Virtual Reality, Education, Net States, and Behavior Modification

“…life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.”

This quote is often attributed to Kierkegaard but was actually written by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. The full quotation is: “Spiritual life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced. It is new birth into enlightenment.”

Radhakrishnan was talking about spiritual life in particular but I want to expand it to life in general. It seems like a good starting point for some thoughts about VR and how it fits into education. I work in technology at a school so I get to spend a portion of my time pondering this kind of stuff.

I recently attended a couple of conferences/events that incorporated VR demonstrations. These were my first experiences with the medium and I was impressed. However, I am generally pretty conservative and skeptical when it comes to new technologies and their use in the classroom. My fear with VR (and digital technology in general) is that it increasingly turns life into a problem to be solved, and increasingly isolates people from experiencing unmediated reality.

There is an emerging critique of VR and of the major tech corporations who are pushing it. A recent NY Times story had Jaron Lanier (a pioneer in the field of virtual reality) warning that the technology could make the behavior modification inherent in social media far more powerful:

“If you control the person’s reality, you control the person…Never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so vulnerable to creepiness.”

These companies provide free services that people like. In exchange they give advertisers, foreign governments, and maybe others access to frighteningly effective tools for modifying the behavior of their users (perhaps to buy specific products, believe a particular narrative, hate a certain group of people, etc.). A potent example of how social media can alter people’s behavior comes from a recent NYT opinion piece lamenting a change by Facebook that made it much more difficult for independent media outlets in Serbia to reach their audience.  Sean Parker (founding president of Facebook) recently gave an interview in which he said he has become a ‘conscientious objector’ to social media because he worries about the impact it is having on children’s brains.

Another recent article, this time in Wired, posits that corporations like Google and Facebook have become ‘Net-States’–actors with such global reach and such power that they constitute a force outside of the nation state paradigm.

So, what does this mean for VR and how it ought to be used in education? I think it means that we need to be very careful who we invite into our schools and, by extension, into our kids’ heads. Before we use a specific curriculum we need to know who created it and who paid for it to be created. Before we put a VR headset on a 6 or 7 year old we need to know how it is going to affect her highly-plastic brain:

It’s well-known that the more people know about digital technology, mobile devices, gadgets, social media, and gaming systems, the more likely they are to severely limit their kids’ use of those things. What does it tell us that Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use iPads?

Yes, VR might have some educational usefulness. It’s an incredibly engaging medium after all. That is what makes it so powerful. It’s potential for good is high. Unfortunately, VR’s potential for what Lanier calls ‘creepiness’ is just as high. Both parents and educators need to be on high alert.

Problems with the Portrayal of Autism in Literature

I recently discovered this excellent website. There are some great articles on the site about the issues with representation of autistic characters in young adult, middle grade, and children’s books. I’m interested in this because I’m currently writing a Y.A. book that features an autistic character. I will definitely take some of the advice to heart. The collective critique that can be drawn from these articles reminds me of Edward Said’s foundational, post-colonial work Orientalism which showed how the ‘Orient’ had been posited in western academia as a culturally static thing (other) that could be studied, depicted, and reproduced. In these articles, the authors are often decrying a similar sort of ‘Austim-ism’ in which autism is posited as a compendium of traits largely drawn from the DSM 5 diagnostic criteria which are foisted onto characters. These characters do not grow or evolve in the common literary sense. Instead, their autism is used as a device that drives the plot and often must be overcome in order to achieve resolution. Some of my favorite quotes:

“Autism, in this landscape, is never simply a part of a character’s identity, and it never was. Instead, it’s merely a means to an end, a storytelling device, something to move a plot, and the characters, along.” (

“In truth, though, our autism does not exist “for” anyone; and neither is it targeted at anyone, either to hurt or to help. It affects both us and others, in both good and bad ways, and it doesn’t make us less real or less human.  It can be shown similarly in fiction; we can be active characters with agency, instead of being included to make other characters sympathetic or to provide education or entertainment.” (

“Fiction can show good character growth for autistic characters. For example, it could show us gaining coping skills, learning to accept ourselves, and learning how being disabled affects us and what it means. (Note that we can grow in some of the same ways that non-autistic people do, too—it doesn’t all have to be about autism!)” (

“If authors do want to center the plot on their autism, let’s read about a character exploring and learning to understand their own behavior. Teach them self-acceptance, self-advocacy, and coping skills. That would be nice to see for a change.”(


Teaching Technology the Steve Wozniak Way

Apple Computer cofounder Steve Wozniak (L) holding his Apple Macintosh Powerbook computer (a laptop) as he jubilantly leads a conga line of a dozen 6th & 7th graders, each carrying computers like his that he bought for them, during his after-school computer class (Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

I love this essay by Syambra Moitozo about what it was like to have Steve Wozniak teach her computer class in 1995. Some great quotes from Woz:

“It was less important to me what you teach, and more important to motivate people by making things as fun as you can,”

“Why not let young students go in the directions they want to? Let them go off and do what they like to do and don’t force them to be going at the same speed as somebody else. Most of school might as well just be daycare anyway. If people have something in their heart, you shouldn’t slow them down…I liked being a super geek, but I definitely never pushed my values on other people.”

Matching Bias and Education

This is an interesting article. If Daniel Kahneman’s ‘dual-process’ theory is correct, it could be a useful way to think about technology education (and maybe even education in general). Maybe what teachers should be consciously focusing on is helping students develop their ability to access and use ‘system 2’ vs. the much easier and instinctual leap to ‘system 1’. Of course, schools already do this–we wouldn’t be able to teach students without doing it. Making it an explicit goal though might be helpful in guiding the curriculum.

Great Essay Laying Out the Rationale for ‘Unschooling’

I like this essay On the Wildness of Children a lot. I’m not sure ‘unschooling’ is the answer but the more time I spend working in schools the more I am convinced that a greater proportion of the school day should be devoted to free play and exploration. I can imagine a school that would strike a better balance between traditional instruction and the state Carol Black calls ‘open attention’ without completely doing

Good Editorial on Teaching Computer Science in K-12 Schools

I agree pretty strongly with the viewpoint of this article. When I contrast the computer science education I received in public High School (writing programs in BASIC and FORTRAN to solve real problems) vs. what I see a lot of now (drag and drop block programming environments like Scratch, Mindstorms, iOS apps, etc.) I wonder whether kids are really gaining an understanding of basic computer science and logical principles.

Interesting new report on ‘Skills of the Future’ from the Economist Intelligence Unit

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has published a report that attempts to identify key skills students need to learn now in order to be well prepared when they enter the workforce. The report was sponsored by Google and is based on polling of business leaders and students.

It’s no surprise to me that the skills they recommend are communication, collaboration, and problem solving. It is difficult to predict what specific skills will be useful in twenty years but it’s a safe bet that these general skills will prove useful in helping people adapt. I think there is a basic assumption embedded in this list of skills that students need to be encouraged to become adaptable, lifelong learners.

My main takeaway from the report is this sentence:

“Technology is changing teaching, but education systems are keeping up with the transformation rather than leading it.”

While I’m configuring new computers and installing new networking equipment this summer I’m going to be thinking about how my school can lead transformation instead of just ‘keeping up’.

The ‘Factory Model’ of Education

This is a great article. It offers some (much needed) historical context to the claims often made by school reform advocates that the U.S. public education system is derelict because it was based on the Prussian model from the late 18th and early 19th century. These same reform advocates often valorize educational technology as a means of radically changing our broken education system and reformulating it in a modern context:

I actually just heard a keynote speaker at the ATLIS conference a couple of weeks ago use the old ‘our education system is hopelessly outmoded because it was modeled on the Prussian system of universal education which was specifically designed to educate the population for factory work’ argument. 

I do not disagree that there are a lot of problems with education (preK all the way up to University) in the U.S. but I think we have to accept the reality that schools are not in business solely to teach abstract ideas. Schools are embedded in the social fabric of nations. They exist as much to provide socialization into a system of laws and norms as they do to teach kids math, reading, writing, etc. Eugen Weber outlines how schools came to serve this function in his seminal work “Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914”. Furthermore, schools do not have infinite resources. The structure of schools must always reflect the practical need for a small number of adults to manage a large number of children. Independent schools often have fewer students per teacher and so have more leeway to experiment. In public schools where teachers often have many more students per class, it is difficult to conduct school without resorting to strategies that may be reminiscent of factory style discipline. 

Having said that, I am currently reading a book by the keynote speaker I mentioned above that I would highly recommend:

Despite his use of the Factory/Education analogy, I think Grant Lichtman’s ideas are really sound and well articulated in this book.