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You are never too old to learn from the past, and to invent and inspire the future.


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You are never to old to learn from what is current and to create based on what you have now.

After reading a press release and two articles about five Singapore schools experimenting with virtual reality (VR) excursions, I had one question: Remember the mistakes people made with Second Life?

This IMDA press release revealed the five Primary schools involved in the VR trial. An STonline article provided three videos and one photo of one such trial.

While I applaud the effort to incorporate technology into lessons, I worry about the short or non-existent memory of those involved in developing VR for schools.

When Second Life rose to prominence, the bold claim then was that you could create any world and do anything in it. While that was true, many people recreated what they could already see and do in real life. Some of the VR efforts are making the same mistake, i.e., recreating field trips that you can take in reality.

To be fair, another article pointed out a benefit of VR.

The solution allows students in a classroom setting to go through an on-site visit experience. Sites which might not be easily accessible to students due to their remote locations or due to students’ health or safety reasons can be explored.

Sites of interest could include landmarks such as the Central Sikh Temple, Chinese Garden and Geylang Serai market for teaching students about the early settlers in Singapore or it could be an offshore fish farm or an organic vegetable farm for learning about agricultural activities in Singapore.

The VR developers can and have heeded a lesson from Second Life mistakes. Both virtual experiences were valuable when they focused on what was very difficult, costly, or impossible to do in real life. For example:

  • Travelling to the same place set at a different time.
  • Embarking on trips that would be very difficult, dangerous, or impossible, e.g., outer space.
  • Enjoying rare experiences, e.g., endangered locations where foot traffic might damage the ecosystem.

Some might argue that a VR field trip saves on time and effort. This is a poor excuse because if something is really worth experiencing, it is worth physically visiting.

While VR might save on time, it does not necessarily save on effort or money. According to the STonline article:

The VR headset’s retail price is about $150, and the price of the accompanying smartphones used with the headsets can cost between $500 and $1,200.

There was no information about bandwidth, platform and content development, and maintenance costs. Those add up.

As with most technologies, the cost of hardware will invariably go down, thus lowering that cost. However, there is still the cost of software development, content updates, teacher professional development, and swopping the virtual for the real.

Other than various costs, other insidious factors are the consumption-based design of current VR experiences and the show-and-tell approach.

This article described the virtual field trips as:

…lesson packages to ensure that it was aligned to the curriculum and the learning outcomes of the Social Studies primary school syllabus

We need to read in between the lines of this statement. While VR companies might work with experts and teachers on content, it is the companies that keep and control the content. (BTW, this is true with just about any paid published work; the rights transfer to the publisher.)

The control of the rights to the content as well as to its revisions and releases helps companies create consumer dependence in order to make money. They are the source of the hardware, software, stories, and experiences, and they want customers to keep coming back for those things.

The same article also described the lessons.

During each one-hour lesson, students experienced 4-5 VR experiences, lasting no more than 5 minutes each.

There is a dashboard through which teachers can control (play, pause and stop) and guide students through the VR experience. Teachers know what the students are looking at through indicators on the teacher’s screen and point out interesting spots in the video.

The message is that students are not free to explore. The system is designed for teacher control only. The pedagogy relies on the show-and-tell model.

If the rhetoric is to have more self-directed learners and nurture independent thinkers, where is the design for exploration, uncovering, analysis, and evaluation? Surely not in worksheets!

Besides using VR headsets, the pupils also completed worksheets and discussed in groups to reinforce what they learnt.

Oh, joy… worksheets!

So I return to the premise of my argument: This VR “initiative” is a new way of making old mistakes.

  1. Some of the experiences may not be necessary if they replicate what is readily experienced in real life more conveniently or meaningfully.
  2. The costs are not just financial. There are also mindset and pedagogical costs (teach the same way, show-and-tell).

If I sound like a squeaky wheel, I remind you of this observation distilled from wry wisdom.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

Sometimes I think I no longer need to repeat some messages because they sound old. But I am constantly reminded that I cannot be complacent.

The messages are diverse. They range from “Singapore does NOT cane you for chewing gum” to “gamification is not the same as game-based learning” or “flipping the classroom is not the same as flipping the learning”.

The cane comment surface just a few days ago. Strangely enough, it stemmed from a tongue-in-cheek remark on Singapore’s Schooling being Number One (the swimmer and our PISA results).

Someone else wanted to know if caning had anything to do with our results.

My reply, tongue firmly in cheek, was this:

We had a short conversation thereafter:

This reminded me of my stay in the US over 15 years ago when I had to remind people that Singapore was not in China and that we did not cane people for chewing gum.

While the conversation was not about caning and gum, I had to inform someone on Twitter that we do not cane boys as easily as we would flick a switch.

In the teaching and learning front, the runaway trains are gamification and the flipped classroom. Both vendors and ill-informed individuals push these without first knowing or caring about their histories, research, or critical practice.

I laud their enthusiasm, but when it is misguided, I make my stand: Gamification is not game-based learning and it is not enough to just flip the classroom.
 

 
Sometimes I wonder if harping on these messages makes me the squeaky wheel or the proverbial voice in the desert. Then I remember this Jon Stewart quote: If you smell something, say something.

As a watchdog, I have to be vigilant. As an educator, I remind myself that the old messages are new to someone else.

There will always be rhetoric about the good old days and the good old ways. While the vessels of that rhetoric might mean well, they sometimes reinforce the position of those who oppose change.

So instead of saying that some good values are “old”, I say we call them “timeless” instead.

 Saying only

This is not a semantic game, but a strategy for change.

One element of systemic change is articulation. This means using powerful words and stories, and yes, rhetoric too. This could mean reassuring people that worthwhile values are not abandoned while simultaneously not leaving people in their comfort zone.

Timeless values and practices like “do unto others as you would them do to you” endure. They persist because they are socially adopted and adapted by people. There is no logic to resisting them.

There is no logic to labelling them old either. They are here now and as current as ever. They are timeless and we should value them as such.

No, this is not about the Frozen theme song.

The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones. -- Todd Rose

I found this simple but elegant quote by wading into my Twitter stream yesterday.

I am tempted to incorporate it as a final slide for my keynote this morning. It sends a parting message not to overload ourselves when managing change: If you take, you must also let go. It is also a reminder that past habits often get in the way.

Here are the sources for my image quote. I Googled the tweet and found the original by author Todd Rose.

I used my favourite Creative Commons image search engine, ImageCodr, to look for “letting go” and found the image below. I imported and edited it in Google Slides.
 

This photo should make you think.

But instead of seeing just the similarities between a classroom then and now, I also see a key difference.

The modern classroom should look empty because kids can learn on their mobile devices and with YouTube.

The problem is we still rely on 100-year-old strategies and bring them back into the classroom of old.

A few weeks ago my family and I were on a crowded train when a man fainted. The train was so packed I could not make my way to him, but I was near enough to hear a woman shout, “Put oil on him!”

She was referring to a small bottle of pungent, medicated oil that aunties used to carry with them. Apparently they still do.
 

See already also headache by mr brown, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  mr brown 

 
Such oils claim to sooth a wide range of maladies. Here is an example of the claims of one brand. Even modern medicine does not come close. Naysayers will quickly think of snake oil or the placebo effect.

This incident reminded me of a similar incident I experienced about 20 years ago. The train was emptier and a woman collapsed. I did basic CPR, but not before someone had already put medicated oil on her temples.

The oil did not revive the woman, but it was so strong-smelling it could have knocked me out. If that happened, people might have had to visit a temple to pay their respects. The last I saw of the woman was when she was in the care of train station staff.

What is the point of the story? Everything changes, and yet it does not.

There is no evidence that medicated oil works, but some people still rely on what their elders said and did. If no one tells them otherwise, they will continue doing these things no matter how ineffective (and possibly dangerous) they are.

From an educator’s standpoint, medicated oil strategies might include technology-free instruction; technology to motivate or enhance instead of to enable; chasing the technology tail; or merely using technology instead of integrating it.

First we have to choose to be informed or not. Once informed, we have a choice to change or not. We have no choice in being ignorant for that is our default state. But we have a choice of whether or not to be stupid in the face of evidence.


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