TEDx Shanghai Report

By Len Scrogan
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One of the best ways to get a pulse on what’s important in technology in education is to tap into the significant ideas being presented at a TEDx event.

shanghaiShanghai at nightFor those new to the brand, TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design.

Recently, I visited Shanghai to speak about virtual-reality at the Caohejing Hi-Tech Park Innovation Center for TEDxCaohejingParkSalon, joining a thoughtful group of presenters with unique stories to tell about innovation in education ????.

Below find a quick summary of this event, and its speakers, followed by some interesting sentiments displayed by our participating audience.

Ami Dror
A respected founding father of the 3-D movement worldwide, Ami is the Founder of Zaitoun Ventures and LeapLearner. He also serves as a Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Dror spoke about the incredible gift given to him by his parents, who were Holocaust survivors. Years ago, they purchased him a starter Atari computer, now seemingly just an artifact of the distant past. He used that gift to promote his education, to learn coding, and to extend his life and work far beyond the dreams of his parents. He spoke of coding as a new form of literacy, a 21st century readiness competency that could benefit all children, providing greater insight into math, problem solving, and critical thinking skills. It was a gift—an intellectual treasure that could benefit children everywhere.

Feng Ma
Imagine a highly successful school with a waiting list of more than 100,000 pupils. You might see Feng Ma, the High School Principal of Shanghai High School International Division. Leading a school that is already wildly successful, but Feng Ma is still searching out ways to improve it. He spoke about his efforts to benchmark his school’s practices against the best practices of six highly successful schools worldwide. For example, he and his staff yearned for more opportunities to pursue project-based learning within a highly traditional Chinese education system.

TEDx Collage2Feng Ma and Len Scrogan presenting at TEDx ShanghaiShanchuan Li
An expert in the history of Chinese characters and chairperson of the Shanghai Youth Language Development Center, Shanchuan Li spoke about the need for the increased simplification and standardization of Chinese characters. Interestingly, he drew a huge number of youthful questioners after his presentation, clear evidence of the surging national pride exhibited by the youth of China.

Jordan Huang
Founder and CEO of UniEd, a cross-border educational consulting firm supporting Chinese students, families and k12 schools, Ms. Huang spoke about building confidence, tackling our fears, and seizing courage in our lives. She passionately told the story of how she tackled one of the biggest fears of her life—a nighttime bungee jump—and, of course lived to tell the tale. The speech culminated in a live video of her brave leap into the darkness, yet into the light of courage and hope.

Jie-Qi Chen
Chen, the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and founder of the Early Math Collaborative at the Erikson Institute (a graduate school in Chicago), spoke about how to reform math education for the youngest children. She highlighted numerous best practices for math instruction, approaches that the Chinese education system should might also find useful.

Len Scrogan
Of course, that’s me. After highlighting the current popularity of virtual reality with Shanghai youth (see above collage), I presented a mystery to the audience—a case to be solved—one that has troubled us for many years in the field of virtual reality. One by one, I presented six different clues to an attentive audience, hoping that they would help solve this enduring mystery. As a sample, take a look at the first clue:

Clue: At a middle school in Colorado, just this last semester, these students enjoyed their first virtual-reality field trip experience, journeying back into time to visit ancient Egypt. It appeared to be a highly successful lesson, from all perspectives. But then the students spoke. Nearly all of the students complained that they felt disoriented; that either their eyes hurt or their eyes felt tired.

After presenting all six clues, we closed in on both the crime and the culprit. The crime: across the globe, many students are reporting considerable discomfort or downright nausea when viewing virtual reality. The culprit: after identifying a few minor abettors, we identified the primary suspect in a visual lineup: our own vision–the inability of perhaps 14% of the population that cannot use virtual reality comfortably. And then our mystery case followed a sudden twist, as we demonstrated the medical connection between a child’s inability to see virtual reality comfortably and their ability to learn how to read. We ended on a positive note, showing how virtual-reality technologies are increasingly being used to both diagnose and treat vision-related dysfunctions, and also early reading problems for the youngest of children.

The Audience Reveals Itself

Yet the most interesting revelations of the day emerged from the audience, itself. Among the many teachers and parents populating the large Caohejing Park Salon auditorium, it was clear from the steady and repeated head nodding of the attendees that discomfort with viewing virtual reality is much more than the minor issue the industry wants us to believe it is. Even in China. I guess there is as much poorly designed content as there is everywhere else. And I suppose that eyes in China are no different than the eyes in other parts of the world. Who would’ve known?

And one more thing. From parents and teachers in China, I heard a refrain that is all-too-often echoed in conference halls around the United States, a myth of epic proportions. “As virtual-reality technology improves,” they asked, “won’t these problems go away?” My answer: VR content will certainly improve. And so will VR hardware. But since 90% of the problems are caused by our own vision, no, this problem will not simply disappear into the woodwork.

Recently, I’ve been working with leaders from the American Optometric Association to great greater awareness about this issue. The bottom line: if you cannot view virtual reality comfortably, it is the sign of an underlying vision problem. But no worries. The problem is not only diagnosed by virtual reality, virtual reality can also be used to treat these problems, and improve our vision. –Len Scrogan