I’ve seen the future—and it made me nauseous

Twice per year my school hosts an in-service for the whole school. Students stay home, we gather as faculty and staff for a plenary session in which our president offers insights about school operations, the educational landscape, or other brain pickings. We then turn to either a specific topic of concern (a societal trend that bears consideration), a divisional need (an upcoming programmatic initiative), or a dealer’s choice selection of sessions aimed at growing the professional practice of educators and support staff.

The in-service of February 2022 was an instance of the latter. An upper school faculty member hosted a session on the use of virtual reality. Stephen is an English teacher and technologist. Rooted in his studies of Victorian literature, Stephen was also an inveterate gamer and techie. So, when the school decided to seed-fund a VR lab, he and a few colleagues acquired equipment, built PCs to spec, and installed an eight-station VR lab using the Oculus rift headsets.

Stephen started by outlining best practices in using VR in the classroom.

Then, after a brief tutorial, Stephen let us strap in and explore what VR has to offer. I started with Google Earth VR. I put on my headset, and found myself looking down-valley in what I immediately recognized was Yosemite National Park. Exhibiting all the dexterity of a newborn giraffe, I floated above and around Yosemite, replaying in virtual space my hikes to Nevada Falls and Glacier Point. I paid a virtual visit to The Ahwahnee. I even flew at alarming speed out of Yosemite Valley, following the Merced River to the charming hotel that I called home for a week in 2016. The environment was fully build-out.

I was enthralled. Remembering that I was getting paid to do this, I quickly put on my Spanish teacher hat and started exploring areas for the purposes of curriculum development. I navigated to Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca, only to find out that they aren’t nearly as detailed as the parking lot of the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, CA…disappointing.

However, there is certainly enough there to get kids started experiencing what major Mexican cities have to offer in terms of history and culture. A flick of my wrist and a tug on the joystick allowed me to zoom out of Central America and fly over to Cusco, Peru, which much to my delight was recreated in impressive detail.

In the main plaza, I got my bearings at El Hotel Presidente where I stayed in 2006. I swung around the square to the town’s cathedral and the adjoining Triunfo Chapel.* I tried to “walk” down Calle Laredo to inspect a wall that featured Inca foundations, precise, artistic in its geometry and engineering, that was “repaired” by Spanish colonizers with laughable ineptitude. Alas, the pedestrian road was not yet added to Google Earth’s blueprint…someday.

*Forgive the indulgence, but I have to tell you about the Triunfo Chapel. Most every major town in Latin America has a cathedral followed by secondary and tertiary churches, parishes, chapels, etc. El Triunfo is, in my thinking, one of the most significant places to visit in Latin America. 

In 1532, Francisco Pizarro brought his men down the Pacific coast of South America, a continuation of Nuñez de Balboa’s Panama expedition. In October of 1532, Pizarro and his 150 cavaliers made contact with the Inca civilization and their god king Atahualpa. One fateful day in the town of Cajamarca, the Spanish and the Inca decided to make formal introductions. Spanish troops had billeted in the buildings surrounding the main plaza of Cajamarca, effectively surrounding the plaza on three sides. When Atahualpa’s entourage entered the plaza, the friar assigned to accompany Pizarro’s expedition, a man named Vicente Valverde, raised a large cross over his head. This signaled to the Spanish soldiers the moment of attack. Swords and arquebuses poured out of the shadows, overpowered the Inca warriors, knocked Atahualpa off his litter, and effectively took control of the Inca Empire within a half hour.

In El Triunfo, much as in many Catholic churches of the time, there is a large altar. This altar is bedecked in gold plundered from the Inca territories. High atop the altar is a glass enclosure. Inside the enclosure is the Cross of Valverde. The item whose use instantiated one of the great atrocities of the last millennium sits atop that altar. When you visit, if you know the history, the place hits you with the force of history and human suffering. It really is quite an experience. 

At this point in my dalliance with Google Earth VR, I started to feel a bit queasy. I had spent 45 minutes in the virtual world. The experience is immersive, it grabs hold of your senses and doesn’t let you go until you force yourself to exit. Truthfully, I didn’t want to quit. I wanted to see more, experience more. But my body wouldn’t let me.

For the remainder of the day, I had to take short breaks for a drink of water. At times I had to sit down. This feeling stayed with me until the end of the workday…another three to four hours. My colleagues in the workshop reported the same feeling. Some had it worse than I. I think that there’s something to the nausea. I had forced my brain to do something it is not equipped to do, and it let me know that by trying to “right the ship.”

Fast forward to a few years from now.

I CANNOT WAIT! I know that the virtual world will continue to be built. Someday, hopefully soon, I want to enter El Triunfo with my students to see that ghastly cross hanging above the baroque carpentry of the altar, and to tell them the story of the siege of Cajamarca. I want them to contemplate that sometimes the world changes with the flick of a trigger, the raising of a cross, or a chance encounter between two people. I want them to experience that liminal moment of history, where what was is no longer, and what will be will is yet unknown.

I want to walk down Calle Laredo, and show my students Inca craftsmanship. But even more than what I want to show them, I am most excited about the interactions they will be able to have in this thing we will likely call the metaverse.

SOMEDAY will I be able to lead my students on a tour of Cusco? Will we be able to inhabit the same space virtually, where our likeness can see the likeness of one another, our avatars co-mingling? Will I be able to arrange meet-ups with Peruvian tour guides, historians, descendants of history? Witnesses to history? And will my students be able to ask them questions, interact with them in real-time?

SOMEDAY will I be able to bring my students, not to the Cusco of 2022, but Cusco as it appeared in 1532? Will historians and graphic designers partner with platforms such as Google Earth VR to simulate erstwhile environments? Will I be able to meet a historian’s rendering of Pizarro, Atahualpa, Valverde? Will a whole industry of virtual actors and recreationists be on hand to interact with my students?

Rather than a prepackaged AR tour guide, will VR someday allow me to interact in real-time with local experts?

SOMEDAY will VR incorporate a sense of smell or touch? After all, sight is just the product of neurons doing their thing. And so are touch and smell.

I’m excited about the possibilities of VR. Next time I put on that headset, I will come equipped with some of these questions. I’ll also bring some Dramamine.

“The benevolent future of the Internet”

I first heard this TED Talk through NPR’s TED Radio Hour. Links to both the video and the NPR segment are below.


In the transition to a 1:1 school, and at the beginning of the school year for many years after 1:1 was established, there is a great deal of concern over the dangers surrounding this tool, a networked laptop.  These concerns need not be minimized by pointing out what an interviewee in this story calls “the benevolent future of the internet.”  What a wonderful term that is, “the benevolent future of the internet.”  There is hope and grace in connectedness.  That doesn’t make the dangers any less real, but it does change the calculus in our decision to allow or restrict our children’s access to the internet.

Seeing YOUR world through someone else’s eyes

Penpals, epals, skype sessions, Hangouts…

skyping with HI5For decades students have benefited from the classroom practice of communicating with students from other cultures.  Two decades ago email allowed that communication to be almost immediate.  Chat, and then videochat gradually increased the value and the linguistic and social-emotional power of creating connections across borders.

A colleague recently forwarded me a blog post from the HI5 English School in Bétera, Spain.  In the post the writer chronicles the connections that his students have forged with students at my school.  Seeing pictures of my students and athletes projected on a screen in front of engaged and curious Spanish schoolchildren deepens my understanding of how powerful (and how necessary) this practice truly is.

When I see a student from another school projected on a screen in one of our classrooms, she is a novelty.  A fun, interesting, and potentially meaningful artifact (please forgive me for referring to a person as an artifact) of student learning.  When I see MY kid (let’s call her Lucy) projected on their screen, I see a child, one of many at my school, LIFTED UP as a representative of the school.  What makes Lucy unique and lovable in our community makes her equally well-regarded to that far-flung group of students.  And even better, she projects that image on our school as a whole.

I saw MY WORLD through the eyes of someone else today.  It made me realize how important it is to share my world with others.  And to welcome their world into mine.

The Tiered Technology Toolkit #li12

Today I attended Elizabeth Helfant’s “1:1 for Everyone” session at the Lausanne Laptop Institute 2012 #li12.  We talked a great deal about the content, pedagogy, and technology needs that may be addressed alongside a school’s decision to go 1:1.  A common (or not-s0-common) practice is to create a “canon of  technology” for the whole school.  It’s a great idea!  However, I suspect that the messaging often comes across as “The powers-that-be have deemed permissible the following applications:….”

What if, rather than a “list of sanctioned and supported technology,” we created a tiered technology toolkit?

  • Tier 1: “In order to be employed here, you must know these.”–This would include your classroom management software, email platform, and grade reporting mechanism.  This should include VERY few applications (those that you need in order get done the bare minimum with and for your students).  These need to be few in number because you want the emphasis not to be on what they must learn; rather on what they may learn.
  • Tier 2: “Try to learn two of these applications…”–We want to encourage exploration, experimentation among our faculty.  So rather than mandate and limit opportunities, present them as…opportunities!
  • Tier 3: “We (the school) lift you up as a leader-learner if you integrate some of the following into your teaching practice.”–We need to celebrate those who venture into the unknown, who’s choice of technology leans toward the surrender of “sit n’ get” learning, an emphasis on student content creation.  Put those wonderful web 2.0 tools in this category that put students in the driver’s seat.

Creating a tiered technology toolkit makes sense for many reasons:

  • It limits the firehose of websites, software and apps.
  • It allows the school to benchmark technology literacy for faculty and students.
  • It gives faculty an idea of how and to what extent they can stretch their own learning.
  • It allows interest-driven networks to grow organically among faculty.

If change is the constant…

used with permission of the creator, http://www.flickr.com/photos/arifur_rahman/

Change is not a variable.  Change is a constant.  Whether we like it or not, circumstances of our life change on a daily basis.  Even the things that seem consistent, relationships, jobs, our homes, are on an ever-evolving spit, sometimes turned 180 degrees from how we once “saw” them.  And sometimes they return to a sense of familiarity that reassure us that “things never change.”  But that sense of familiarity, too, is temporary.  The glacial or cyclical types of change don’t tend to bother us that much.  But what about more abrupt change?  What to make of it?

My school is struggling with the process of change.  For many, I don’t mean “struggle” in a pejorative sense, however.  The struggle just is.

We have recently made a fast-paced switch from PC to Mac.  What’s more, we are also phasing in a 1:1 laptop program.  (previous posts might elucidate further).  There are some faculty, however, for whom the struggle is incredibly upsetting, and the inertia of the school comes as little comfort.  And although I understand discomfort with meteoric change, I have to wonder if those folks were hoping or assuming that change would NOT take place, or merely hoping or assuming that it would not take place at this pace.  Both of these notions, whether a hope or an assumption, is built upon a false premise.  That there is anything consistent about change.

If we insist upon beholding change as this mysterious, ever-looming circumstance that we must fight to suppress, then we define ourselves by our stagnation.  Rather, if we simply accept that things change, that life is an ever-present evolution, a fluid state, and that change can and will occur at an unpredictable clip, then we are characterized by our adaptability.

I happen to stand in favor of the changes that are being made.  My reason is simple:  I have lost nothing (other than comfort and convenience and a hint of “the familiar”) and I have gained untold multitudes.

And if you’re reading this, I encourage you to challenge me the next time you find me griping about a change that didn’t go my way.  But in the end, if we live our lives and do our jobs with the expectation that circumstances WILL change, often in unpredictable ways, our powers of adaptability will be fully engaged for that inevitable moment.

And who knows, we may be the ones to drive the change.

featured image (appearing in banner) used with permission of the creator, Arifur Rahman (http://www.flickr.com/photos/arifur_rahman).  View the original image.