research, teaching, Uncategorized

Oculus Rift as Allegory: Reimagining Post-Pandemic Schooling in the United States

by Dr. Vanessa E. Greenwood, C+MRC Founder & Director

The most amazing moment of virtual reality is when you leave it, not when you’re in it . . . You have really never seen reality until you’ve just come out of virtual reality.

Jaron Lanier, virtual reality pioneer

March 2016 marked the consumer public debut of the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift (OR). OR is the brainchild of Palmer Luckey who at 18 years of age in 2011 engineered the prototype for the Oculus Rift while tinkering in his parents’ garage in southern California. With the assistance of his online game developer peers and an unexpectedly successful Kickstarter campaign, Luckey raised US$2.5 million to fund its development. Luckey stated in a 2015 Vanity Fair interview: “Being able to do anything, experience anything, be anyone. What would be a better entertainment technology than perfect virtual reality? There isn’t any.”

The 2016 debut of the Oculus Rift heralded widened consumer access to immersive 3D experiences in movies, TV, business meetings, and lectures. Like all new technological innovations that emerge, especially on U.S. soil, our instinctual cultural reflex is to celebrate. As I compose this during the 6th U.S. National Media Literacy Week (October 26-30), I almost agree: What could be better than technology that transports humans out of a 2020 pandemic lockdown and a contentious presidential election?

The oculus rift that I contemplate here is not the Luckey one, however. I am interested long term in what humans can learn through and with VR technology. At this critical juncture, however, my focus is what we educational leaders can learn from VR technology as allegory. The tale is one of an “oculus rift” in education in the United States. We currently fight battles on multiple fronts—one of which is virtual(ly) learning during a pandemic. Meanwhile, a longstanding war rages on between the democratic ideals of American education and the lived realities of public schooling in the United States.

Oculus is Latin for “eye” and Rift refers to the way virtual reality creates a division between the real world and the virtual world. The technology is groundbreaking in its 360-degree lenses and stereoscopic 3D that tricks the brain into perceiving what it sees is actually real. By efficiently tracking head and eye movement, the virtual reality headset affords a “nausea-free” immersive experience. Likewise, the global pandemic has thrust entire educational ecosystems into virtual realities. Teachers wrestle with adapting in-person instruction to digital environments, rendering existing measurements of learning (e.g., standardized assessments) invalid. The professional challenges are overwhelming and compounded by profound and inequitable personal suffering. Now that we have a glimpse of a vaccine-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, where do we go from here?

Without a full understanding of the past, we only learn from shadows and curated versions of reality

Dinis Cruz, computer programmer

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan long ago expressed the concept of rear-view mirror thinking. He wrote: “When faced with a totally new situation we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” From an educational standpoint, the impact of virtual schooling en masse will not be felt until we leave it. That is, like VR we will not be able to truly understand learning during the pandemic until we exit our educational lockdown and return to the brick-and-mortar classroom.

But it remains to be seen if and when we will ever fully return.

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Dr. Vanessa E. Greenwood is a full professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, USA. She holds BA and MA degrees in Communication Studies and a PhD in Media Ecology. She is the author of a myriad of books, chapters and articles at the busy intersection of communication, education, and technology. Her most recent book is Navigating Media Literacy: A Pedagogical Tour of Disneyland.