Educational VR: The Irony of it All

I recall the hall of fame release by the Byrds in 1965, a song that rhythmically and hauntingly chanted:

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven…
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together…

This song aptly describes some of the emotions I experienced while scouting the sessions and exhibits of ISTE 2017. (The ISTE 2017 educational technology conference held in late June, with over 15,000 educators in attendance, is considered the largest ed-tech conference in the U.S. Every state and more than 72 countries were represented at this year’s ed-tech extravaganza.) The stout and trendy presence of virtual reality that so thoroughly imbued the conference left me with a hefty sense of irony. I was struck by the incongruity of the past and the future colliding in an uncomfortable way.

CVlab3 2Educators enjoying VR experiences at ISTE 2017


I am describing something we’ve seen before—when we were pushing for 3D visualization tools in the classroom from 2010 through 2015. I know this arena well, having led one of the largest and most successful 3D implementations in U.S. schools, working closely with stalwart companies like Texas Instruments. Virtual reality is all the rage today, but in the past, things didn’t look quite so bright. Though the technologies are really quite similar, something had changed. We’ve morphed, as the Byrds would suggest, from a time of breaking down, to a period of building up. What happened? Let me explain using a few juxtaposed examples:

Complaint: These 3D glasses are just too heavy and uncomfortable for students.

Educator response to 3D (4 years ago): “They don’t fit the heads of children.” “They don’t work well for children wearing glasses.” “These just won’t work, sorry.”

Educator response to VR (today at ISTE), even though glasses are heavier and more constraining: “Wow, isn’t this amazing!” “Can I try them on?” “How can I get more for my classroom?”

Complaint: 3D costs too much.

Educator response to 3D (4 years ago): “We can’t afford this.” “How do you expect teachers to buy this for each classroom?” “This just isn’t sustainable, sorry.”

Educator response to VR (today at ISTE), even though VR costs much more, per student: “Wow, this is so sexy!” “Where can I get more?” “I’ll find a way.”

Complaint: 3D makes some of my students sick.

Educator response to 3D (4 years ago): “How do you expect me to use a tool that makes students ill?” “How do we explain this to parents?” “My teachers are getting sick, too.” “We just can’t do this, sorry.”

Educator response to VR (today at ISTE), though VR makes even stronger visual demands on the student: “I don’t care, this is so transformational, i.e. really sexy!” “No, none of my children appear to be sick [even though I haven’t really asked them].” “Where can I buy this for my school and classroom?”

Complaint: 3D glasses can spread lice and diseases easily to children.

Educator response to 3D (4 years ago): “How do you expect us to stop and clean these devices between each use?” “This just isn’t on my radar, sorry. I’m too busy to be a janitor.”

Educator response to VR (today at ISTE), even though VR headgear offers the same concern: “My, this is sexy!” “I’ve got to have this for my classroom.” I’m not going to worry about cleaning them.”

Complaint: 3D laptops, 3D projectors, 3D glasses—how do we manage all this stuff?

Educator response to 3D (4 years ago): “How do we store, disburse, and collect all this paraphernalia?” “How do we possibly keep the 3D glasses at full charge?” “How do we switch between 2D and 3D?” “Sorry, this is just too much to handle. I’m a busy teacher.”

Educator response to VR (today at ISTE), even though VR headgear have increased size, storage and management concerns: “Oh, so sexy! Gotta get some.” “Managing these resources—huh? Is that really necessary?”

Complaint: I just can’t find enough 3D content.

Educator response to 3D (4 years ago): “There is not enough academic content to justify our purchase of this technology.” “Isn’t student-created content too difficult and time consuming to make?” “I just don’t see the curricular traction, sorry.”

Educator response to VR (today at ISTE), though VR also lacks comprehensive content and is difficult for students to construct: “I don’t care—this is really innovative, i.e. sexy!” “Where can I find more free content?”

Complaint: Our 3D content won’t run on that other hardware platform.

Educator response to 3D (4 years ago): “Why do I need to buy that type of hardware and not just use what I’ve got?” “The content is too hardware specific.” “Our district won’t support that brand of equipment, sorry.”

Educator response to VR (today at ISTE), though VR also lacks unifying standards: “I don’t care—how can we do it?” “It’s just sexy!” “I’ll find a way.”

Of course, my entire message plays on the irony of the times we are in. Virtual Reality is succeeding in the education market today, well, because, well, it’s… sexy. How long that will last? Who knows, but I suspect these questions won’t just go away. For now, here is how the education market works: over the next year or so, suppliers need to fill in the missing pieces and answer the unanswered questions or VR will be left in the backwaters of time and will be replaced by the latest trending whatchamacallit or gadget. Welcome to education. And P.S.: don’t show this article to your marketing department. Incongruity overly frustrates their sense of forward progress. —Len Scrogan