Teachers need to calm their enthusiasm for new technology

The latest fad, VR, doesn't add an indispensable dimension to the classroom and could waste money and distort the learning space

teachers technologyTORONTO, Ont. Jan. 11, 2017 /Troy Media/ – Humans have rubber necks. It’s a biological fact.

When we see an accident on the highway, we all slow down and rubberneck. Even if we only peek.

On the playground, we all run to take a look when somebody yells “Fight!” And at the cocktail party, when we hear laughter, we ask, “What’s so funny?”

That’s how we’re made. When somebody else cares, we care, too. Your enthusiasm is my enthusiasm.

For whatever reason, teachers tend to have extra elastic necks. Enthusiasm comes naturally to them.

This peculiar feature of their DNA goes a long way to explaining why some teachers are so quick to evangelize every new technology that comes around.

Virtual reality (VR) is the latest technology to fetishize. Once a rare fascination at the arcade, VR is entering the mainstream and quickly becoming a multibillion-dollar market.

Google, Samsung, PlayStation and others have released commercial-grade VR devices that will enhance video games and make movies into immersive experiences. Why be content with playing a first-person shooter on a laptop when you can step into a war zone and kill enemies in lifelike HD 3D?

Education is a prime market for VR businesses. Stories in the press feature VR providers who promise a revolution in education, thanks to their technologies. Invariably, the photos accompanying the stories feature children wearing headsets, actively engaged in what they’re learning – studying the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, touring ancient Egypt, or whatever and wherever this miraculous virtual classroom takes them.

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As much as VR businesses want to promote and sell their products, enthusiastic, well-meaning teachers will want to find ways to incorporate this technology into their classrooms.

If a new technology leads to better learning, the reasoning goes, shouldn’t we give it a try?

Not necessarily.

First, new technologies cost money that most schools don’t have. And second, schools should not embrace technologies that haven’t been proven to generate significant improvements in the educational experience. Preferably, schools will make decisions on spending and pedagogy based on research conducted by disinterested parties – someone other than the people promoting the new technology or the technophiles enthused by it.

Indeed, teachers may benefit by adopting a skeptical attitude towards technologies infiltrating their classrooms. Because, generally speaking, technologies don’t improve learning.

What they do is help teachers manage their paperwork.

Consider a few technologies that have been added to the teacher’s toolkit in the last many years.

Course websites, offered through companies like blackboard.com, are used mainly as repositories for course documents – a useful administrative tool but hardly revolutionary, and redundant in small class learning. They do, however, allow schools to facilitate ever-larger class sizes and to sell courses to students living ever farther afield.

Turnitin.com, a plagiarism detection service used by many Canadian schools, helps teachers manage classrooms with hundreds of students. If teachers don’t have time, or won’t make the time, to closely read papers, artificial intelligence will do it for them.

Software that allows teachers to record their lectures sounds cool. Teachers can broadcast their lectures to more students (a plus) and to students who skipped the class when the lecture was filmed (a minus).

Laptops in the classroom? A distraction. Television? A substitute teacher. Video conferences between students and teachers? Always second best to person-to-person contact.

Will VR add an indispensable dimension to the classroom? Unlikely. It will, most likely, waste money, squander teacher enthusiasm and distort the learning space.

Teaching is a human enterprise. The classroom is a human space. The fewer technologies mediating contact between people, the better.

Indeed, the essential classroom technologies already exist: language, the ultimate social network, and the human brain, which, when worked hard, can discover reality of the actual, not the virtual, variety.

And actual reality is something worth rubbernecking.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. Robert is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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