Another dot in the blogosphere?

Fidelity of VR

Posted on: November 2, 2017

I was both curious and troubled when I read this article that claimed How Virtual Reality (VR) Is Helping Train New Teachers.

I do not believe that any teachers, novice or experienced, should be trained. Nor can they be. Teachers are not dogs to be taught classroom tricks.

That argument aside, I wondered what the VR group in NYU Buffalo had to offer. The problem seemed to be that novice teachers were not getting enough practice managing a classroom.

So the group responded how most VR efforts do: They created virtual environments that simulated reality. In the case of new teachers, the VR seemed to be videos of different classroom management scenarios.

The operating principle was the same as efforts in other fields. Actual practice in the field was not possible, too expensive, required too much human effort for uncertain returns, or was outright dangerous.

These are logical parameters for preparing pilots, firefighters, emergency responders, nuclear inspectors, etc. But how about teachers?

Clear and eminent danger is not a factor, but financial and social cost is. According to the article:

the use of real video for VR does pose some financial and ethical concerns: It’s quite expensive to shoot; a single 360-degree camera costs about $5,000. And it can reinforce racial, ethnic, or gender stereotypes

While the other fields might be able to define typical scenarios, teaching as a social activity and social science, is not as definite. Some might argue that the scenarios for the other field are already difficult to define, so much more for fickle humans in classrooms.

The NYU Buffalo group took care to mention that the VR experience was not designed to replace actual classroom experiences. It was part of overall teacher preparation.

That said, the VR experience is far from effective:

The technology is still in proof-of-concept stage and far from fully interactive right now. VR users can turn their heads and see the classroom all around them, but they cannot walk closer to students or talk to them and get a response. An assessment appears on the screen asking the teachers how they would respond, but as of now, the VR doesn’t capture their answers.

So the is-VR-worth-the-money question may not be right one to ask. What then might be a better question?

A researcher from the group recorded physiological responses to VR and real life. He found that “the brain doesn’t care” or see the difference physiologically. I offer two questions: What is the social response and effectiveness of VR-based practice? How might the virtual or augmented experiences be more effective?

Another project mentioned in the same article, this time by the University of Central Florida, used computer-generated characters or avatars. Unlike the VR program, the avatars were controlled by actual actors. The interactions were natural and immediate.

So in this particular area of soft skills preparation, it is not just about accuracy of human likeness in VR, it is about its fidelity. It is about how authentic, immediate, and human the responses are.

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