worth it. These kids are so immersed in this kind of technology outside of school that I feel their brains need to be able to shut off from it and do a different kind of work. Actually, I wrote a small paper on it last semester — it’s called digital brain! (You can look at it here, uploaded to my google site)

And take a look at The Telegraph‘s slide show of the most anticipated video games of 2013. What do you notice about these games? Most of them are straight-up scary. All of them look like they’re set in these virtual worlds we’re building for our students. And they spend well over 4 hours a day doing this. I want to pull them out of fantasy land and engage them in the real world. Not a simulation of it.

Check out this short story — The Machine Stops, written in 1909. Funny how something written so long ago rings so true.




Forester, E. M. (1909). The machine stops . Retrieved from http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

Solomon, G., & Schrum, L. (2010). Web 2.0 how-to for educators. (1st ed.). Washington, D.C.: International Society for Technology in Education.

posted under INDT 501

Email will not be published

Website example

Your Comment: