Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘reality

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.

I read newspaper articles like Augmented Reality in the classroom: Move over, Pokemon Go, it’s time for science class, with an open mind and fingers crossed.

Unfortunately, I tend to arrive at the last paragraph with my head shaking and fists clenched. The newspaper seeks to inform, but it merely sells an old building coated with new paint instead.

If my rant below is TL;DR, then my objections to such news reports are simply that:

  • The rhetoric of technology inclusion rarely goes beyond engagement and consumption.
  • The focus is still the novelty and sporadic use, instead of its effectiveness and long-term integration.
  • There is no mention of how the teacher or teaching changes as a result.

The engagement rhetoric
Ask “Why use AR?” and a commonly sought answer from teachers is this: Students “are drawn in by the animation and sound effects”. This reinforces the rhetoric and practice of playing the engagement game.

This game can be summarised as follows:

  • The school or teacher provides something new and shiny to the students.
  • The students are interested and hopefully they learn something while the teacher or app has their attention.
  • The same curriculum is delivered in a different way.

To be fair, you must have a learner’s attention first. Basic cognitive science and research tells us that stimuli must register in the senses and that working memory must be activated.

However, engagement is insufficient for working memory to work with long-term memory. The video below summarises several chapters on introductory cognition.

Video source

A learner must take ownership and be empowered in order to make meaning of content in context.

It is not just what the teacher or school provides like a generous handout, it is more about what learners may already own, e.g., their phones. It is not just about trying to hook them with interesting phenomena, it is also about empowering them to solve problems that are real to them.

Novelty over efficacy
Meaningful and powerful technology integration is not driven by novelty nor is it used sporadically like the way most of the AR apps were described in the article, e.g., dinosaur layers over reality.

Ideally, the technologies are instruments that are used constantly, and when called upon, should be used to problem-seek, problem-solve, or create.

Far too many apps-mediated interventions focus on providing content as novelty to be consumed quickly. In 2011, I called this sort of consumption akin to eating Maggi mee: It is fast to cook, but it is not good to eat all the time.

Furthermore, developing such apps does not come cheap. The article reported this:

According to Mr Y.T. Ho, 52, director of local technology company Dante Technologies, the cost required to create augmented reality products can range from US$30,000 (S$42,000) to more than US$500,000, depending on the complexity of the effects.

The article did not highlight obvious costs like the AR devices or the hidden costs like maintenance and updates. The obvious costs are upfront and might be softened by BYOD; the latter are a long lizard tail that that leaders and administrators quickly drop when alarmed.

These early attempts and pilot programmes might not have any results to show. But any stakeholder should be asking for vendors and schools to justify the financial cost and learning efficacy.

No mention of pedagogy or context
One AR vendor made this claim:

Our apps are conceptualised with teachers and iterated multiple times to achieve the desired learning outcome.

The focus of such cooperation is largely on content. Why? The vendor typically has the technology expertise while the school has content experts.

Newspaper reports like the one I am critiquing and edtech vendors in general do not seem to focus on pedagogy and how it must change in tandem.

Perhaps the problem is that reporting how teachers change their behaviours is difficult or even boring. Who wants to read about how a teacher knows how to put into play the principles of constructionism in one context and social constructivism in another? You might have nodded off halfway through that last sentence, but look, here is a shiny and new AR toy. Whee!

It is easier for newspapers and vendors to focus on the technology and content than on the pedagogy and context. However, it is the latter two that are key drivers of change.

I would like to see newspapers tackle more critical messages in educational AR. For example:

  • Why do powerful and more meaningful integration lie in creation, not consumption? How might this link to coding and computational thinking?
  • The article also mentioned the Indian Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum, and Trick Eye Museum jumping on the AR bandwagon. Why do AR applications have impactful but limited use in contexts like museums or games?
  • What are the various forms of AR? How might they be incorporated in meaningful and powerful ways instead of relatively superficial ones?

One video journalists, vendors, and educators might draw inspiration and reflection on is this one.

Video source
The video is a simulation of possibilities. Some are AR, some are not. Some are already possible, others might be in development. While the video is a creative effort, it should be balanced with critical realities and educational principles.

AR is not new, but the timing might be right to try something new. By all means do that. If we are to try something different, let us also do something better. Let us not dwell on the rhetoric of engagement, the novelty of use, and focus on the technology. Instead we could focus on empowerment, efficacy, and changes in pedagogy.

Do some descendants of our former colonial masters think that Singapore is part of China? That was the impression I got when I read this article.

A video recording crew travelled all the way here from the British isles only to discover that their footage looked like it could have been shot at home. So they decided to get a post-production house to digitally alter signs in English to Chinese.

I could also point out that the article was edited after my screen capture (compare my tweet with the article) without adding a footnote about this change, but that is not the purpose of my reflection.

My reflection is about how perceptions drive reality. If people believe something outdated and inaccurate but do not check against reality or newer information, they will continue to shape their realities to fit their beliefs.

More disconcertingly, if people want to perpetuate their mistaken beliefs, they will do so, even if presented with more current and conflicting information.

To be clear, Singapore is not in China, we have a Chinese majority but our lingua franca is English, and some of us might speak and write better English than “native” users.

My design manta has always been this: Mindsets shape expectations, expectations dictate behaviour. If we do not change mindsets, beliefs, and attitudes), we cannot hope to change actions, environments, or cultures.

I cannot change your behaviour if I do not first help you change your mind.

This is why I try to address mindsets when I have short term engagements like seminars or workshops. I try to attack the tip of the brain; the change makers I influence have to deal with the long tail of expectations and behaviours.

There is a saying that hindsight is 20/20. People who say this mean that things look clearer once you get past them. It is easy to look back and see what you have accomplished.

It is also easy to paint a picture rosier than actually was. Our memories are more fickle than we would like to admit. One of my favourite sayings is: Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

Like it or not, we forget more than remember [Decay Theory]. We Instagram-filter our memories as we snapshot them [Interference Theory].

Video source

So when ISTE2016 made this declaration, I clap and I caution.

Let us celebrate successes, but not congratulate ourselves prematurely. Things may have changed, but they are not representative of every context, even in the so-called first world.

For example, participants at ISTE were having wifi issues.

We know of teachers who are still behind or trying to get over the “how to use tech” barrier. If you conducted a study, I would wager that a significant portion of “professional development” gets stuck at technology awareness and basic training.

Singapore embarked on the ICT Masterplan 4 this year, but teachers still complain about access and connectivity. They are not just talking about technology (poor signal, blocked resources), but also about policy and practice.

I mention these not to play down the achievements of any system attempting and embracing change. It takes guts, persistence, and time for change to happen and there will always be laggards and brickbats.

But let us not give naysayers fuel for their fire.

I say we admit we have failings, address them, and learn from them. I say we not whitewash underlying problems. I say we challenge rhetoric with reality.

It is hard to argue with a sentiment like the one represented by the text in the image above. Every child should experience the joy of discovery at the start of his or her education.

The reality is that the natural ways of learning (discovery, play, curiosity) get drilled and squeezed out by the process of schooling.

There are many differences between schooling and education.

One is that schooling is about dealing with the masses; it is about enculturation and industrial-style quality control.

Education is more about nurturing the individual; it is about self-actualization and liberating each person from bias, ignorance, and selfishness.

We might start with schooling, but we should want to continue with education. The problem is that sentiment rarely meets reality. Kids are schooled more than they are educated. They only realize this when they start working. They then have kids who are likely schooled more than they are educated.

One way to break this cycle is to critically question what schooling is and to make real the ideals of education. If not, we are stuck with sentiment, a false sense of reality, and an unchallenged schooling system pretending to educate.

People prefer to perpetuate their own perceptions than to recognize reality.

Some time back, someone rejected a document that I had signed electronically. By electronically I mean a digitized version of a pen-and-paper signature.

The argument was that someone could have hacked into my email account, accessed the digital signing service, and signed the e-form.

Would it not be easier to forge my pen-based signature? If so, why accept something less secure just because it has always been done that way?

This is like the perception that it is safer to use a credit card in a brick-and-mortar pizzeria than to order one online for delivery. It is actually easier to get details and skim the credit card in person. To abuse it electronically, you would have to break into quite a few secure systems.

Likewise for the signature. To sign the form, the requester would have to access at least two secure systems. Bad for the potential abuser; good for requester and signer.

Is there a chance that the information gets caught during electronic transmission or via hacking? Yes, but this is very unlikely given the encryption process as well as disciplined workflow. It is much easier to forge a handwritten signature.

Perception is sometimes borne of ignorance and fear. But some people would rather live in their comfort zone.

Living with reality means having to constantly learn, unlearn, and relearn. It is messy and uncomfortable. But it can also be fun and invigorating.

Pew Internet, surveyed “578 leading Internet activists, builders, and commentators and 618 additional stakeholders (1,196 respondents)” and asked them what they thought the Internet would look like in 2020. Most agreed (77%) that the future of Web surfing would be via the mobile phone. And 55% thought that virtual and augmented reality would, well, become more commonplace reality!

These are still just hunches, but they also have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. I think that these things should also be borne in mind when preparing both teachers and mainstream students. If not, we are not doing our jobs as educators!

Here are the thoughts of Chris Dawson and Beth Kantor on the topic.

Click to see all the nominees!

QR code

Get a mobile QR code app to figure out what this means!

My tweets


Usage policy

%d bloggers like this: