Fixing Inequality At The Source — Primary Education

It was like living in a science fiction novel. For the first seven years, grade school bored me. I had no interest and it showed in my grades. The teachers sucked, and school was nothing more than a barrier between me and the technology (read: gaming) that really engaged me in any free time I had. Then everything changed. It was in social studies, during a semester about history, of all places. Boring, right? Well, yeah, it had been. Up until this moment.

One second I was sitting at my desk, horsing around with my buddy Tom, waiting for Mr. Higgles to walk in and begin our American History class, a thought which, once upon a time, could have put my jaw in danger from a ginormous yawn of reflexive boredom. But today we could barely retrain ourselves; we’d been hearing about today’s material from students in the classes ahead of us for literally two years and had been waiting for this section on the American revolution to begin since Fall.

Finally, Mr. Higgles appeared and the students’ focused attention spread like a wave of rapt silence as the first ones noticed him at the front of the class. A mischievous smile ghosted his lips and crinkled his eyes–Higgles loved teaching this stuff and we couldn’t help getting swept along with his enthusiasm–and he waved his hand.

Oh, holy crap. The classroom disappeared, our seats disappeared, our clothes changed, and Mr. Higgles changed!

Suddenly we were colonial soldiers, sitting on stumps, on logs, in the chill and snow-covered environs of eastern Pennsylvania, looking beyond George Washington, across the Delaware River into New Jersey, where we would march tonight to surprise the brutal, occupying forces of the Hessian General Johann Rall. We weren’t going to liberate our friends and relatives from beneath the Hessian boots this night, but we sure were going to surprise the crap out of them!

Mr. Higgles as George Washington. He was awesome!

The next two hours were branded on my memory. I played a part in the American Revolution. I kicked some Hessian butt. And I got to follow, and watch, George freakin’ Washington! The action periods as we moved through colonial America got us engaged in History like never before. But even the lecture periods had us attentive; not only did we need to get this valuable information, we had to keep an eye out for enemy spies seeking to discover our secrets!

I learned to love learning.

I’ll never forget that class and that experience…just one of the multitude that made learning come alive for me (and Tom!) in 7th grade and following years!

I spent some time musing about the possibilities for creating virtual reality classrooms a couple months ago–a couple months before Zuckerberg’s announcement of (what I believe to be) Facebook’s brilliant acquisition of Oculus VR. Here’s the skeleton:

The most important factor within a school’s control determining the quality of a student’s education is the quality of the teacher. A great teacher and an interactive environment create otherwise unparalleled student engagement and learning.

Teachers matter most. Great teachers are rare in most students’ lives. Often critical life skills remain undeveloped because students get stuck with poor teachers in their STEM (and other) classes.

Under Industrial Age Schooling paradigms and in an era of continually shrinking discretionary (education) budgets, most grade-school teachers in any given school system aren’t top-percentile educators. Nor are they incented to be. So great teachers are rare and the best ones will often find themselves venues where their abilities are better recognized and rewarded. Unfortunately, those venues aren’t accessible to the majority of grade school students.

But it doesn’t have to be that way any more.

What if every student whose family had the desire could be taught every class by the absolute best, brightest, most imaginative and most engaging teachers? How different would our children’s lives–and educations–be? What benefits might our world derive from developing that latent potential in our next generations by giving them the stronger education that creates a foundation for innovation, productivity, and happiness?

Ultimately, while I still love the idea, I don’t think this is an opportunity for a small, under-capitalized group of people. And it would be an uphill struggle against powerful institutional forces like teachers unions and others who’d fight tooth and nail for the maintenance of a crappy status quo, prioritizing their own interests over the students’.

But in the near future, a well-capitalized group comprised of people from online education community and the massively multiplayer online game industry (to handle the shared-experience networking infrastructure) will come together, perhaps backed by Bill Gates’ (or Zuckerberg’s) level of resources, and they’ll be able to overcome the financial and political forces currently dominating educational systems and in favor of systemic stagnation.

More musing:

The Environment

  • Last year, developers built software that provided an immersive (and some would say mind blowing) VR experience that worked within the previous developer-version of the Oculus Rift, though the resolution was only 720p and motion blurring and latencies caused wearer discomfort after a short time.
  • At CES this year, a new version of the Oculus Rift featured a new capability for 1080P projection, and reduced motion blurring, providing a foundation for more comfortable, longer, VR immersion.
  • Sony continues to enhance their virtual headset (HMZ-T3Q) to both improve the experience and evolve it toward supporting VR/game-play experiences), and has teased that the PS4 will support VR play.
  • The largest university in the world is University of Phoenix, a private, online, for-profit university. Unfortunately, the dated execution of the curriculum results in low graduation rates. There is no similarly sized and profitable private K-12 institution.
  • Parents in the US and many countries are decreasingly satisfied with the quality and relevance of their children’s public grade-school education, but lack the money or ability to home school or send their children to a private school.
  • Education in developing countries is recognized as one of the single most important requirements for long-term growth and global competition.

The Forecast

  • Reduced manufacturing costs of 4K displays, ever-increasing processing and accelerometer and head-tracking technology, and miniaturization will produce comfortable, extended-wear VR headsets within 2-3 years.
  • The hardware for participating in a VR experience, currently limited to inexpensive PCs will soon be available in the most popular consoles. Along with growing Internet penetration, even in remote parts of the world, we are trending toward ubiquitous accessibility to the hardware and connectivity required for (at least simple) VR interactions in massively scalable environments.
  • Haptic gloves and body suits will deepen the immersion of VR experiences (though they aren’t required for simple VR immersion, such as classroom instruction).
  • Support for and integration of these peripherals in games will drive mainstream adoption and accessible pricing, further penetrating the market with the accessories needed to participate in online VR education venues.

The Assets

  • A proven Multi-player Game Platform, capable of serving the environment and teacher tools that would allow teachers to broadcast classes to students, and configure the classroom environment to improve student immersion, improving engagement and learning.
  • A team experienced in building 3D environments, with licensable client technologies that could make creation of relatively simple 3D environments, like a virtual classroom, rapid and cost-effective.
  • A team well-versed in the demands of, and moderation of, online virtual communities (and meeting / instructional spaces).

The vision

  • First, create a destination portal where anyone could craft, rehearse, schedule, market, sell, and then present mind-blowing virtual education, or entertainment, then allow them to record, publish (and sell) those classes or diversions, instructional presentations, or even full courses, with revenues generated from student/participant sales, or ad revenue (imagine being a marketing department being able to market your product in VR to a captive audience before, or during breaks in, or after, a class!
  • Craft virtual classrooms, and provide teacher and student tools, enabling individuals, schools, or private institutions, around the world to place students (or participants) into the most effective (and inexpensive!) learning environments available.
  • Create the multi-participant tools sets that allows students to interact with teachers (or a teacher’s assistant) in a way that provides the benefit of a small classroom environment (from the student’s perceptions) to even massively scaled, auditorium (and larger!)-sized classes.
  • Partner with (or acquire) an accredited online K-12 school, or license their curriculum.
  • Extend the opportunity for the best teachers in the world to teach via VR, in a crafted environment that feels to the student like an optimum-class-size experience, regardless of the number of people in actual attendance, with the same degree of direct interaction with some of the best teachers in the world.
  • Create a model where teachers could be deployed who specialized in teaching their specific expertise, their passion–because enthusiasm for the subject matter is communicable. Even making discrete blocks of subject matter available to public schools would enhance the quality of education for most classes, allowing “guest” teachers to teach specific hours, days, or weeks of any given course.
  • Enable students to attend school by sitting in either real-time live-cast virtual classrooms, or by logging into a previously recorded/scripted class if live attendance isn’t possible.
  • Create the availability for students receive the most imaginative effective education available in the world, from the world’s best teachers, either from home, or from gathering centers/auditoriums

Thoughts

  • Gaming will both drive penetration and ubiquity, as it has so often done throughout the history of consumer PC performance.

Johnny gets up too early in the morning–guaranteeing sub-optimal learning for the first two hours–and catches a bus into his public school. There, amidst often crowded, occasionally hostile conditions, Johnny is herded through a lock-step educational process that has changed little from the early industrial era whose needs it was originally emplaced to serve. In his classes, he’s often lectured to by senior, tenured teachers who, obviously to the kids, cares little about whether or not the students are engaged or interested, hasn’t been incented or interested in updating their course for years, and doesn’t think it’s important to tie the course’s relevance into the system of tools that grade school education should be providing to students.

As we head into 2014, experts are predicting that we’re about two years away from high-resolution, astoundingly immersive, virtual reality. This winter, companes like HBO are demonstrating experiences like taking a virtual elevator up the 700′ ice wall famouslly depicted in the hit adaptation of the “Song of Ice and Fire” books in the series titled “Game of Thrones.” Despite the use of the last-generation Oculus Rfit VR headset, which sports only 720p resolution (versus the current version’s 1080p), the combination of an immersive visual experience with good sound effects is blowing people away. People “ascending” the cliff face, standing within a simple cage with the VR headset on, are literally having their fear of heights kick in as they’re taken up the 700′ cliff, then lowered again (fast enough to incite a degree of fear at coming down too hard!).

All that’s needed to craft a fully immersive experience is the visual immersion in a reasonable resolution 3D environment and a great sound system–and we’re there now. Adding in haptic peripherals like gloves or a body suit, or gyroscopically stabilized implements, and subtle control of temperature and artificial breeze, perhaps with 6-axis, omnidirectional treadmills, will enhance this experience, but aren’t as important to immersion as the caliber of the actors (or CGI MOBs). After all, we as humans can become immersed in an envrionment sitting in a chair watching a 2D presentation if it’s done right.

Marrying a VR environment with an underlying mulitplayer architecture capable of managing the interactions of a moderate-sized group of people opens the door to unparalleled educational opportunities a la VR classrooms.

Imagine if children living in inner cities, in the country, or in a completely different nation where infrastructure and education aren’t as developed as in the economically stronger 1st and 2nd world countries, had access to the absolute BEST teachers iin the world. Imagine how much better their education would be if the not only were taught by the best teachers in the world, but were taught in an environment wherre the teacher had the control over the environment to fully immerse their students into the environment, and where classroom and instructor topologies supported–encouraged!–student groupings by learning pace, for every subject.

Imagine how different the world might be within a generation.

2 thoughts on “Fixing Inequality At The Source — Primary Education

  1. Ran across this: http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/174636 which is on point.

    “By eliminating just the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers, the available research suggests that US achievement could climb to the level of Canadian achievement (as measured by international assessments of math and science).”

    That’s just from doing the barest minimum of pruning. Let alone proving access to the best teachers in the world.

    Will write a longer response when I get a chance…

    1. Given the stranglehold that teachers’ unions have on protecting teachers, even at the expense of students, I’m not sure that measure is any greater a flight of fancy than my vision of enabling top tier or very highly specialized teachers to instruct orders of magnitude more kids via VR classrooms and decentralized responsibility for individual topic areas (backed by TAs to help specifically grouped students who need or want more interaction in a targeted, topical way).

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