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Practice and product
The table is a technology like headsets. Extended Reality relies on technologies, but the pedagogy is emerging in different ways. Reflections on yesterday's panel.
Read time: about 8 minutes. In order to prepare for the Emerging Pedagogies Summit panel discussion on Extended Reality (XR), I hid in the library and penciled out some thoughts. This post draws from those notes and represents my opening comments — a brief self-introduction and a framework for the panel. I follow up with some thoughts about what transpired and what “emerging” really means. Next week: Probably a book review about 1950s design. What many Boomers grew up with.
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[My introduction to the panel, prettified from my notes.]
In January 2021, I accepted (from myself) an appointment to the “Mostly Distinguished Social Security Administration Rocking Chair of Do-Whatever-You-Want Studies.”
I retired. With lifetime tenure. Without deans. Without committees. Just whatever-I-want.
And while rocking in my mostly distinguished chair, I’ve also chosen to continue leading a seminar in fall semesters, where students and I consider “our complex relationships with technology” — what and how technologies enable, reveal, frustrate, and curse us humans, we seekers of meaning and happiness.
It turns out that this week and next we’re examining Extended Reality, the topic of this panel.
From this experience leading that seminar over the years, I want to draw some points that might kindle discussion and thought about pedagogy and Extended Reality.
A story of space
One fall I found myself teaching the seminar in a room with bench tables and chairs, all lined up in rows.
“No biggie,” I thought. “All we need is space, and some working AV would be good, too.”
But, of course, I found that the meek students — rather than inheriting the earth — crowded in the back row. Most of the students had wonderful views of the backs of heads. There were few ways to share thoughts with the others without doing some contortions. Yoga poses helped some, no doubt.
The experience taught me the exceptional power of a certain piece of technology: the table, unadorned with any digital control knobs and buttons. Just a horizontal plane supported underneath by legs and surrounded by chairs. The table is ubiquitous and therefore also invisible — probably the reason that I had overlooked its power.
Tables organize space and the people dwelling in it. They are quite literally platforms for interaction and sharing — among seminar participants exchanging thoughts and judgments, between family members sharing a meal, or for captains of industry in their board rooms.
It’s important to note, as well, that the technology of the table only enables these interactions. The table is not their source.
And that is to say that a table doth not a seminar make. But, as I learned from teaching without a table, it sure helps. The table fashions space and makes it convenient for exchanges.
Okay. A table. What about VR? What about AR?
It’s useful at this point to define a couple terms. Extended Reality (XR) is the basket we use to throw Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) into. These Extended Realities organize and represent space and time.
It’s common to misconstrue Virtual Reality with headset technology and equipment like Meta’s Quest 2 or the soon-to-be released Apple Vision Pro. But just as a table doth not a seminar make, a headset only enables a certain powerful kind of virtual reality. In itself, the headset isn’t VR.
Virtual Reality removes some big human constraints of sense — in particular vision — using a form of deception. VR replaces the content of our senses and induces our brains to assemble a coherent, even very plausible, virtual world. In the process, we inhabit a different “body” in a different “space.” VR systems work their magic on our perception because of the plasticity of human perception; our brains accept our senses and assemble their signals into experience.
The interactions we have in this virtual world feel right, too. We move our heads to look around, and the scenes adjust as we expect in real life.
JUST AS A TABLE DOTH NOT A SEMINAR MAKE, A HEADSET ONLY ENABLES A CERTAIN POWERFUL KIND OF VIRTUAL REALITY. IN ITSELF, THE HEADSET ISN’T VR.
Augmented Reality is different, and perhaps less totalizing than Virtual Reality. It takes the circumstances that surround us in real life — a place, an object, a person — and then, in a manner like an overlay, supplements the experience. Hence the term augmented. AR may provide a gloss or background information for a mural on a building in Durham. Or a name for a person’s face. The experience augments but does not replace our normal reality.
The terms Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality describe experiences; they are not defined by a certain kind of equipment or technology. In fact, some say that Virtual Reality might have a well distributed equipment-base already in place in hearing aids and “ear buds.” That kind of VR and AR would appeal to the aural sense, and could function quite well.
Extended Reality in teaching and learning
Those words are a doctored-up version of what I said to begin a panel at Duke on Extended Reality (XR), the “basket” term. With those words, sometimes interrupted by David Stein who chomped at the bit to start talking, I turned it over to the faculty panelists — a Duke-Durham educational liaison (Stein), a Romance languages teacher and scholar (Eileen Anderson), an artist and scholar of visual studies (Augustus Wendell), and a teacher and researcher in engineering and medicine (Amanda Randles).
Variety is the spice of life, the old chestnut says. That’s true for the XR projects the panelists had done. Stein has worked with public school students to annotate some of Durham’s plentiful murals with otherwise lacking background information. He’s a commited proponent of Augmented Reality approaches, products of which people easily view with regular old smartphones. Romance language teacher Eileen Anderson has built up Virtual Reality experiences from Internet resources like Google Earth and knits virtual travel and exploration into her classes. Digital artist Augustus Wendell brings students through semester-long development of virtual worlds using increasingly challenging and powerful tools. Amanda Randles, who has taken on the massive project of computationally modeling the human circulatory system, has developed a VR application that helps researchers and physicians visualize and explore vascular malformations and the behaviors of circulating blood.
Practices and products: Two views of pedagogy
Of course, there is much that I could capture in a summary of the panel discussion, but, one day out, my mind keeps returning to a contrast of views about how you actual use virtual reality or augmented reality to teach.
I think particularly about a comment that Augustus said in response to my observation that today’s students have exceptionally high expectations of VR and AR products and teachers lack resources to meet those expectations. Augustus took a different take on the matter. Focusing on the concept of practice, he pointed out that when we learn to draw, we don’t have the expectation that our initial work will be exceptional. Or even good. That comes with engagement and practice, when our sense of things matures through doing and through guidance from others. That’s the way that his work with students in Virtual Reality progresses: he pairs rudimentary knowledge with basic VR development tools and basic concepts, growing and developing students’ finer artistic sense and with ever more demanding software tools.
When we think of artists or scientists or writers, I believe, our language simplifies — even ignores — paths and progression. Certainly, artist defines a kind of accomplishment, as do the other labels, but perhaps it’s better to recognize practices that underlie the label, too.
WHEN WE LEARN TO DRAW, WE DON’T HAVE THE EXPECTATION THAT OUR INITIAL WORK WILL BE EXCEPTIONAL. OR EVEN GOOD. THAT COMES WITH ENGAGEMENT AND PRACTICE,WHEN OUR SENSE OF THINGS MATURES THROUGH DOING AND THROUGH GUIDANCE FROM OTHERS.
I’ve noticed that in conversations I’ve had with him, Augustus frequently calls attention to the practices of art, using terms like practice of art and arts practitioners and people who practice art. In fact, it’s rather freeing to think of, say, Michelangelo scaffolded high in the Sistine Chapel as “practicing” his art — which of course he did to great effect.
The panel was part of a “summit” on emerging pedagogies. Embracing the notion of practice is itself a pedagogical practice, to put it rather glibly. Beyond that, it’s probably one of the hallmarks of anything that is “emerging” — since people are trying things out, practicing, sometimes failing, and sometimes succeeding. Before the panel came together, I told Eileen that extended reality is a marvelous opportunity to get a “Get Out of Imposter Syndrome Jail Free Card” because competencies haven’t quite jelled and everyone is in some fashion an “imposter” — and everyone knows it, too.
That’s a feeling of “emergence,” and if you’re a teacher using VR or AR, you better get used to it.
But Augustus’ considerations of practice were part of the story. Not all have the luxury of practice, because they don’t have the luxury of time.
David Stein favors Augmented Reality platforms, and his work with precollege public school students has constraints that don’t apply to Augustus’ situation. Augustus has more time — a semester’s worth — but David’s teaching timeframe is much shorter. Practice may be powerful, but it requires time that Augustus has and David doesn’t.
I asked panelists what they foresaw for VR and AR, and David pointed out the muddle of tools, citing a long list of applications that he and colleagues made as they searched for useful AR development apps that could be used in the classroom. He said the list dramatically shortened as they evaluated the applications, wilting to a handful of maybes.
Complexity — which Augustus’ students could work through with practice with rudimentary tools — dogs David’s more rushed work, but he was hopeful, too. Citing an example from word processing applications of the 1980s, with their dot commands and curious acronym “directives,” he pointed out that word processing programs have indeed become simpler, more intuitive, if not practically “drag-and-drop.” Today, kids use them easily. He hoped that AR development programs would move in that direction, too.
David’s view contrasted with Augustus because it seemed to boil down to where the processes of learning started, a line that abundance or lack of time largely dictated. Beyond that, I heard in David’s pleas for good tools a sense that student products — end points of a discovery with augmented reality — were essential to student success. For Augustus, I thought, success was more closely tied to the accumulation of practice and a growing sense of mastery rather than a masterful product.
For David, “emerging” pointed to the unbaked products that teachers could use in classrooms. “Emerging pedagogies” rely on more polished tools than are now available but might emerge in the future.
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Tags: AR, VR, XR, virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, extended reality, headset, smartphone, education, teaching, learning, duke, dli
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
Someone is trying to run a school with VR. Kinda scary for a few reasons, if you ask me. Green, Emma. “Virtual-Reality School as the Ultimate School Choice.” The New Yorker, September 1, 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-education/virtual-reality-school-as-the-ultimate-school-choice.
Last week’s repost is useful and sketches out a couple of fascinating studies from Stanford and UCL:
And another earlier post on virtual “influencers” highlights a feature-length movie filmed in Virtual Reality. Yes, “Dust Bunny, Toaster, IsYourBoi, and the others make a movie”: