Immersive Technology: The Sword of Damocles and Pandora’s Box Combined
“Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind;
the others have left and gone . . .
Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men,
and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.
Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone
revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and
men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety.”
– Theognis of Megara, 6th century B.C.E.
With a peek, Pandora unleashed all manner of evil upon the world or, in other variations, caused all other graces to flee…leaving only hope behind. Researching and presenting immersive technology – AR/MR/VR – felt like peering inside that box. A wealth of concerns arose, some disguised as flashy promises, but concerns, nonetheless.
All that Glitters is Not Gold
Like Damocles, first enamored with the throne and blind to the burden of responsibility, I was initially dazzled by immersive technology’s (particularly VR’s) experiential potential. Shuttling to Mars? Walking inside the human circulatory system? A trip to the past à la Bill and Ted? Sounds incredible! The pinnacle of Constructivism and Connectivism! When I further discussed immersive tech with my students, their imaginations ran wild…but their minds primarily focused on non-academic applications (anyone surprised?).
If I could or would use immersive technology academically (in short spurts), it would be for activities like the following:
Augmented and/or Mixed Reality:
“Employing augmented reality (AR), a new relationship can be created through the re-introduction of narratives using visual and aural elements that simulate people’s imagination of a hidden past” (Source).
- Social Studies/ELA/History – Visiting different historical timelines and places around the world.
- Science – Exploring space or interacting with otherwise dangerous chemical mixtures (in a safe environment).
- Coding – Manipulating/building code in a virtual setting.
- Online learning – Helping remote students learn virtually with their peers in a more interactive, engaging way.
And while all these options sound amazing, I can think of a multitude of other EdTech or no-tech options that offer similar learning potential but don’t exact a heavy cost or throw open Pandora’s box of trouble.
The Dangling Sword
When Postman spoke about the 5 things to know about technological change, he seemed to foreshadow the potential hidden cost of immersive technology:
- The literal and figurative price
- First, the financial cost of VR deters a large demographic of people/schools/divisions. The average Canadian cost of an Occulus Quest 128GB starts at $700 and doesn’t factor in the necessary additional software, upkeep, training, etc. Schools wouldn’t buy just one either. Considering the exponential price tag, administrators and divisions would expect a high return on their investment = tech that doesn’t gather dust (like many 3D printers and Smartboards) and does facilitate improved learning outcomes.
- Second (and more importantly), the figurative cost. While longitudinal data is lacking, recent neuroscience studies report that VR affects children (-13) differently and more adversely than adults: Cognitive concerns, balance and coordination problems, epilepsy, reality distortion, etc., etc., etc.!
- Widening the digital divide
- Postman claims that the “winners” will always try to convince the “losers” they are winning by adopting the latest technology. When 3/10 Canadian families don’t have access to home computers, WIFI, and/or possess adequate digital literacy skills, introducing immersive technology only widens the gap. AR/MR/VR becomes one more thing the “have-nots” don’t have in the classroom and/or at home. Just imagine the potential for VIP access to an immersive global knowledge base with no “ticket to the ball.”
- Annihilation of reality and human privacy rights
“VR is a way to escape the real world into something more fantastic.”
Escape from what exactly? And just because we could escape doesn’t mean we should escape, à la Ready Player One. Our world needs us based in reality, fighting [insert one of the many “isms” here].
- The human rights implications for immersive…or rather, invasive technologies are explored in Heller’s extensive research paper, Reimagining Reality: Human Rights and Immersive Technology (2020): Mass surveillance, human tracking, racial profiling and targeting, digital monetization and invasion of information and/or space, “Biometric Psychography.” When advertisers are able to track something as discrete as eye movement to identify purchasing interests, MR and VR obliterate our human right to privacy.
- Unchecked access/disequilibrium
- As Matt so aptly noted in our class discussion, we have not been overly successful in troubleshooting problematic web content. Sadly, hate speech and organizations run amok (cough, cough, looking at you, current Twitter). If we add an immersive dimension to the unchecked evil, how do we account for the disequilibrium it creates? How do we reach balance? And with no Neo in sight, who will even the scales?
- From an educational viewpoint, we know that much of the introduced EdTech comes with little to no training. A code of conduct would be required, but who would write or enforce it? Improper or inefficient classroom use of immersive tech would be a great disservice to students and society.
On reflection, a virtual classroom trip to the moon seems as enchanting as sitting on Dionysius’ throne beneath a looming sword. When considering immersive technology’s winners (advertisers and “Big Tech”) and so-called losers (potentially everyone else), it’s difficult to find a bright side.
Inside the Box…Hope, are you in there?
At the end of my research and reflections, my feelings about immersive tech remain uncertain. Will VR be the “next big thing” in EdTech…or just another “flash in the pan” with the potential to unloose hell? If it is the future of classroom learning, do I become a technology-resistant teacher or do I try my best to meaningfully adapt? Better to teach students how to navigate virtual muddy waters than deny their existence? Wait…is this the next generation of the great “phones in class” debate? I suspect so.
At the end of EC&I 833, I don’t have faith in any particular EdTech. My hope remains steadfast in the educators unpacking this particular, precarious box and others like it. As teachers, we have to decide how to best proceed for the next generation of learners. I wish you safe travels on your learning journey!
“[Immersive technology] is just like the atom splitting. It can be used for helping mankind, lifting mankind, or it can be used for destroying mankind. That’s where we are with virtual reality. We’re on the cusp of having powerful tools like fire. What are we going to do with it? How are we going to use it? How are we going to put in safeguards so that we don’t get burned?”
Points to Ponder (same as our presentation because I am truly curious!):
- What price must be paid for this “great” technology?
- Who are the winners and losers of immersive EdTech adoption?
- What bias or prejudice exists? What other realities does AR/MR/VR reduce or “annihilate”?
- How do we maintain digital homeostasis/balance with its adoption? Who decides/maintains this balance?
- If this tech becomes the “norm,” how do we define effective teaching and “good” students?