Stories Worth Telling: VR @ TCEA 2019

TCEA 2019, one of the largest educational technology conferences in the U.S., convened in San Antonio earlier this year and offered ah interesting perspective about the status and growth of virtual reality in the K12 education sector these days. The Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference is a bellwether of change in the U.S. education market, driven by Texas’ supersized influence, so it’s good to pay attention to the storylines there, both big and little. I’ve chronicled some of the most interesting accounts below.

Little Portraits

Lenovo’s AllinOne Display looked sharp.In the exhibit hall, Lenovo showcased their all-in-one solution and accompanying ecosystem, making for an appealing script. For the first time in memory, VR was not merely a sub-plot at the Lenovo booth, but the dominant narrative, with four customer stations all featuring VR solutions. The carefully crafted plot line was the notion that the new Lenovo classroom VR solution offered 6 versus 3 degrees of viewing freedom to the student, enhancing the experience and reducing visual safety concerns. And the “technology will continue to get better”, promised the sales rep. Lenovo’s rising VR saga-in-the-making was furthered by co-location of their resources in CDW-G’s dedicated hall and even hosted Google presentations.

Again in the exhibit hall, VR secured a “best of show” award in the ‘school’ category, with the award going to zSpace, for their new AR/VR Laptop.

Big Portraits

Students creating VR content was a well-told tale at TCEA 2019, dominating general and poster sessions alike. For example, in the TCEA Innovation Lab, a room dedicated to hands-on VR tabletop presentations, teacher Gail Dunn demonstrated how 8th grade computer science students formed into teams of four, then interviewed individual teachers about their instructional needs, and proceeded to produce actual VR content for each interviewed teacher in their school.

VR and ARGail Dunn at her tabletop VR presentation in the TCEA Innovation Lab

Hazy Portraits

VR continues to be on the decline in the exhibit hall, in terms of booth presence. I am seeing this trend continue at most ed-tech conference exhibit halls, wondering what this subtext might mean in the long run? It’s a story not fully formed.

AR evidenced a smaller footprint than VR, again, a pattern emerging at recent ed-tech conferences. Makes one wonder as to what sort of upheaval may be waiting in the wings, doesn’t it? Another story not fully formed.

Scary Portraits

Posters2One of dozens of VR-themed poster presentations at TCEAIt felt like a VR overdose in the conference sessions. Despite its relative absence in the exhibit hall, in the regular breakout sessions, VR was everywhere. On one day, seven VR topics competed for the same time slot in in overlapping presentations. I’ve never seen so much VR in conference sessions, with well over 24 sessions offered. I’ve seen things like this happen in education before, and frankly, premature flame out is my chief concern here. In the education market, that’s very possible.

Meanwhile, back at the Innovation Lab dedicated to hands-on VR tabletop presentations, two tables set off my internal alarms. At the first table, I was informed that, in the presenting district, VR use was “forbidden for the ‘littles’” (grades K-1, is what they meant). At the second table in the Innovation lab, another teacher advised me how VR is never to be used with our youngest children. Instead, these teachers deploy a large-screen display and do a 360 walkthrough with the entire class; or use a small handheld display to give a close-enough experience to small groups of ‘littles’. At second grade, however, they are not afraid to pull out all of the VR paraphernalia. I asked both tables why they made this decision. Their answers seemed procedural and logistical:

“Kids always take the head-mounted display off, often to look at other children, anyway.”

“It’s too hard to manage so many kids.”

“These kids move around and are too active and unfocused with head-mounted displays, wanting to see everything.”

But I suspect the policy emerged from parent or administrator concern. Yes, it’s that pesky and unfounded taradiddle raising its head again, as the presenters actually suggested, albeit wrongly, that VR is without a doubt bad for little children.—Len Scrogan