Virtual Reality

During Secretary Arne Duncan’s visit to Cedar Rapids, Representative Dave Loebsack praised Rockwell Collins for their project to bring virtual reality to the schools.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Virtual reality in the schools was championed in a January 1993 report by the K-12 Education Reform Interim Study Committee, chaired by Michael Blouin.  In the Blueprint for School Transformation, the Committee recommended

that the state initiate the coordination of a design of a computer for use by Iowa’s students, their parents, and other learners.  It is intended that the computer would be portable, durable, and upgradeable.  Each home would have a base unit connected to telecommunications systems, similar to the French Mini-tel machine. . . . The design would be such that the broadest possible range of current and future software will be compatible with the machine.

According to the proposal presented by Senator Varn and accepted by the Committee, the state would negotiate a price for the system based on a minimum of 500,000 units with warranties, maintenance agreements, upgrade options, and insurance.  The state would find ways to base assembly, manufacturing, and support operations in Iowa to maximize the economic development benefit of the purchase.

The Committee planned to subsidize the purchase of the computers so that students would pay no more than $400, perhaps $80 per year for five years.  They planned for the computers to be available by 1996 or 1997, then

Iowa educators, business interests, and academics would be teamed to develop new software for sale to Iowa students and schools at or below cost.  It would also be for sale to others at a profit to compensate the developers and to provide additional income to subsidize the computer purchase and the upgrade and maintenance costs.  Software sales and support activity would be based in Iowa.  First products could be programs that combine the power of virtual reality systems with sound pedagogy to produce learning experiences that can compete with video games for students’ time and energy. (Note:  Virtual reality combines computer controlled images with a video visor or helmet and sensors that detect the wearer’s movements to create the very real illusion of being inside the computer-controlled picture.)  (Emphasis added.)

Beyond the educational opportunities, the program would provide a fixed base of over a million potential customers for new and existing information companies to begin or expand businesses in Iowa.  This program, then, can help transform both schools and the Iowa economy.  The potential synergy between information companies and thousands of computer-literate students and adults could turn Iowa back into a growing state with quality job opportunities.

In January 1993, I was still using an 80286.  I am reasonably certain it was incapable of anything even remotely approaching “virtual reality.”  In 1993, the Apple PowerBook 165c, with a color screen and only an 80 to 160 MB hard drive, sold for $3,400.  Even if it would have supported virtual reality programming, it would have cost 1.7 billion dollars to buy 500,000 of them.  The Rockwell Collins article suggests a much higher cost.  The low-cost, off the shelf model, is $2500 plus another $5000 for the computer to run it.  That would amount to 3.75 billion dollars.  If it was even possible in 1993, the cost would have been much higher.  There currently aren’t many school related applications for the virtual reality technology but they are certain it is going to be a success.  Even now, they report that students at East Marshall High School that participate in the virtual reality program are enthusiastic and interested in engineering and medical fields.

Initially, the 1993 recommendation for virtual reality in the schools made me laugh at the preposterous optimism of the Committee.  Ultimately, the report (and the virtual reality program) is a reminder that elected officials, school teachers and administrators are endlessly susceptible to a “get rich quick” mentality.  With the right technology, we can have all children effortlessly absorb knowledge and skills.  No need to examine content, instructional practices, or teacher preparation and professional development.  No need for teachers to do the hard work of mastering content and the skill to effectively and efficiently teach it to a classroom of students.  The students may be enthusiastic about engineering and medical fields but are our K-12 schools also doing the work to prepare these students with the academic skills and content knowledge needed to pursue further study and careers in these fields?