Mixed Reality and the New Frontier of Education

By: Justin Leonard Clardy

If you were like me as a child, you probably wondered about inhabiting a world with Jetson styled flying cars, hover boards, and virtual reality. I’m still waiting on the flying cars and (legitimate Back to the Future styled) hover boards, but the domain of virtual reality has been developing far beyond what I had initially imagined. Recently, Microsoft announced that the Windows 10 operating system is the best place for mixed reality (MR) computing. Beyond what some might see as obvious uses for MR in the fields of entertainment, medicine, travel, and military defense, I think these new technologies and interfaces have hidden potential for justice and education. If we taking advantage of mixed reality in education we could make significant progress toward motivating the members of our society to respond to issues of social justice in more loving and compassionate ways.

What is MR?

Mixed Reality systems combine real and computer generated information in a real environment, interactively and in real time, and aligns virtual objects with physical ones. As a result, MR simulations merge virtual reality with the physical world so that participants are able to interact physically with digital objects. The difference between MR and virtual reality, according to Executive vice president of Window Terry Myerson, is that “virtual reality is fully immersive and you are not particularly aware of the real world around you, and mixed reality enhances the world around you, overlaying information on top of your line of sight.”

MR in education

Imaginative exercises have long been a staple in education.  Students in primary and high schools are often required read texts that urge them to imagine the predicaments of others. One example is the book Night by the late Elie Wiesel. Wiesel walks readers through his experiences with his father in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. Because many of us have never confronted an atrocity of a magnitude of the Holocaust, Wiesel’s work brings us to face and reflect on some nasty, real, and dark facts about our humanity. In this way, there is potential for traditional imaginative exercises to be transformative in the lives of students. I worry, however, that for our youth, reading novels is a thing of the past.

Millennials spend roughly 10 hours a day on or in front of a screen. Instead of trying to force students to consume forms of media that they show 80201135-9a28-402b-b24c-c7549408b676little interest in, such as books, MR provides an opportunity for educators to meet the next generation with media forms that are less removed from the forms of media that they are already consuming in large amounts. MR technology could potentially create fully immersive and engaging learning experiences for students of all ages and backgrounds. For example, through MR students can use the resources of their physical world to establish and understand socially shared meaning. Researchers at the University of Illinois have found that MR education creates a more free learning education that inspires curiosity, creates positive attitudes for the topics being learned, and engage students in more memorable experiences that inspire discussion long after the encounter. The take away from this that MR education can engage, motivate, and stimulate students from various angles.

Perhaps the largest potential advantage for MR is that MR technology can be used to help teach subjects where students could not feasibly gain real world, first hand experience. Our society is rife with a kind of indifference to people in our society who are vulnerable. Unemployed persons, welfare recipients, and #hashtagged Black lives’ are shockingly socially scrutinized, for example, while the circumstances that place them in those positions are woefully ignored. We don’t think that there is anything unjust about these situations as we often describe them as being “people’s own fault”. By providing students with a curriculum that involves MR in our classrooms might enable us to present the next generation with fully immersive and engaging learning experiences that place them in the perspective of vulnerable groups in our society. White students could inhabit the circumstances of Black students in series of MR lessons, and learn about the various forms of oppression that Black students face. Men could inhabit the circumstances of women to feel more fully the forces of patriarchy that permeate throughout our society. Cisgendered students could inhabit the circumstances of transgendered people and could come to grasps with what it feels like to be an object of harsh attitudes and violent treatment that often result in death. By using MR as a perspective taking mechanism in this way, perhaps we can orient students toward empathy, sympathy, and compassion. In other words, if taken seriously, MR has the potential to provide students with the kinds of imaginative exercises that align their emotions with social justice.

It’s true that MR is a far cry from the Jetson’s future reality that you and I probably envisioned growing up. Still it would be a grave mistake if our society fails to take advantage of MR technology becoming more accessible and implement it in how we educate our students. We have an opportunity to better our society and become more just. Let’s not blow it.

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