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Virtual Reality and Education: Why We Should Be Skeptical

by Gabe Baker
A Ship of Sceptics - Early 18th Century Painting by Petrarca-Meister

Quick Note: This post comes from our free course on virtual reality technology and education available at Edorble Academy. If you'd like to see more, sign up for the course and come along for the ride. Here's another post about the early days of "VR" and education, including a look at the past and present of marketing for VR tools in education.

If you read my blog posts (example here) you'll see that I'm deeply skeptical about claims of any particular technology to "revolutionize education", and also wary of the exhausting ed-tech hype cycle that reinforces this fantastical sort of marketing. In this unit, we'll read and watch a few researchers and contemporary intellectuals share their thoughts or findings about VR and education, and we'll evaluate their claims for ourselves.

I encourage you here to leave your assumptions at the door. I'm with you that VR in education is exciting, and the point of this isn't to kill your vibe or dampen your spirits about the scene. It's simply to get us thinking critically about why we're excited about this, to give us a few things to think about, and to help us harness this technology most effectively for educational purposes. If we're going to embrace this technology with our time and resources, we should be able to say a lot more than "it's cool and wonderful!" That said, there's no harm in starting there, and I'm with Socrates that great thinking often begins with that sense of wonder (Plato, Theaetetus 155d).

It might be worth noting here that while I'm a former education researcher who deeply appreciates well-designed, thoughtful research studies, I'm not inclined to extrapolate broad claims about what's good for you or other students based on the findings of one particular study. You are better than I am at understanding the applicability of research studies to your own educational undertakings. (Shameless plug: I'm excited that some graduate students and teachers are interested in conducting research on our own 3D creation, Edorble. Let me know if you're interested in this.)

Suggested Path Through Some Content

1. Read this article from The Atlantic, "Virtual Reality Can Leave You With an Existential Hangover".

2. Read this piece from Mindshift, "Five Ethical Considerations of Using VR with Children and Adolescents".

3. Read this piece about the lack of long term research on virtual reality and health.

4. Look at the video embedded below this question. I know TED speakers are very smart. I also know some people who watch TED talks and assume everything that's said is smart and true, because TED. Put your skeptic cap right on top of your Oculus Rift, folks. There's room for both.


Notice the bash on public schools that often accompanies gushing praise of a new technology and its possible impact on education. "Public education stinks, it can only be saved by *insert new technology here*." Okay then.

Also: "This could be where your kid goes to kindergarten" (points to School of Athens). Damn those ancient greek philosophers for stealing our jobs. :)

5. Watch this other TED talk on VR and education (I started it from 7:40, but obviously check out the whole thing if you're inclined). Notice the assumption that what's virtual is the same as what's real.


"And it will be real. It's going to be a new real". Maybe I'm just being cheeky but....really? Curious to know how you think this squares with some of the other readings in this unit, particularly the one below this.

6. With the previous video in mind, now check out these reflections on John Dewey by Leonard Waks. Read from the section "Nature and Child Instincts" and read until the end of the section (only about 4 pages).


Your Thoughts: Feel free to write some comments or a blog post about any of the topics of interest to you this week, or in response to the questions below. If you blog, publish a link to your post in the comments. If you have your own experiences that are relevant, feel free to share them in the comments. Here are some questions related to this lesson to get your thoughts moving, but if you'd like to loop back to previous lessons instead of responding to these particular questions, feel free. 

1. Some snips from the Atlantic article in item 1.

Using a questionnaire to measure participants’ levels of dissociation before and after exposure to VR, Aardema found that VR increases dissociative experiences and lessens people’s sense of presence in actual reality. He also found that the greater the individual’s pre-existing tendency for dissociation and immersion, the greater the dissociative effects of VR.
When there’s a mismatch between the signals from the vestibular system — a series of fluid-filled tubes in the inner ear that senses balance — and the visual system, the brain short-circuits. Part of the brain may think the body is moving, for instance, while another part thinks the feet are firmly planted on the ground. Something feels amiss, which can cause anxiety and panic.
In March, Alanah Pearce, an Australian video game journalist and podcast host, recounted troubling post-VR symptoms after the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “I was very fatigued. I was dizzy. And it definitely hits that strange point where the real world feels surreal,” she said. “I’m not going to go into that too in-depth, because it’s something I haven’t yet grasped. But I know that I’m not alone, and other people who play VR feel the same thing, where it’s like, nothing really feels real anymore. It’s very odd.”

Answer any or all: What do you make of the concerns expressed in this article? Do you know anyone, students or otherwise, with a pre-existing "tendency towards dissociation or immersion"? Have you seen someone be transported for a few hours playing video games and when they're done, they seem to be in a sort of daze? What do you think can contribute to this tendency, and how can we guard against these tendencies or help our students guard against them? Should we guard against them?

2. Snip from the Article in item #2.

As our responses are better understood, virtual worlds can be deliberately designed for specific outcome, but this is also ethically loaded. On one hand, environments can be created to encourage empathy, joy, fulfillment and any number of pro-social emotions and outcomes. But where does our true nature end and the engineering of emotions begin? Also, and more nefariously, these contexts can also be manipulated to give users the illusion of being in full control of their decisions, but subtle and unnoticed environmental cues can unwittingly lead us to alter our political and religious views, and open new horizons for commercial exploitation.

Do you have any thoughts about this?

3. In the TED talks, did you find anything problematic about the claims made in the videos? Or anything exciting that you hadn't thought about before? How did you square the second video with the excerpt from the book about John Dewey's educational philosophy?

 Note: If you're curious to hear more about the VR tools and services for Education that we offer at Edorble, reach out to